Disciples, the Doctrine of Discovery, and Indigenous Voices -- General Assembly Reflection #5

Tonight the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) opens. I'm looking forward to being part of the broader church, the people of God who call themselves Disciples of Christ, as we gather in Orlando.  Soon enough we will be having conversation about resolutions, and I hope to speak to several of them over the next several days -- either prior to the discussion/vote or afterward.

So where to start?  

As I looked over the list of resolutions there was one that emerges from the Pacific Northwest, from which I hail.  It's a call for study and reflection.  Resolution GA 1324 is entitled: 

Reflection on Christian Theology and Polity, the Christian Doctrine of Discovery, and the Indigenous Voice

The sponsors of the resolution aren't asking for us to take a position, just reflecting on the way in which we as Christians, especially as members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) might be complicit in suppressing indigenous American voices.  It is a call to look at our theology and the way in which it has influenced the way we have engaged with the peoples of the First Nations on the North American continent.    

The sponsors, all of which hail from the Pacific Northwest and have affiliation with the Yakama Christian Mission.  Suggest that such a process of reflection might include:

1)    Discernment on how the Doctrine of Discovery influenced Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) theology, polity, missional outlook, action and the ensuing loss of indigenous voice within the movement.

2)    A study of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and how support of the document might enhance the physical and spiritual well being of the North American landscape and her people.
3)    Encouraging conversation with our religious neighbors to listen and share our common histories as affected by the Doctrine of Discovery.
4)    Encouraging ministers, military chaplains, and seminarians to learn how the Doctrine of Discovery became embedded in their Christian teachings, theology, and polity.
5)    Encouraging research and discourse as to why there are no American Indian or First Nations congregations within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

The sponsors point out that: 
 Disciples of Christ have a particular responsibility to examine the presence of the Doctrine of Discovery because the Disciples began during an intense period of conflict with indigenous peoples. Writings of the church’s founders (e.g., Alexander Campbell and Walter Scott) during this era indicate a social mindset similar to that of their peers.  Therefore, the developing theology and polity of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) may have aspects of the Doctrine of Discovery embedded.
In the recently published history of our movement -- The Stone-Campbell Movement: A Global History -- we discover that few Native Americans became members of our churches -- and the reason could be seen in the views held by the founding generation.  We read that in 1830, Campbell was outraged by the treatment of the Cherokee people, but after that he was silent on the issue -- including the 1838 decision to remove the Cherokee to Indian Territory along the "Trail of Tears."  The one person who sought to work among Native Americans, James Jenkins Trott grew increasingly frustrated by the lack of interest in ministry among Native Americans.  We might ask why this was true -- and what was the attitude toward the people who loved here before the conquests.  That Campbell and others were given to principles of Manifest Destiny and believed that God was especially interested in the American project may give us clues.

I believe that this call to reflection is one we need to take seriously.  How do we perceive indigenous peoples and their religions and their cultures?  Do we bring into the conversation an assumption of superiority?  As we ponder the issue of immigration, which is a somewhat different issue, how does our perception of recent immigrants fit with our own migration to what was an already inhabited land?

Non-Native American Christians often struggle with these kinds of questions because it requires that we ask questions of our own presence in this land.  It has been a land of opportunity for many, but for those whose ancestors lived here before the conquests, they haven't fared nearly so well.  So, what will our response be? 

As we think about these questions I'd like to point us to a useful resource, Randy Woodley's book -- Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision (Prophetic Christianity),  (Eerdmans, 2012).  Randy Woodley is a Native American theologian teaching at George Fox University in Oregon.   My review can be found here:


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