The Doctrine of Discovery is Enshrined in American Law …

and that is very, very, unjust

I was aware of the as yet unretracted series of papal bulls that made up the Doctrine of Discovery in the mid 15th century. I knew that the Roman Catholic Church authorized the invasion and subduing of any land anywhere not ruled by a Christian monarch. I knew that it justified genocide in the name of the Prince of Peace. It was the basis and rationale for European conquest and colonization.

What I did not know until recently was that the Doctrine of Discovery has been embedded and enshrined in American law since 1823 when Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall stated “that the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands.” As late as the mid-2000s, the Supreme Court issued rulings that Native people have no right to their ancestral lands because the Doctrine of Discovery gave those lands to the United States of America. According to American law, Native Americans have already been fully compensated for their land, culture, livelihoods, and wellbeing because they have received “civilization,” and “Christianity.” 

Historically, Christian missionaries were ambassadors of western (and in their view, superior) culture. “Pagans” had to “civilized.” Missionaries paved the way for entrepreneurs to extract valuable resources from the land. 

That’s a far cry from the gospel of Messiah Jesus. Jesus defined the gospel as good news to the poor. Good news to the poor involves four things: liberating prisoners, giving sight to the blind, setting the oppressed free, and proclaiming the acceptable year of the Lord. (See Luke 4:18-19) Proclaiming the acceptable year of the Lord is a reference to Jubilee (Leviticus 25). Land was rested, crops rotated, debts forgiven, and property equitably distributed. 

Because the Doctrine of Discovery is embedded in American law, anyone, or any corporation, with enough money can buy land anywhere in the world and legally extract anything of value for their own profit without consideration for the effect on the people who live on or near the land. I’m not just talking about mining and drilling operations. 

Consider the Great Black Swamp that covered what is now much of Ohio. It belonged to indigenous people for at least 10,000 years. Using the Doctrine of Discovery, Europeans legally seized the land, cleared the native trees, drained the wetlands, and farmed. As cities grew, developers bought some of the farmland, scraped off the topsoil, destroyed what was left of the native plants, and built houses. Farms and suburbs pour chemicals on the land – chemicals that drain into waterways and pollute them. Automobiles and industries pollute the air. Native habitat is gone.

None of that is what God intended. God created us embedded in a closed economic system. Once we pollute all the water, there won’t be any pure water. Once we destroy the atmosphere, we can’t trade it for a new one. We humans do not have the ability to destroy life. We do, however, have the ability to destroy all human life.

Part of the problem is the uniquely American focus on individuals. “Freedom” in America too often means doing whatever I please. Our brand of Christianity is all about individuals coming into right relationship with an individual God. We have little sense of being connected to the vast web of life. We read the Bible through the lens of American individualism, but biblical culture is communal, not individual. I am affected by choices made in past generations. My actions will affect future generations. Trees and dolphins are my siblings. Every sunrise is a gift from God.

The earth and everything on and in it belong to God. I am required by the Creator to respect creation because it don’t belong to me. I should be treating the natural world like I would treat someone else’s valuable piece of art. 

Handle with utmost care.

About Dr. Larry Taylor

Radical Anabaptist, Jesus Freak, Red Letter Christian, sailor, thinker, spiritual director, life coach, pastor, teacher, chaplain, counselor, writer, husband, father, grandfather, dog-sitter

Posted on March 11, 2023, in anabaptist, Christianity, creation, Jesus, Justice, Kingdom Life, kingdom of God. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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