The CRC’s Doctrine of Discovery Task Force will report to Synod 2016. I’ve had the privilege of journeying with the task force for almost 4 years now. Our work has been intense; full of emotional, spiritual and intellectual challenges. Our task force is made up of Indigenous people and settlers from minority communities and European origins. In many circles of conversation we’ve begun hearing each other more deeply as sisters and brothers in the family of Christ-the-Reconciler. Our report (link here) is an invitation for the whole church to enter into a conversation on the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (DOCD). The Network has kindly asked us to answer some questions about our work and so we welcome you to this circle of conversation. . .
What is the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (DOCD) and how does it relate to the church?
The DOCD evolved from 3 Papal Bulls (edicts from a Pope) in the 15th Century that gave European rulers permission for the settlement and conquest of North America. Those Papal Bulls included a basic assumption that people who were not Christian and/or European were less than fully human and, therefore, subject to the control of European Christian rulers. This assumption of the superiority of Europeans was a broad worldview of conquest and systemic racism that shaped law and culture and the church as it grew in North America. Reformed Christians often work with the doctrine of total depravity – an idea that sin is pervasive. The DOCD is a broken worldview that brought about the oppression of colonialism: in genocidal wars, in relocations in residential schools, and in the marginalization of Indigenous people.
In our task force we’ve learned that the church, even with noble and Biblically inspired intentions, is not immune from the effects of the DOCD. In the use of terms like ‘savage’, in running residential schools, and in assumptions of the inferiority of Indigenous people and cultures, the church in North America has been touched by the total depravity of the DOCD. As we learn and confront the history of this brokenness, the Church can play a profound role in reconciliation.
This video of Bishop Mark MacDonald (a friend and mentor to many of us in Canadian Ministries) is a good summary of lingering effects of the Doctrine of Discovery:
What kind of research took place in your committee? Did you seek expert opinions to better understand the history of the DOCD and the relationship of the church to indigenous peoples?
Our Task Force research was an intense and fascinating process. Sure, we did the smart things you might expect: extensive literature review, professional historical work in archives and consultation with academics and ‘experts’. But we also took on some non-traditional research:
- We were honored to participate in events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. We heard the sacred, grace-filled and sometimes angry testimony of survivors of residential schools. We also had the chance to discuss our work with some of the Commission’s senior research staff;
- We met with Indigenous church leaders within and outside of the CRC (and would have loved to do more).
- We met and interviewed Indigenous people around the continent to hear their stories and experiences related to the legacy of the DOCD. In the course of this work we heard powerful stories of the resilience and grace of many Indigenous people. We also learned that these experiences of our sisters and brothers are relatively unknown. This is why we believe deeply in the importance of sharing stories and cultivating a full understanding of the experience of Indigenous people in the church.
All told, our hope in this process of research and listening, was to step beyond standard western and linear ways of learning and knowing, and into a process of hearing the stories of Indigenous people in a deep way. This effort to hear the voices of all was also reflected in the way we worked as a task force: Whenever possible we used an Indigenous inspired process of sharing circles so that each of our voices was heard and honored. We came to love our time in the circle as an opportunity to hear each other deeply as sisters and brothers.
The work of reconciliation can be daunting. How did you committee narrow down specific actions?
Our task force learned again and again that reconciliation is an ongoing commitment. We learned that seeds of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2009-2015) were sown as long as 30 years ago, and we heard the Commissioners say that their work was just a beginning of the reconciliation journey. So we want to stress that reconciliation is not the formal passage of our recommendations or a repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery. Reconciliation is the hard and beautiful work of hearing our shared stories of the legacy of the DOCD. For this reason the key things that we recommended as a task force focus on the need to learn more about our history as a North American Church as influenced by the DOCD; and to support Indigenous people in the sharing of stories of the DOCD legacy that have not been heard. In knowing the fullness of our shared story in a spirit of grace and commitment to truth, we can know each other as the new family that Christ intended. This is why our report is titled Creating a New Family.
Why should Synod 2016 and the CRC as a whole pay attention to the work of this committee? How does it affect us moving forward?
In Canada, we’ve seen God’s Spirit move Indigenous people to healing, and churches to repentance and wholeness through the Truth and reconciliation Commission process. Keeping in step with the Spirit of reconciliation is a passion that has touched many. We know that our report asks hard questions and probes into some corners we might want to forget. But we know from direct experience with story tellers that hard truths and questions, while painful, set in motion a process of healing and reconciliation. As Christ’s ambassadors, we believe the CRC across North America is called to this process of reconciliation with our Indigenous sisters and brothers. We’ll be changed.