Category Archives: creation
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.
I don’t care for the term “false self” – it sounds like something we need to get rid of. We all necessarily grow up with images of who we are. Those images are shaped first and foremost by the adults who cared for us as small children. They continue to be further shaped by culture, peers, extended family, teachers, coaches, and so on. These personas aren’t “false,” but they are closer to the surface than the true inner core of belovedness. The define us, but not completely.
All of us have these personas. We define ourselves by gender, ethnicity, skills, careers, education, physical abilities, as belonging to a certain neighborhood or tribe. We are part of a story, shaped by our ancestors and our cultures, as well as by our genes.
There’s nothing wrong with that. My friend rightly sees himself as a Native American member of the Haudenosaunee nation with a deep love for nature and athletic prowess. That’s important.
On the other hand, many of us grow up with personas that mask our true selves. We see ourselves as losers, failures, unlovable, fearful, timid, not good enough, super-saints, superior to others, alone, unlovable, lost, envious. Those personas need to be jettisoned.
Deny yourself – I think Jesus means the egocentric self, those harmful personas, the superficial images we try so hard to maintain so others will accept us and so we can feel good about ourselves.
The denial of the superficial or unhealthy personas feels like a pouring out. At first, the pouring out feels like loss, a death, a loss of identity, but it actually makes space to embrace the true self, which is who I am as defined by God. Whereas the false self is who I am as defined by others (especially parents, siblings, teachers, mentors, and peers) and myself, the true self is who I am in the innermost core of my being, engulfed and embraced by God. Following Jesus is the embracing of Truth, which leads to spiritual freedom.
Through prayer, contemplation, meditative scripture reading, silence, solitude, long walks in nature, deep breathing, stillness, service to the poor, and through spiritual direction with a true elder, who we are truly created to be begins to open up, the positive personas are refined, and the harmful personas begin to fade away.
We are created in God’s image. But what does that mean? Some have argued that to be created in God’s image means we reflect something of God’s nature, like the ability to reason, the ability to develop culture or language, to create art and music, observe ourselves, or critically deduce conclusions.
The problem with all those definitions is that they don’t apply to every person. The brain damaged person lies vegetative in a body that is breathing and with a heart that beats, but who is unable to reason, communicate, create, or observe. Is that person no longer in God’s image? If they were born brain damaged, were they never really human beings? Have they no dignity? Moreover, animals and trees communicate, apes display selflessness, and puppies are full of love.
Rather than define the imago Dei with attributes that some humans have and others do not, I prefer to define it as simply the ability to be loved by God. God loves all of creation – sea cucumbers, turtles, and willow trees. Perhaps I’m a speciesist, but it appears to me that God has a special love for humans. I say that because God became a human being, rather than a goldfish. Nevertheless, God cares deeply about goldfish and sparrows and mushrooms. It’s all good. It’s all beautiful.
God is love – perfect self-sacrificial cruciform love. God lavishes that perfect love unconditionally on everyone. Every part of creation reflects God’s love.
Our true selves are who we are according to God. For all of us, that begins with Beloved. Every human being is beloved of God, deeply and unconditionally. Many of us affirm that truth but have a very hard time truly believing it. Voices within tell us we are only loved if we do good stuff, or reach some level of perfection. We’re reminded of our failings, faults, sins, of those we’ve hurt, of the times when we’ve been selfish and mean. At some level, we doubt we are lovable.
Your true self, the innermost you that God unconditionally loves and cherishes regardless of what you do or accomplish, is Beloved. In my experience, it takes years of contemplation, Lectio Divina, biblical meditation, prayer, silence, service to those Jesus called the least of his siblings (Matthew 25), and spiritual companionship with wise elders in the faith to begin to really believe that I am God’s beloved.
My goal as a spiritual director and counselor is to deeply listen, pray for, unconditionally love, and walk with people as they slowly discover their belovedness. We’re all created in the image of God and beloved by God.
Each of us is also an individual. Each of us is unique. It is that unique part that we’re referring to when we speak of finding your true path, growing into who you were meant to be.
Finding your true path involves discovering the unique ways God created you, the unique gifts God has given you, and the unique bit of kingdom work God designed you for. That also takes a lot of prayer, contemplation, and guidance. And, it changes. Different seasons of your life open up different roles. It’s about the journey.