Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery


as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, October 8, 2023

This morning’s sermon hinges upon the question of land. Who does it belong to? How shall we understand our relationship to it? What does it mean to claim, as Woody Guthrie did, “This was land was made for you and me?”

I offer it to you on the Sunday before Indigenous Peoples Day as the news comes about an ongoing conflict over land in another part of the world.

The events of the weekend are already being called Israel’s 9/11. What has happened in the last 48 hours represent that country’s greatest intelligence failure since the Yom Kippur War. That was when, almost exactly fifty years ago, a coalition led by Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on the Jewish state.

In this country and throughout much of the English-speaking media, the voices we are most likely to hear will be those of Israelis and their allies. This morning both the New York Times and the Washington Post, for instance, are centering statements from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As I speak, Israel is in the midst of launching a massive counterattack. But, over the next few days, I suspect it is going to be hard to find Palestinian or dissenting Jewish voices condemning Israeli violence in the publications I just named or in other major media outlets.

Let me offer you three, all from respected academics whom I follow on the platform that used to known as Twitter. The first words I share come from the national security expert and former Middle East advisor at the Pentagon Jasmime El-Gamal. She writes:

“What is happening in Israel is not ok. It is horrific. Horrendous. Outright barbaric.

What has been happening to Palestine under occupation is not ok. It is horrific. Horrendous. Outright barbaric.

The way to right this starts with believing both those statements to be true.”

I lift up El-Gamal’s words because they parallel the long held Unitarian Universalist perspective that “every person has … inherent dignity and worthiness.”

The second set of words come from Eli Cook. He was a Harvard classmate of mine. He currently serves as a professor of United States history at the Haifa University in Israel. He reflects:

“Hamas could waltz into these Kibbutzes and towns because … [the Israeli Defense Forces] shifted all its troops to the West Bank, in order to ‘protect’ violent right-wing settlers while they terrorize local Palestinians. I’ll say it again: Israel must end the occupation, before the occupation ends Israel.”

I offer Eli’s statement as a reminder that Hamas’s violent attacks are situated within a larger political context. They come at a time when much of the Arab world has decided to make some kind of peace with Israel. In recent months, Saudi Arabia has been seeking to normalize relations with the nation. In 2021, the United Arab Emirates became the third Arab country to do so–following Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.

Of greater significance is the rise of Israel’s current government. It is the most right-wing and disrespectful towards in Palestinians in the nation’s history. Netanyahu’s minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, is an advocate of expanding settlements into Palestinian territories. He lives on an illegal settlement himself, is affiliated with a group that was only removed from the United States’ list of terrorist organization in 2022, and has used hate speech to incite violence. In 1995, he was involved in organizing a rally opposed to peace with the Palestinians during which protestors screamed “Death to Rabin.” Yitzhak Rabin was the Prime Minister who signed the Oslo Accords which granted Palestinians the right to limited self-governance and was seen as establishing a pathway to a two-state solution. A month after the rally, Rabin was assassinated. Today Ben-Gvir is calling for Arab Israeli citizens to be stripped of their rights.

Finally, I put forward a sentence from Sherene Seikaly. She is a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara and who studies nineteenth and twentieth century Palestine and Egypt. Her name might be familiar to some of you. She was a guest on our ministers’ forum back in 2021. She succinctly observes, “Decolonization is not a metaphor.”

Decolonization is not a metaphor. Prior to Hamas’s attack on Israel and the Israeli response, the heart of my sermon was meant to focus on a theological concept called the Doctrine of Discovery. Have you heard of it? In 2012, the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association passed a responsive resolution repudiating it. The resolution came at the request of organizations that our association had been working with in Arizona to oppose the state’s racist anti-immigrant laws. When we began to work with them back in 2010, we learned something surprising, they viewed Arizona’s laws as part of a continual process of colonization that stretched back to Christopher Columbus.

Columbus’s “discovery” of land prompted European political and religious leaders to apply to this hemisphere something that is now referred to as the “Christian Doctrine of Discovery.” This is the belief that because the territories of the Western Hemisphere were without Christians prior to 1492 they were free for the taking upon “discovery.” With this doctrine in mind, the coalition of indigenous and migrant activists that our association was working with in Arizona called Unitarian Universalists into a new understanding. They wanted us to grasp that the issues at stake in immigration law are as much theological as they are political.

In the United States, the history of the Christian Doctrine of Discovery can be traced to a series of papal bulls and treaties between Spain and Portugal. These documents created a theological and legal framework that justified the expropriation and division of indigenous lands first between Spain and Portugal and then by other European colonial powers.

What is especially upsetting about the doctrine is that the framework it created to facilitate the seizure of indigenous lands continues to form the core of much of federal property law today. This year marks the two hundredth anniversary of the Supreme Court decision Johnson v. McIntosh. The ruling in the case revolved around the transfer of title to land. It determined that, in this country, indigenous nations could not transfer title to individual property owners. They could only sell land to the federal government.

Legal scholar and citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma Robert Miller summarizes the matter this way, “… the Supreme Court said that, under Discovery, when European, Christian nations discovered new lands, the discovering country automatically gained sovereign and property rights in the lands of non-Christian, non-European peoples, even though, obviously, the native peoples already owned, occupied, and used these lands.”

A supreme court case from 1823 might seem like ancient history. But as recently as 2005 the Supreme Court cited the theological doctrine in one of its decisions. Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion in Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation. In it, she asserted that even if an indigenous nation repurchased ancestral lands that had previously been part of a reservation those lands could not be reincorporated into tribal property. They remained under federal, not tribal, control–remember that many treaties between indigenous nations and the United States hinge upon the recognition that indigenous nations are sovereign entities.

As a point of reflection on the doctrine and the way it continues to haunt us, I draw our attention back to Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land is Your Land.” The first verse runs:

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me

This might seem like a problematic text to use in a discussion on the doctrine. Guthrie was a European American. His song almost sounds like a celebration of conquest. It makes no acknowledgement of the original inhabitants of the land that European Americans call the United States and our indigenous brethren know by a variety of names including Abya Yala. The song references California and New York Island but not the tribal nations, be they the Ohlone or the Algonquian, that are the original inhabitants of those lands. It could be argued that Guthrie’s “you and me” excludes indigenous peoples and asserts European dominance over indigenous lands and communities.

There are, however, other verses to the song. Whenever we use it during our services I always make a point to include one that often gets forgotten. I certainly did not learn it in school:

As I went walking I saw a sign there,
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing.
That side was made for you and me.

In thinking about the doctrine, I want to suggest that for those of us who are primarily of European descent the task is two-fold. First, we need to move from thinking about the side of the sign with the words “private property” to thinking about the other side. Second, we need to enter into right relationship with the land and her original inhabitants, our indigenous brethren. The first step is about learning to erase the borders that we have created within our minds and understanding how those borders were created. The second step is working to reconcile ourselves to our mother earth and all of her peoples who our ancestors harmed, and who we continue to harm, through the ongoing process of colonialism.

I have been thinking of the urgency behind two-fold process as I have been reflecting on another of the week’s disappointing pieces of news. The Biden administration’s decision to waive environmental and human rights protections so that it could speed up the construction of a border wall between the United States and Mexico. As the current administration works to complete what the indicted previous President called “a big, beautiful wall,” wildlife corridors along the Rio Grande will be destroyed. The lands of indigenous communities like the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe will be bisected. Many sacred sites and burial grounds will be destroyed.

The federal government’s decision to proceed with construction of the wall comes at a time when undocumented migration has reached recent highs. It arrives after months of public boasts by Texas officials about their cruelty towards some of the planet’s most vulnerable people, migrants and refugees. Instead of greeting those seeking a better life in the United States with open arms and hearts of compassion, they offer the cruelty of saw blades and buses.

The cruelty of saw blades, living in Texas we are in the borderlands. “It’s not a comfortable territory to live in,” said the Chicana activist and academic Gloria Anzaldua.

This land was Mexican once,
was Indian always
and is.
And will be again.

She wrote those words in her 1987 classic Borderlands: La Frontera; the New Mestiza. We are discussing it all this month as part of our series “Lives of the Spirit” and I will save my major discussion of it for next week. But for now, as a further invitation into theological reflection on the upsetting news for the hour, I offer you a few more words from her Borderlands:

                         I press my hand to the steel curtain--
  chainlink fence crowned with rolled barbed wire--
rippling from the sea where Tijuana touches San Diego
  unrolling over mountains 
        and plains
                  and deserts,
this “Tortilla Curtain” turning into el río Grande
   flowing down to the flatlands
        of the Magic Valley of South Texas 
   its mouth emptying into the Gulf.
1,950 mile-long open wound
                dividing a pueblo, a culture, 
                running down the length of my body,
                     staking fence rods in my flesh,
                     splits me      splits me
                         me raja   me raja
                         This is my home
                         this thin edge of barbwire.
                     But the skin of the earth is seamless.
                     The sea cannot be fenced,
                el mar does not stop at borders.
           To show the white man what she thought of his 
                Yemayá blew the wire fence down.

                This land was Mexican once,
                     was Indian always
                         and is.
                And    will be again.

Where am I? If I ask you that question, how might you answer? Perhaps you would reply that we are in the sanctuary of the Unitarian Universalist congregation on Fannin Street in the city of Houston, in the state of Texas, in the United States of America. Or maybe you would answer differently. It might be that you would state that I am standing in the land of six flags: Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the Confederate States of America, the United States of America. Perhaps you would simply say that I am located in the unceded ancestral lands of the Akokisa, Atakapa, Carrizo/Comecrudo, Coahuiltecan, Karankawa, and Sana.

This land was Mexican once,
was Indian always
and is.
And will be again.

Where am I? It is a question that lies at the heart of the Israel and Palestinian conflict. Like the United States, Israel is what scholars have called covenant state. Secular or religious, its foundational myth relies upon the belief, encoded in the Hebrew scriptures, that God formed a covenant with the ancient Israelites which included the promise that they would win the land from alien and evil forces.

Do not take those words as a questioning of Israel’s right to exist. My probing of the Doctrine of Discovery causes me to question to the way we humans currently construct borders rather than challenge one specific state. It is one reason why I cited Jasmime El-Gamal earlier, “What is happening in Israel is not ok… What has been happening to Palestine under occupation is not ok… The way to right this starts with believing both those statements to be true.”

Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth,
brown earth, we are earth.

Challenging the Doctrine of Discovery, seeking to engage in decolonization, to transform the ongoing colonialist mindset so prevalent in Texas, is not something we should engage in out of some sort of pity for the oppressed and marginalized peoples of the world. Instead, we should engage in it with the understanding that all of us, whatever our ethnicity or race are victims of colonialism. The borders that the United States government and our European ancestors have inflicted upon the Earth afflict all of us.

Interrogating the Doctrine of Discovery can help us to understand our complicated relationship to the system of borders. Most of us comply with the system for a mixture of reasons: we benefit from it in some way; we cannot imagine another system; or we are afraid of the violence that will be inflicted upon us if we rebel against it.

Unitarian Universalist religious communities like this one can play a role in helping us as individuals and stewards of institutions untangle our complicity with the system of borders. It is my hope that by beginning to untangle our own complicity we can ultimately be part of the process of undermining that system.

The great Unitarian Universalist social ethicist James Luther Adams envisioned our religious communities playing such a role when he suggested a “vocation of the church and of the minister.” That vocation is, in his words, “to reveal the hidden, to point to the hidden realities of human suffering, and also… to point to hidden realities that offer release and surcease.”

The Doctrine of Discovery is one of those hidden sources of human suffering that needs to be revealed. It is not something that is mentioned in most schoolbooks. I did not learn about it in elementary school, high school, or in my undergraduate studies. I have heard little mention of it in the mass media. But despite this in remains present within United States case law—a theological interpolation into a supposedly secular society. More importantly it is found within the way most European Americans think about our relationship to the land.

Many of the people who the United States government seeks to keep from crossing the borders are descendants of the original inhabitants of the land. To give an example, the state of Texas is part of the Uto-Aztecan lingual region which stretches from parts of Oregon to Honduras. For thousands of years members of this linguistic group moved freely throughout the region. The borders of the United States now prevent that movement. Those borders were established through the Doctrine of Discovery when Europeans claimed that land as their own. The descendants of the original inhabitants of the land are now labeled as immigrants while descendants of European colonizers claim to be its legitimate inhabitants.

The hidden reality that needs to be uncovered about the Doctrine of Discovery and the border system is that they are products of the human imagination. They are not real in the same way that a rock, a river or a human being is real. They were created in human minds, and they can be uncreated in human minds. We all, no matter who our ancestors are, can imagine a world where they do not exist.

This is a task for our religious communities, to open up the human imagination to vistas beyond the Doctrine of Discovery. To return to the lesser-known verses of Guthrie’s song, it is realize that the sign and the words on the sign are both human creations.

Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.

So says Joy Harjo.

“There is no separation between past and present, meaning that an alternative future is also determined by our understanding of our past. Our history is our future,” so writes Nick Estes.

Tomorrow is Indigenous People’s Day. Today violence rages between Israel and Palestine. Immigration, ongoing colonialism, conflicts in the Middle East, this are not separate issues. They are each connected by a belief in those objects created by the human imagination, borders.

To see peace, to transform the politics of cruelty into the politics of compassion, to welcome the migrant with loving hearts and embracing arms, requires a different imagining. We are called to work to rid our imaginations of the imprint of the Doctrine of Discovery.

In doing so we will cease to think people as immigrants or citizens of this country or that one. We will understand that we are all human beings journeying through the same lands together. The land then will not be your land or my land. Instead, we will we understand that we are not owners of the land but its children. All of us, no matter what our ancestry is, draw sustenance from the same Earth, are blessed by the same sun, are nurtured by the same air and sustained by the same water. And that truth is more powerful than any border or doctrine. It is what unites us all whether we will it or not.

Again, Gloria Anzaldua:

                     But the skin of the earth is seamless.
                     The sea cannot be fenced,
                el mar does not stop at borders.

Again, Joy Harjo:

Remember you are all people and all people
are you.
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.

Amen, Ase, and Blessed Be.

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