Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery

A sermon on Philippians 3:17-4:1 for the Second Sunday in Lent shared at St. Brigids Vancouver by Andrew Stephens-Rennie

It was the year after Columbus had set sail to find a trade route to India. We know the story, or some version of it, that while he never came upon that spice route, he encountered another place, and other people. He didn’t discover it, of course. This place he called Hispaniola already had a name. It was already there. It was known deeply and intimately by the people who called it home. Yet all he saw was its potential. Its potential to be divided up, to be dismantled and repurposed, people and resources extracted for the sake of his king – his emperor – and his God.

Columbus had returned from his first journey, and with news of his return came the same opportunistic gleam. This time that gleam shone in the eye of Pope Alexander VI, who, on the fourth of May, wrote from Rome in bold and unswerving hand to assert the fullness of apostolic power. It claimed the authority of almighty God that all discovered lands west of the Azores and Cape Verde, were to be treated as empty.

This week I watched a documentary entitled Doctrine of Discovery: Stolen Lands, Strong Hearts. The film traces the aftermath and implications of Pope Alexander’s decree, and the ways in which that arrogant, evil pronouncement shaped, and continues to shape contemporary life in this country to this day. It interviews Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who speak directly to the ways in which this doctrine – now repudiated by the Anglican Church of Canada – still continues to do harm.

In the film, Sol Sanderson, a founding leader of the Assembly of First Nations describes the evil of the doctrine this way:

The empires of England, France, Spain, and Portugal divided up the world, and they were very active in exploring the world and taking our lands illegally. Lands that were already occupied by indigenous nations worldwide. And so they went to the pope of the Catholic Church to validate the illegal taking of the lands. And what did the pope do? He issued a papal bull. The papal bull provided instructions that indigenous peoples are not human or Christian and because Indians as people are not human, they don’t have sovereignty in government.

Never mind that Creator had been at work in these lands far before the arrival of Columbus, his mercenaries, slave traders, and execution squads. Never mind that the people of the land had long-established well-developed civilisations. Never mind the complexity of the people, their ways of knowing, of creating. Never mind the ways they already knew how to relate to Creator, to the land, and to one another. Never mind all of these things. The Bishop of Rome sent out a decree that the land was to be treated as empty. And this led to the worst genocide in recorded history. And it carries on to this day.

Dr. John Borrows, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law at the University of Victoria, and a member of the Chippewa of the Nawash First Nation in Ontario describes the effects of the Doctrine of Discovery this way:

[The] “word is Terra Nullius. The land is made empty not by clearing the people out. It’s made empty through law.”

In a world where the word of the Church was supreme, and where the church had national armies at its disposal, a new vision of history was enacted. Everything west of Portugal was declared empty. This made expropriation, extraction, forced conversion, slavery, and genocide possible with impunity. If the land is empty, there is nothing to be accountable for. If the land and its people are not regarded as having any inherent agency, dignity, or worth, then we can do whatever we want with it.

Think for a moment how this plays out.

It’s not just the obvious effects of colonisation and Residential Schools. But what about Climate Change? White Supremacy? Heteropatriarchy? Transphobia? The church labels something, creating a legal fiction that privileges one people over others. This logic plays out again and again. In systems and in individuals.

I know that I am not immune. We are not immune. We are complicit.

Those of us who call ourselves Christians are not unfamiliar with stories that begin with a deep and formless void. We are not unfamiliar with the ways in which these voids are, in short order, and by God’s grace, are made to be teeming with life, fruitfulness and beauty. Our founding narrative, our very earliest stories tell the tale of Creator who out of just such a void, calls all things into being.

The poetry of the creation story in Genesis is the cascading opener to that ancient library we know, and love, and hate, and wrestle with. The library known as the Bible.

It’s important to remember that the first words we read in the Bible are not the first, or the final word on the situation. The Genesis poem as we have received it, was written far later, not as part of the earliest tradition. It comes later, much later, as a way of re-narrating the world while living under the oppression of the Babylonian Empire in the 6th Century BCE.

In Babylon, the Israelites were captive under an oppressive regime. They were suppressed and oppressed. They were dehumanized and persecuted. They were made subject to the dominant culture. Yet even here, they hear God’s call to build houses, plant gardens, and love everyone (as in Jeremiah 29).

And it’s here, in Babylonian exile, that they begin to reimagine the cosmos as having been born in and through God’s self-giving love.

Under Babylonian captivity, they begin with imagination. Their imaginations take them to a sense that God’s world was not born out of violence but rather, out of mercy and grace, beauty and mystery. In short, they began to imagine a different world in which all was bestowed upon the creation as divine gift.

That is to say that Genesis is a narrative revolution. It is insurgency of the best kind. Genesis retells the story of the universe, its guiding principles, of who is in and who is out, from below.

A story created not by those in power, but from a community on the margins. Rather than being told from the oppressor’s power-filled perspective of hierarchy and division, the Creation poem is told from the liberating perspective of unfolding, evolving, ever expanding grace.

Of course, we’ve not always heard it that way. The church throughout its history has in many ways seen the Creation poem as one that justifies exploitation.

But the church, like the world around us, is full of competing narratives. The narrative winning the day right now is one in which being a lying, cheating, corrupt, racist, misogynist, transphobic, ableist person can somehow land you in the top echelons of power. And we see these moves repeated the world over. In that kind of shadow, we need a new narrative. Or, perhaps, a new narrative rooted in one that is very old.

In encountering Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we find ourselves enmeshed in a world not too dissimilar from ours. Paul is writing to a people under Roman occupation. The Caesars are known for their violent rapacious excess. Excesses in the royal court, and in their destruction of the lands and the peoples they conquered. These are leaders who wage not only military war, but narrative warfare, positing themselves as Gods, and the ones from whom all blessings flow. The Emperor and the colonising imperial way is accepted as the way of flourishing.

In this kind of environment, Paul writes to a people whose imagination has been subdued, marginalized, crushed. This is a people who can’t seem to see a way forward beyond the life that is being dictated to them by the powerful elite. They haven’t come to trust their God-given magic. They haven’t come to trust that God is working in and through them.

It’s with this in background that Paul reminds the church to be of one mind with Jesus. Paul goes on to remind his listeners that Jesus, who is God, possessed all power, and yet did not use that power to exploit, but rather to serve other people, and to serve the flourishing of Creation (Philippians 2).

Following on from this, Paul then makes two distinctions. Speaking of the colonizing impulse that can never be satiated, the Apostle writes:

Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. (3:19)

This message is both about the Roman elite, and those in the community who aspire to such great heights, having bought into the colonising narrative. But Paul grounds his invitation in the life of Jesus, the one who knows God intimately, being God God’s self. Paul then goes on to remind us:

But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. (3:20)

We are citizens of Christ’s commonwealth. Not just we, but all of us. In saying this, Paul sets up the heavenly commonwealth not as a competitor to that of Caesar, but as one that relativizes the empire’s earthly power. In fact, citizenship in Christ’s commonwealth isn’t just for those who follow after Christ. It is for the whole created order. The entirety of the cosmos.

No label can separate us from Creator. Paul, so well-versed in the Creation story, knows that all are beloved children of the Creator. It’s the impulse that puts him into conflict with Peter and the others, to say that the gift of God is not only available to Jews, but to all of humanity. And so, in this passage, Paul borrows from Roman Imperial language not to make the Empire’s point, but to undermine it.

We are citizens of God’s Commonwealth. Not Rome’s. Not Britain’s. Not Canada’s. We are citizens of God’s commonwealth, and as such, our allegiance is to a particular way of being. Our allegiance is to a way of being that embodies God’s love for all creation. Our allegiance is to a way of being where no power – whether that of an elected government, a church-sanctioned genocide, a culture entrenched with the logic of Christian superiority or white-supremacy – is to be obeyed. Because it comes up short. Each of these ideologies comes up way short of the brooding Spirit’s motherly love for all of creation.

As I watched this film, this week, it brought out so many questions. More questions than answers. Questions about ways that we might come together to really dismantle the ongoing effects of the Doctrine of Discovery in the church and in the world. How might we dismantle the oppressive structures that still remain? How might we replace the old domineering and isolating structures with those that bring us together as guests at Creator’s table? How might we enter into the fullness of relationship with God, this good land, and with all God’s beloved children?

To put it more bluntly, how might we decolonize church?

Thinking this week, it seems to me that this community, this St. Brigids community, and the wider Cathedral community of which we are a part, is in the beginning stages of such a practice. We’re not perfect. We have a long way to go.

Our Holy Week Preacher, the Rev. Dr. Martin Brokenleg, reminds us about something as simple as acknowledging the territory on which we gather in saying, ““It’s that drip of water on the stone that says that the doctrine of discovery isn’t right.” This is one small step. The Truth & Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action suggest 94 more.

And we are invited to continue to learn, listen, work, and imagine our way forward with God’s help.

Here at St. Brigids, when we reflect together after the sermon, we begin by acknowledging that all are created in the divine image, and that we seek to speak to one another in love. We pray with and for each other. We engage in the work of creating a table in the Maundy Café where food is not an end in itself, but a means to connection, mutual encounter, and transformation. We seek to be a part of a community where the sharing of food is not paternalistic and demeaning, but a place of dignity, agency, and worth.

We are doing many of these things. And I wonder what – in this season of Lent – we might take on to sharpen our focus, and to dwell ever more deeply in the story of God’s liberating love?

How might we, in the ways we are together, the ways in which we worship with one another, the ways in which we listen in prayer for Holy Spirit, dwell ever more deeply in a God-shaped love that runs counter to the colonising forces that continue to harm us all?

And how might we cultivate an imagination for reconciliation this day, and the days to come?

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Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

Andrew serves on staff at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC as Director of Ministry Innovation, with primary responsibility for St. Brigids, an emerging Christian community where questions are honoured, faith is nurtured, and discipleship pursued.
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