Discovering humility

September 21, 2016 | Viewpoints | Volume 20 Issue 19
Steve Heinrichs |

It’s Sunday night, I’m in a coffee shop, and I’m soaking wet. Thirty minutes earlier I was at home reading about the Doctrine of Discovery and found the content so painful that I headed out to grab a decaf. Then the rain hit. Thank God. The water dripping from my hair hides the tears running down my cheeks.

I wipe my eyes and fumble through blurry pages detailing the devious ways the Christian church, Christian nations, explorers, missionaries and lawyers “discovered” native lands and claimed possession in Jesus’ name. It’s hard to believe. Popes in the 15th century proclaimed that Christians could plunder the lands of infidels. European peoples rejoiced—and they’ve riffed on that belief ever since, tweaking it to suit their needs. And their damned wants.

My chest muscles tighten. I take a sip of coffee, walk to the bathroom muttering curses beneath my breath.

The Doctrine of Discovery is demonic. It proclaims that we Christians are the fully human, truly religious chosen, the civilized who bear rights and sovereignty. At the same time, it denounces “those Indians” as less than human, bereft of God, primitive and in need of paternalistic white rule.

Last year, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission summoned churches to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. At Assembly 2016 in Saskatoon, delegates voted in favour of a resolution to do just that. What church with any conscience would do otherwise?

While Canada no longer bases its sovereignty over indigenous lands through appeals to Christian superiority, it still clutches that land by claiming rights of discovery. It’s devilish logic and it needs to be addressed. By the church. Even our church.

Unfortunately, belief in Christian superiority still lurks in the church. For centuries, Christians have been taught to believe that our religion is better, more civilized or advanced than our neighbours’. How can we reconcile such beliefs with the witness of Job? The most faithful person in the Hebrew Bible was a religious outsider. Or what of Christ’s call to do unto others as we would have them do unto us? Can we celebrate or share our faith with integrity if we disrespect the spiritual paths of others?

We have an opportunity to change. Now that we’ve repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, we can find ways to live out that commitment. One way to do this is to explore the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action No. 60: Partner with indigenous communities to learn about and respect indigenous spirituality. It won’t be easy. It could be the most difficult journey our church has yet taken. Yet the Spirit of Jesus can give us the humility to venture forth into such new territories in a way that will honour host peoples.

As I finish my coffee, I peer through the shop window. Three folks are laughing, smoking and begging for money. All indigenous. They’re battle-scarred. And I’m reminded how this Doctrine of Discovery conversation matters to real flesh and blood.

Steve Heinrichs is Mennonite Church Canada’s director of indigenous relations.

For more reflection on restorative solidarity with indigenous neighbours, see “Facing history with courage.”

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Keep on truckin' Steve. We, the host people and the settlers need you.

My strong heart-felt agreement is with you on much of what you articulated. So much damage has been done by the Christian church in its functioning, whether knowingly or unknowingly, within the doctrine of discovery. We have much ground to cover in seeking forgiveness from and being reconciled in our relationships with our indigenous sisters and brothers.

My one challenge would be that some unpacking needs to be done about is meant by “Christian superiority.” If that means the superiority of western Christian culture, then I would wholeheartedly agree. In fact, when we look at the underlying meaning and the absolutely devastating effects of the doctrine of discovery, a solid argument could be made about the inferiority of western Christian culture.

However, if by "Christian superiority" we are saying that Jesus Christ is one way to salvation and right relationship with God while other types of spirituality are another way and that one way is not superior to the other, then I would strongly disagree. Jesus is superior. Actually, that isn’t accurate. Superiority is a measure of comparison which would necessitate that there are different ways. Jesus clearly says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” So Jesus isn’t superior because there isn’t another way to compare him to.

So the challenge is this: Can we love our indigenous brothers and sisters on whose land we now live as well as bless and respect their culture while at the same time sharing the good news of Jesus with them? I have to believe that we can. Why? Because Jesus calls us to love our neighbours as ourselves AND to make disciples of all nations.

It seems the pope may have spoken to this already, in 1537:

"We define and declare . . . that, notwithstanding whatever may have been or may be said to the contrary, the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect."

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