This Land is Your Land?


preached at the First Parish of Sudbury, Unitarian Universalist on November 4, 2012

At the heart of my sermon this morning is a theological concept called the Doctrine of Discovery. As this is a term I imagine that many of you are unfamiliar with I want to begin by explaining it. If you can hang with me for a couple of moments I promise we will move quickly away from the didactic.

The General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association passed a responsive resolution this June repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery. The assembly passed the resolution at the request of the organizations we have been working with in Arizona to oppose that state’s racist anti-immigrant laws. When we began to work with them in 2010 we discovered 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 the Americas prompted European political and religious leaders to develop what indigenous activists refer to as the “Christian Doctrine of Discovery.” This is the belief that because the lands of the Western Hemisphere were without Christians prior to 1492 they were free for the taking upon “discovery.” For indigenous activists in Arizona the issues at stake in the state’s racist laws are as much political as theological.

The history of Christian Doctrine of Discovery can be traced to a series of 15th century 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 by Spain and Portugal.

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 is particularly true as it relates to indigenous property claims. A recently as 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court has cited the doctrine in their decisions.

To aid us in our reflection on the doctrine I offer Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land is Your Land” as a text. You are probably familiar with the song’s first verses:

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 is, on the surface, a problematic text to take as a starting point for a discussion about 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 call by various 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” unconsciously excludes indigenous peoples and asserts European dominance over indigenous lands and communities.

There are, however, others verses of the text. One towards the end usually gets forgotten. I certainly did not learn it in school:

As I was walking — I saw a sign there
And that sign said — private property
But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing!
Now 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.

We should not engage in this work 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 ancestors have inflicted upon the Earth afflict us as well.

I was reminded of this past summer when, with two of my friends, I was detained crossing the border between Detroit and Windsor, Canada. Our passports were in order, we were not in possession of illegal substances and we are not terrorists. Nonetheless, we were detained.

Now, I do not know how many of you have ever been detained but I can tell you that the experience is not pleasant. The entire process is designed to dehumanize, even if you are a United States citizen and have what one of my friends jokingly refer to as the “complexion connection.”

From the time the border agents ordered us out of our car to the time they gave us back the keys we were treated more like things being processed than human beings. The guards did not smile. The guards did not make conversation. The guards did not use our names. The guards either snapped orders, “You, take everything out of your pockets and go through that door,” or ignored us entirely.

Our detention ended relatively quickly. Within a little less than an hour they were able to set a drug dog on our car, interrogate us briefly about our activities in Canada and Detroit and send us on our way.

Such an experience is mild, almost not worth mentioning, in comparison to the horrors that the United States government inflicts upon so-called undocumented immigrants. We were not separated from our families. We were not deported. We were not directly threatened with violence.

I say directly because the threat of violence was always present. If we had refused to stop our car we probably would have been shot. If we had declined to enter the door when we were told to enter we most likely would have been beaten. The entire system of border creation and enforcement is predicated upon violence. If we do not go along with that system, it does not matter who we are, we will suffer its violence.

The conversation that we Unitarian Universalists have entered into about the Doctrine of Discovery will 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 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 school books. I did not learn about it in elementary school, high school, college or seminary. I have heard no mention of it in the mass media. But despite this in remains present within United States case law and, more importantly, within the way most European Americans think about our relationship to the land.

Waking up to the Doctrine of Discovery is like the character Neo taking the red pill in the movie “Matrix.” Maybe you remember the scene. Neo is a hacker on the run from what appears to be black suited government agents. He is rescued by another hacker and taken to a safe house. There he is told that everything he knows about the world is wrong and offered two choices. He can take a blue pill and wake up back in his own home safe, his whole experience of flight and his new knowledge merely a feverish dream. Or he can take a red pill and wake up to true reality. Neo chooses the red pill and discovers that the world he inhabits is an illusion and that human beings are not free, they are an energy source for a society of autonomous intelligent machines.

Waking up to the Doctrine of Discovery is a similarly radical experience. As I have learned about it I have come to understand that it structures the world which I inhabit. Consider the issue of immigration. The whole debate around immigration is predicated upon the belief that the United States government is the legitimate sovereign of a large part of what is now called the North American continent, the Hawaiian islands and an assortment of Atlantic and Pacific territories. This government has demarcated particular borders and then decided who can and cannot cross those borders. It then uses violence and artificial physical barriers, which are a form of violence on the land, to enforce those borders.

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 Arizona is part of the Uto-Aztecan lingual region which stretches from parts of Oregon to Honduras. For thousands of years members of the Uto-Aztecan lingual 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.

As we engage in this work of re-imagining we Unitarian Universalists can reach out to begin to enter into right relationship with our indigenous brethren. We Unitarian Universalists are the institutional descendants of the original religious institutions of the colonizers of Massachusetts. The Unitarian church in Plymouth started out as the church of the Mayflower pilgrims. Many of our congregations throughout the Boston area, including this one, began as churches of the Puritan colonizers.

I am not sure what right relationship with the indigenous peoples who our religious ancestors forcibly removed from their lands will ultimately look like. I do know that we have begun the process. We took an important step when we passed our Responsive Resolution repudiating the doctrine. Our Unitarian Universalist Association is taking another by advocating for the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples by the United States government. These actions are parts of a conversation with our indigenous brethren about what is necessary for healing the ancient and festering wounds of colonization.

A congregation like this one can attempt to do this by reaching out to the indigenous peoples whose land your inhabit. This may not be easy. It will require self-reflection and wrestling with the ways in which we who are the descendants of the European colonizers have ourselves been colonized by the border system and the Doctrine of Discovery.

Still, it can begin with something as simple as phone call. There are indigenous communities and community centers throughout the continent. Here in Massachusetts there is a state-wide organization, the Massachusetts Center for Native American Awareness, that represents many of the area’s tribal nations. You can call them up and ask to meet with one of their representatives. If you enter into the relationship with good intentions, and the commitment from our religious association to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery and support indigenous rights, an opportunity to make your relationship right will, perhaps, eventually present itself.

Meanwhile, we Unitarian Universalists can continue to work to rid our imaginations of the imprint of the Doctrine of Discovery and the border system. In doing so we may cease to think people as immigrants but 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.

Amen and Blessed Be!

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