ELCA Repents for the “Church’s Complicity in the Evils of Colonialism”

We reported last week that the highest legislative body of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) voted overwhelmingly to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. We now have the language it passed, as well as comments from Native leaders within the ELCA.

Many ELCA Synods — including the Minneapolis and St. Paul Synods — submitted “memorials” (resolutions) to the ELCA Churchwide Assembly asking it to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. (The Doctrine of Discovery refers to a series of 15th Century papal edicts that gave the religious and legal justification to Europe’s colonial powers to claim lands occupied by indigenous peoples and to forcibly convert or enslave them. Its impact continues today.)

Here is the language the ELCA Churchwide Assembly adopted in response to requests it received from multiple Synods. It voted 912-28:

To repudiate explicitly and clearly the European-derived doctrine of discovery as an example of the “improper mixing of the power of the church and the power of the sword” (Augsburg Confession Article XXVIII, Latin text), and to acknowledge and repent from this church’s complicity in the evils of colonialism in the Americas, which continue to harm tribal governments and individual tribal members;

To offer a statement of repentance and reconciliation to Native nations in this country for damage done in the name of Christianity;

To encourage the Office of the Presiding Bishop to plan an appropriate national ceremony of repentance and reconciliation with tribal leaders, providing appropriate worship resources for similar synodical and congregational observances with local tribal leaders, at such times and places as are appropriate;

To direct the Domestic Mission unit, together with the American Indian and Alaska Native community and ecumenical partners, to develop resources to educate members of the ELCA and the wider community about the doctrine of discovery and its consequences for Native peoples;

To direct the Domestic Mission unit to develop a strategy with the American Indian and Alaska Native community during the next triennium to be referred to the Church Council for action, including a mechanism to grow the Native American Ministry Fund of the ELCA; and

To affirm that this church will eliminate the doctrine of discovery from its contemporary rhetoric and programs, electing to practice accompaniment with Native peoples instead of a missionary endeavor to them, allowing these partnerships to mutually enrich indigenous communities and the ministries of the ELCA.

Here is a link to the ELCA Statement on the Doctrine of Discovery

Joann Conroy, president of the American Indian /Alaskan Native Lutheran Association of the ELCA (AI/ANLA), attended the Churchwide Assembly for the historic vote. The Association advocates for the rights of all indigenous people. Conroy (Oglala Sioux) is a Twin Cities resident and ELCA pastor. She posted the following on the group’s Facebook Page the day after the vote:

What next? Now that the Memorial Resolution Repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery has passed our ELCA Churchwide Assembly, we the Native ministry leaders, Synods, and our local congregations must join together to re-educate the Church’s people about who we (Native American Indian people) are as people of God. We can do this through intentional indigenous cultural gatherings that celebrate our gifts and the whole church. Planning for these celebrations will begin in the near future and We invite all of our native ministries, Synods , ELCA Ethnic ministries, Churchwide , and ELCA congregations to participate as we move forward to live out this historical event of August 9, 2016!
Wopila Tanka.

The Facebook Page also has the text of Bishop Guy Erwin’s statement to the Assembly encouraging members to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. Erwin is bishop of the Southwest California Synod and an enrolled member of the Osage Nation.

One might well ask why a symbolic action like this is important for our church to take—after all:

We can’t undo what has been done to native people in our nation’s long and complex history.

We can’t return what has been taken away from some and given to others.

We can’t, by an action like this, heal or repair the harm still felt by the native population—who suffer disproportionately from poverty and its effects: despair, malnutrition, and suicide.

But we can say, as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, that for us and for our house, we will no longer participate in the great lie that has declared native lives to be of lesser value than those of European settlers.

We can say that we will no longer promote the destructive myth that North America was an essentially empty land, waiting to be filled by God with industrious settlers.

We can say that we value and celebrate the lives and cultures of native people, as we did last night when we let the Houma tribe welcome us to their land, and not we them to our assembly.

And we can acknowledge that our nation–born for liberty and pressing ever toward equality and justice—was founded in tragedy: in dispossession, depopulation, and imported slavery. We cannot advance justice today by forgetting injustice yesterday.

But today, as the ELCA—as the church—we can draw a symbolic line under this tragic legacy, reject this racist notion, and tell the whole world what we have done.

This we can do. Amen.

Here is a list of other denominations which have acted to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. (Let us know if we are missing statements.)

It bears repeating that repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery is a necessary step towards healing and repair, but not sufficient for healing and repair. The true test will be in the results; in this case, the ELCA’s ability to build stronger relationships with Native communities and to follow through with concrete acts of repentance and repair.

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