Finding the Gospel in the Doctrine of Discovery

Arden Mahlberg

Is the Gospel consistent with the Doctrine of Discovery? Can we find its DNA in the Doctrine. Or is the Doctrine not truly Christian in its nature? This, despite its being formulated by theologically trained popes? This, despite it being followed by ordinary Christian colonizers as Manifest Destiny? By looking carefully, we will find that the Gospel is consistent with the Doctrine of Discovery.

The World Council of Churches and several Christian denominations claim that the Doctrine is inconsistent with the Gospel. They repudiate it without scrutinizing the Christian Bible for toxic or flawed material that continues to foster Christian Supremacy. This has also been the Christian response to other forms of Biblically based domination, such as racism and slavery. The relevant passages have not been tagged or eliminated to reduce their dangerousness. The dominant attitude toward them has simply shifted without changing the operating text.

Now, Bishop J. Lucia, the Catholic bishop of Syracuse, New York, is planning to ask Pope Francis to repudiate theological teachings used for centuries to justify the subjugation of Indigenous peoples. This challenge should be posed to Protestant leaders as well. Sacred texts, theology and narrative all contribute to Christians harming non-Christians while following their beliefs.

Which Part of the Bible?

Christian bodies that claim the Doctrine of Discovery is inconsistent with the Gospel address only one portion of the Bible. They do not claim that it is inconsistent with the earlier books in the Bible. That would be untenable. As Steve Newcomb has pointed out in Pagans in the Promised Land, the Doctrine draws from and expresses the Biblically based narrative of a chosen people with a promised land. Many Christian colonizers drew from this narrative. The disavowals do not state that they repudiate those beliefs, leaving them to cause further harm.

Regarding the Gospel itself, the Doctrine of Discovery acts out the Great Commission coupled with Jesus making an enemy of those who did not support him. The compassionate parts of the Gospel that seem inconsistent with the Doctrine of Discovery were not adequately formulated to stop enough Christians from engaging in prolonged genocidal brutality.

The Motivator of the Great Commission

When Christian nations had the means to explore and exploit the world, the popes recognized this as an opportunity to fulfill Christ’s order to his followers to “go ye and teach all nations.” (Pope Paul III,Sublimus Dei, “On the Enslavement and Evangelization of Indians,” 1537) This was and is regarded as a Christian obligation.

It follows Christ declaring in the Gospel of Luke that “all authority on heaven and earth” had been given to him. Then he ordered his followers to “make” disciples of all nations so they would “obey” his commands.

The Obligation to Engage Non-Christians

So, the popes at the time insisted that the explorers had a religious obligation to attempt to convert non-Christians that occupied the land as a condition of their exploitation. And the native peoples had an obligation to convert. “Making” disciples of “all nations” means to cause it to happen. In this way, the Gospel is consistent with the Doctrine of Discovery.

This order to convert the nations of the world, and the widespread belief in Manifest Destiny ordinary Protestants held, succeeded in making Christianity the dominant religion in the world. Expansionism is present in the Gospel and remains a tenant of Christian supremacy.

Success Not Regretted

Consistent with that expansionism, church statements of repudiation do not express regret over Christianizing the world. The statement of the United Methodist Church, however, does acknowledge that spreading “the good news of the gospel in many cases have caused indignities, cultural genocide and atrocities against tribal persons.” Yet, there is no call for systemic changes within Christian texts, narrative, or theology. The growing call for reparations, while important, deflects from these underlying dynamics within Christianity. What the denominations take issue with is the brutal means the Doctrine of Discovery called for in achieving Christian domination. Not the ends, but the means, which seem to contemporary sensibilities to be inconsistent with the Gospel.

Enemies of Christ?

The Doctrine of Discovery is essentially a declaration of war against non-Christians, with permission to pillage and enslave. This was a continuation of the war that included the Crusades and the Inquisition. Its brutal conquest language is shocking to the contemporary liberal Christian ear. In Dum Divertus (1452) Pope Nicholas V called for indigenous peoples to be “subjugated to the Christian religion.” This permitted Christians “full and free power” to do whatever they pleased in this cause, including placing non-Christians in “perpetual servitude.” This followed Biblical examples, such as Joshua’s brutal campaign against the Canaanites.

European Christians justified this brutality because they were taught that non-Christians were “enemies of Christ,” as Nicholas referred to them. Is that concept Gospel-based? Jesus did say that those who are not for him are against him. (Matt 12:30) In this way, the Gospel is consistent with the Doctrine of Discovery. In the process of colonization, ordinary Christians, clergy and lay, did treat indigenous peoples as if they did not have the rights that Christians had. Christians hung and publicly displayed native persons in a manner like what the Romans did to Jesus.

Another tool in the war against the native nations was what we might call the Ploughshares Brigade. In occupying and altering the land to suit themselves, colonizer farmers and loggers destroyed the habitat the native peoples had learned to sustain them. Drawing on aspects of the Gospel, the Christian colonizers believed they were doing God’s work. Some, identifying with Abram, even had felt called by God to leave their homeland in Europe for this divine purpose.

The Failure of the Gospel to Provide a Corrective

The Christian Bible failed to include any moral guidance to the commissioning of Christ’s followers to have all nations obey him and be baptized. It could have included a statement to spread the Word without doing any harm. It did not, nor does it today. Do no harm would have addressed separating children from their parents. It would have addressed forcing them to give up their names, their language and culture.

Do Unto Others As….

One would like to think that the signature feature of the Gospel, the Great Commandment, would have provided that moral guidance. But it did not, which exposes a fatal flaw in the Great Commandment.

A related notion in the Christian Bible is the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This, and love your neighbor as yourself, gives our perspective power over others’ perspective rather than advising that we see things from their point of view. Then the rule would be to do unto others as they would have you do unto them. This is now known as the Platinum Rule. Similarly, love your neighbor as they wish to be loved, provides greater protection to your neighbor than loving them as yourself.

In the process of colonization, this blind spot in “do unto others” had devastating consequences. Missionaries reasoned that if they were subject to eternal damnation like indigenous peoples, they would want Christians to do whatever it took to convert them and save their souls. If that meant to “kill the Indian” in you and your children to accomplish salvation, so be it. If this meant forcing children into boarding schools, stripping them of their language and cultural identity, so be it. That was treating others as you would wish to be treated.

The Threat Remains

Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery does not reduce the threat that Christianity poses to the world. Reducing that threat requires several things. Among them is scouring the Christian Bible for what has supported doing harm to others, whether by misunderstanding or not.

I have pointed to only four elements: 1) the narrative of chosenness; 2) the Great Commission not containing the directive to do no harm; 3) Jesus’ enemizing statement that those who do not support him are against him; and 4) the flaw in the Great Commandment and Golden Rule that fails to protect others by privileging our own perspective. These changes alone would help Christianity be safer for non-Christians near and far.

Also by Arden on this topicSteps to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery, Decommissioning Joshua,  Was This Land Really Made for You and Me?  The Serpent Constantine & The Fall of Christianity: A MythThe Curse of the Canaanites is Bogus

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