Thinking about the Doctrine of Discovery

A few years ago I was in South Africa.  One of the Reformed denominations invited the Christian Reformed Church to send a fraternal delegate to their Synod, and I was the one that went.

My white hosts were very open about their lives, ministries, joys and frustrations.  One man told me that his family had lived in South Africa for more than 400 years, yet to their chagrin people still would not recognize them as Africans.  “My family and I are Afrikaans, we are ethnically Dutch, but we are Africans too!” he declared with pride and with passion.

At the time, my thought was, of course you are African.  You were born on African soil.  Your roots grow deeply into this land.  And I thought, “If you can’t be African, then I can’t be North American.”  Indeed, even though my family arrived on these shores only 65 years ago, I identify myself as a Canadian, from the North American continent.  Most everyone else would agree.

But am I?  Do I have the right or the privilege to identify myself that way, and to be seen that way by others?  My South African friend was denied the epithet “African” because his Caucasian Europe-originating community failed to acquire numerical dominance.  My Caucasian Europe-originating community, on the other hand, came in such numbers, and was able to decimate the Indigenous population so ruthlessly, that we have become the majority.  And thus we claim the title that likely should not be ours and establish in our laws our own privilege.

The Doctrine of Discovery is the source of our undeserved power.  By claiming that “Christian” European culture trumps Indigenous culture, by saying that we are masters of the land by virtue of our race or technology or power while it remains the ancestral home and birthright of others, we  show ourselves to be very poor Christians and very rude guests.

We don’t talk much about this.  An uncommon topic of conversation is the morality of building our homes and schools and churches on the traditional territories of the First Nations.  Seldom do we discuss the predicament of those people whose land we occupy.  We might cluck our tongues about the treatment of Palestinians in refugee camps, or the sad story of Apartheid and discrimination in South Africa, but we don’t want to turn the mirror around and look at ourselves.

I am a Canadian, and the congregation I serve is a Canadian church.  “Canadian,” after all, is a word made by the Europeans who only partially understood what the Indigenous people were saying.  Better for me, and for the church, to see ourselves as guests, and to establish respectful and mutually beneficial understandings of conduct with our hosts, the indigenous people.

It is a good thing for the Christian Reformed Church to be learning about the Doctrine of Discovery.  An even better thing will be for us to come to see what can be done to overcome its racist legacy, and then actually do it.