What the Doctrine of Discovery Teaches Us About Ourselves

To state the facts… and then to bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with a certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it’s not that important – it should weigh very little in our final judgements; it should affect very little what we do in the world. (Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 8).

Doctrine of Discovery

We weighing all and singular the premises with due meditation, and noting that since we had formerly by other letters of ours granted among other things free and ample faculty to the aforesaid King Alfonso — to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit — by having secured the said faculty, the said King Alfonso, or, by his authority, the aforesaid infante, justly and lawfully has acquired and possessed, and doth possess, these islands, lands, harbors, and seas, and they do of right belong and pertain to the said King Alfonso and his successors.

Pope Nicholas V, Papal Bull Romanus Pontifex, 8 January 1454

In fourteen centuries the Church of Christ had undergone the most dramatic evolution ever imaginable by a group of people. For Christ, it was “blessed are you who are poor,” and “woe to you who are rich.” (Luke 6)

It was “do not judge, do not condemn, forgive.” (Luke 6)

“Love your enemies… bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” (Luke 6)

“Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor…” (Luke 18)

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25)

“For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26)

How is it that a people who claim to worship the man that preached over and over again a profoundly radical message of peace, servitude, compassion, and care for the poor, imprisoned, marginalized, and stranger, could wish to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue” and to “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit”?

As the great Russian authors Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy point out, it is not because the Church has lost the name of Christ, but that it has lost the radical and often uncomfortable message that comes with Christ.

In 1454 the Doctrine of Discovery was in its developmental stages. Christopher Columbus had not yet “sailed the ocean blue” as we so patriotically like to say it. But the Church nonetheless had already become the perfect candidate for such successful “discoveries.”

It had developed a mission. A mission in which any enemies of the church, pagans, muslims, or any form of non-believers should immediately be subdued, captured, and enslaved in the name of Christ and profit.

The mission proved to be quite successful. In 1492 when Columbus did in fact discover the West Indies and the people already living there, he realized how easy Pope Nicholas V’s mission for the Catholic Church might be to obtain. He wrote in his journal:

They willingly traded everything they owned… They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features… They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… They would make fine servants… With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want. (Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1).

The atrocities committed against American Indians in the early days of conquest can powerfully be summed up in the words of a Dominican priest, Bartolomé de Las Casas in his History of the Indies in 1528:

The Indians [of Hispaniola] were totally deprived of their freedom and were put in the harshest, fiercest, most horrible servitude and captivity which no one who has not seen it can understand. Even beasts enjoy more freedom when they are allowed to graze in the fields… I sometimes came upon dead bodies… and upon others who were gasping and moaning in their death agony, repeating “Hungry, hungry.” And this was the freedom, the good treatment and the Christianity the Indians received.

To me the last line of this excerpt from Las Casas is quite profound. “This was the freedom, the good treatment and the Christianity the Indians received.”

It is easy for us to look back into history and make claims about how sad it is that the Christian faith would have done something like this. And while the genocide of millions of Natives, done partly in the name of Nationalism, partly in the name of Christendom, but mostly in the name of a deadly concoction of the two, will never happen again, it should keep us ever on the alert.

This is in fact the past that has created the present. To claim that we have completely disowned the ever-tempting desires that so indulged the conquests of early America is to lose oneself in the ignorance that plagues our progression as a democratic society.

The reason we tell stories of these atrocities is not to condemn or judge those who engaged in them. It is to recognize, for the sake of the victims (that are, perhaps not surprisingly, struggling at such an alarming rate today), that they happened. But also, to ask ourselves how we, a people largely influenced by the same religious, nationalistic, and moral implications that early conquerers were, might be engaging in the same behavior in the world today.

When, in the name of Nationalism, do we support violent military excursions? When, in the name of Christendom, do we withhold basic rights from those we disagree with? When, in the name of morality, do we label the poor as “lazy individuals that got what they deserve?”

When we understand the sinful desires that are so deeply embedded within all of us, and are so numerously displayed throughout history, we can better re-examine ourselves and the way we think about the world.

As Christians, we have lost Christ in the name of Christendom. As Americans, we have lost the meaning of freedom in the name of Nationalism.

Let us get back to freedom. Not freedom for ourselves, but freedom for our sisters and brothers who have been neglected, forgotten, and buried underneath a wealthy, worshipping chorus of the “American Dream.”

Let us get back to Christ. Not the Christ that the Church has chosen to recognize over the last seventeen centuries. But the radical Middle Eastern peacemaker that so vigorously challenged the wealthy, the defenders, and the powerful.

(Image – From a stamp engraved on copper by Th. de Bry, 1590: “Discovery of America, 12 May, 1492, Christopher Columbus erects the cross and baptizes the Isle of Guanahani by the Christian Name of St. Salvador.”)

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