Unlearning the Doctrine of Discovery

This week’s guest writer is Rick Cober Bauman, Executive Director of MCC Ontario.

“The church is the chaplain of empire.”

These words came from Adrian Jacobs, a Haudenosaunee pastor and Circle Keeper, and a former colleague in MCC Ontario. He was a presenter at a MCC Canada workshop on the Doctrine of Discovery, April 5-7, in Winnipeg. He credited the statement to someone else, but he went on to give ample evidence of its truth.

The Doctrine of Discovery (DoD), Jacobs and other Indigenous speakers informed us, is that legal framework and deeply held belief that European explorers and expansionists assumed sovereignty over the lands — as well as the inhabitants and resources — in which they discovered themselves in the 15th and 16th centuries.

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Photo courtesy users.humboldt.edu

If the DoD had fizzled out and expired 500 years ago, it would still have had more than enough power to pillage and harm. But of course it thrived more than fizzled. And, backed by popes and monarchs, it would not just allow — but would require —  the British, French, Spanish and Portuguese to lay full claim to the “new world” they “discovered.”

Why would Mennonite Central Committee bring 45 MCC and Anabaptist church leaders from across Canada to Thunderbird House in the heart of Winnipeg’s north end to discuss a five-century-old “doctrine”?

Largely because the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) called us to study, understand, and eventually [hopefully] repudiate it. And MCC has been taking the TRC, its witness-gathering, and now its final report very seriously.

But that begs another question: Why would the TRC, concerned as it was with Indian Residential Schools, push churches and church agencies to make repudiation of the DoD so central? The diagram of a dying leafless tree, shown near the end of the workshop, helped to make that clear. A presenter noted that the “dead fruits” on the branches of the tree — fruits such as alcoholism, poverty, abuse and broken relationships. The tree’s roots bore words like white supremacy, colonialism, racism and the Doctrine of Discovery.  The TRC had asked us as faith people to go deeper than the branches, to be brave enough to venture closer to the roots, and to speak a challenge to the cause of fruits dying on the branch.

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Chief Justice Murray Sinclair, TRC Commissioner. MCC photo/Alison Ralph

But if the church was really the chaplain of empire, soothing the souls of conquerors and surveyors, why is the church also directly named by the wise voices of the TRC as needing to make a response?

The answer to this question came out gradually and unevenly. During a Bible study session, we looked for “redemption” and “gospel” in several texts. At least some of these texts told the story of the Hebrew nation pushing its way into the lands of Canaan. The texts looked and smelled for all the world like conquest stories with Doctrine of Discovery at their core! And yet for 2 days we faith-focused MCCers clung to our deeply held conviction that the reconciling love-as-power Jesus does in fact offer hope in the face of the despair represented by the DoD.

The first conversation I had after the workshop was with a 20-something Masters student who has paid close attention to social justice movements globally. The Doctrine of Discovery was a new term to him. I winced a little, realizing I may have been in a bubble for a few days. I wondered how this important but abstract concept could be made real.

Can MCC nurture an understanding of the impact of the DoD that will move Mennonites to rethink our own understandings of our place in Canada? Will this understanding move us to act in ways that, to quote the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, offer“redress” and provide genuine “restitution” for the terrible harms experienced by Indigenous neighbours as a direct result of a 500-year old assumption about their being sub-humans in terra nullius?

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Hundreds of people particpated in a mass Blanket Exercise on the steps of Parliament Hill, June 2015. MCC photo/Alison Ralph

Perhaps we would be helped by using the Blanket Exercise in each of our churches across Canada. Used as the introduction to our workshop, the Blanket Exercise is a visceral, visual, walk and listen through 500 years of history in this country. It begins with many people standing on a floor covered with blankets; they represent the Indigenous people of Turtle Island before contact. When it ends, the few surviving Indigenous peoples occupy a few remaining blankets, all of them scrunched and folded into tiny sizes and separated from one another. The Blanket Exercise is one of the best popular education tools in a long time and it could pack even more punch with a stronger introduction to the Doctrine of Discovery.

In recent months we at MCC have been highly engaged with hundreds of small groups and churches across Canada who want to welcome refugees, especially those from Syria. MCC has actively facilitated private refugee sponsorship since the arrival of Southeast Asian refugees after the Vietnam War almost four decades ago. We have become rather proficient at being good hosts.

Now, can our critical study of the Doctrine of Discovery help us unlearn the much longer history of five centuries so we can become better guests?

One thought on “Unlearning the Doctrine of Discovery

  1. Pingback: Die Mennonitische Post | LaCreteOnline.com

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