Sometimes I forget how radical Universalism really is. This idea that, as the song goes “God’s love embraces the whole human race” seems like common sense to me. But lately I have noticed that we also find in our public discourse the idea that some people are more valuable than others, even that some people do not have inherent worth and dignity. Universalism was radical hundreds of years ago when It proposed that we humans were not divided into the elect, and the rest of us doomed to an eternity of hellfire, but all were beloved by God. And though the language has changed, I have noticed that this duality is not just some historic notion from the days of Calvin, it is woven into our society, and into our laws even today.
The Doctrine of Discovery is a principle of international law dating from the late 15th century. It has its roots in a papal decree issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1452 that specifically sanctioned and promoted the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian territories and peoples:
... [W]e bestow suitable favors and special graces on those Catholic kings and princes, ... athletes and intrepid champions of the Christian faith ... to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens [an archaic term for Muslims] and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and ... to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate ... possessions, and goods, and to convert them to ... their use and profit …”[i]
After Columbus returned from America, the King and Queen of Spain went to the pope and asked for clarification about which lands could be claimed by Spain and which by Portugal. Pope Alexander VI, responded with 3 papal bulls, including the Inter caetera, which explains that
“ We have indeed learned that you, who for a long time had intended to seek out and discover certain islands and mainlands remote and unknown and not hitherto discovered by others, to the end that you might bring to the worship of our Redeemer and the profession of the Catholic faith their residents and inhabitants, …you, with the wish to fulfill your desire, chose our beloved son, Christopher Columbus, a man assuredly worthy …with divine aid and with the utmost diligence sailing in the ocean sea, discovered certain very remote islands and even mainlands that hitherto had not been discovered by others; wherein dwell very many peoples living in peace, and, as reported, going unclothed, and not eating flesh. …. In the islands and countries already discovered are found gold, spices, and very many other precious things of divers kinds and qualities. … you have purposed with the favor of divine clemency to bring under your sway the said mainlands and islands with their residents and inhabitants and to bring them to the Catholic faith."
and so he gives the Catholic kings of Spain claim to the entire New World to Spain and Africa and India to Portugal.
And so in just a few pages the Popes of European Christianity wiped out tens of thousands years of prior claim by native nations to this continent to the Catholic Kings of Spain.
The principles found in those papal bulls became enshrined in US law in the 1823 United States Supreme Court decision of Johnson v. McIntosh. In 1773 and 1775, Thomas Johnson, bought land from Piankeshaw Indian tribes. Then in 1818, William M'Intosh bought the same land from the United States Congress. When they realized this, Johnson's heirs sued M'Intosh in the United States District Court to recover the land. The District Court ruled for M'Intosh, reasoning that M'Intosh's title was valid since it was granted by Congress and that the Piankeshaw could not legally sell the land because they never “owned” it.
The Supreme Court upheld the finding for M'Intosh, ruling that individuals could not buy land directly from American Indians because the United States government had acquired ultimate title to Indian lands through the "doctrine of discovery." Chief Justice John Marshall's wrote in his opinion that European nations had assumed "ultimate dominion" over the lands of America under the Doctrine of Discovery, and that upon "discovery" the Indians lost "their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations," and retained only a right of "occupancy" in their lands. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story wrote, "As infidels, heathens, and savages, they (the Indians) were not allowed to possess the prerogatives belonging to absolute, sovereign and independent nations." The Court concluded that European and U.S. practice treated American Indians "as an inferior race of people, without the privileges of citizens, and under the perpetual protection and pupilage of the government." [ii]Chief Oren Lyons says of the Johnson v M’Intosh decision “this is where they installed it in US Law”
There is no question this is one of the most disturbing parts of our history as a nation. It is so disturbing, in fact, that the mind rejects it. Or rationalizes it. Because everyone was doing it, right? During the period of history when Columbus “discovered” America, colonization was a powerful phenomenon guiding international movement around the globe. And right at the beginning of this international land grab the pope himself gave it the religious stamp of approval. This idea that the highest authority in Christian religious institution would call on “intrepid champions of the Christian faith ... to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever” is, frankly, what gives Christianity a bad name. This is what Rebecca Parker was talking about when she said “The way the name of God has been so easily on the lips of those who bless acts of war is only the most recent example of people leaning on God to rationalize human actions that are fare from holy”
In Australia and other areas it was the legal concept of Terra Nullius or “empty land” which allowed European Nations to “Discover” those lands. The land was here to discover because there were no Christian people here, no REAL people, therefore the land was empty. In the words of Oran Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Turtle clan of the Onondaga Nation, all this rests on the notion that native people are “something less than people, they are not eligible for human rights” [iii]
There is hardly an atrocity that can be imagined that was not committed during this period of aggressive colonization and these acts cannot be undone. It will always be a part of the history of our country and of the human race that must be remembered so that it can never happen again. And yet we long to forget. We long to imagine that this is a historical anecdote that has nothing to do with us today. And yet most of the land we now inhabit in this country was land we took by force form other peoples.
Each year when we gather, as a people of faith, on this Sunday before thanksgiving, we have to choose what story we tell. For probably 60 years off and on this congregation has observed the tradition of donning period costumes and gathering to celebrate Thanksgiving dressed as pilgrims. We have a box of beautiful hand made hats and collars attesting to this fact. But the last time we gathered together in joyful thanksgiving in our hats and collars we knew something was not quite right. We know that the story of happy pilgrims and native Americans sharing their harvest bounty is held within a larger story in which those pilgrims were part of a systemic call “to invade, search out, capture, vanquish.” And we know this story ends in a trail of tears.
When we remember “what comes next” after the harvest celebration, we don’t really feel like celebrating any more. As I was reading about the doctrine of discovery to prepare for this morning‘s service. I felt overwhelmed by grief, overwhelmed by the magnitude of what has happened, and overwhelmed by how we cannot change this story that is already written. But our Unitarian heritage calls us to faithfulness to the truth. And if there is more than one version of a story to be told, our faith calls us to listen even to the hard stories, the difficult stories, because we believe in the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and we know we don’t get to pick and choose which truth we should include.
I found some circumspection in these words by the UU minister Alice Blair Wesley who wrote “It is terribly arrogant to suppose that because we can see, with hindsight, mistakes of the generations before us, it's okay to demonize them. Without demonizing them, we need to be as clear as we can be about their gifts to us and their mistakes, because the consequences of both still shape us.”
The problem is that in subtle and not so subtle ways we are still living out the legacy of the doctrine of discovery today. The 1832 decision has never been overturned, and has been referred to in legal decisions in Federal courts as recently as 2010[iv] Chief Oren Lyons mentioned a case in 2007 of a land dispute in New York, and said that when the issue came before the supreme court the Doctrine of Discovery was a precedent cited in the very first footnote.
Are the foreign policies toward “undeveloped nations” based on the premise that these undeveloped peoples are not sovereign? That they need to be “under the perpetual protection and pupillage of the government”? Is “undeveloped” just the modern way of saying “savages” The Doctrine of Discovery is still used to day to take mineral rights from native lands or expropriate their water resources. I know many of you who own land here in the County have wrestled with the decision about whether or not to lease the mineral rights to your land. The Native lands have no such right, because of this doctrine. How can we justify selling of someone else’s land, and stripping their mineral rights against the will of the people who live there unless we believe that indigenous people occupying their ancestral lands have no sovereignty. And how did they lose their sovereignty? As Chief Justice John Marshall's said in his 1832 opinion stated that European nations had assumed "ultimate dominion" over the lands of America under the Doctrine of Discovery, and that upon "discovery" the Indians lost "their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations," and retained only a right of "occupancy" in their lands.
Universalism is the radical notion that there are no inferior peoples, no superior people, just people, all of whom have inherent worth and dignity. We do not believe in a God who commands us to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and ... to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate ... possessions, and goods, and to convert them to ... [our] use and profit”
I have heard UU historians and theologians say that in a day when there is very little talk about hellfire and damnation in the mainstream media the importance of Universalism has faded. But I encourage you to keep your ears out from political decisions that effect the lives of millions of people that are based on the assumption that the lives of some folks are just worth more than the lives of other folks. The assumption that some folks should have sovereignty and others should be under the patronage of other peoples.
So we, as people of conscience, are in the difficult position of knowing this violent and exploitative past, and even more difficult, knowing that these principles are still at work in the world today. WE need something to put our hand to help us make sure we are on the right path for the future. At the Justice GA this past June in Phoenix where I represented this congregation, our local partners asked the UUA to pass a business resolution passed a resolution repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery and calling on all our fellow Unitarian Universalists to study the Doctrine and eliminate all vestiges from the current-day policies, programs, theologies, and structures of Unitarian Universalism.
"BE IT RESOLVED that we, the delegates of the 2012 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association, repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery as a relic of colonialism, feudalism, and religious, cultural, and racial biases having no place in the modern day treatment of indigenous peoples."
It says, among other things “Affirming that indigenous peoples are equal to all other peoples, while recognizing the right of all peoples to be different, to consider themselves different, and to be respected as such.” Said Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray: “Our partners, Tonatierra, who are a key partner with us in the Arizona Immigration Ministry as well as the work that the Unitarian Universalist Association did around SP1070 They made a specific request of the delegates at GA. And that was to educate ourselves on the Doctrine of Discovery and to pass a business resolution that would call on President Obama to fully implement, without exception, the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous People.” Tupac Enrique noted that “The US is the last country on this planet that haven't stepped in to endorse, full endorsement and implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples advocate for our government to fully implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” This treatise was an aspirational declaration (which means that it is not legally binding.) passed by the United Nations in 2007 and to which the United States became a signatory in 2010. President Obama’s signature on UNDRIP on December 16th, 2010 but it has endorsed without any implementation. If it were submitted as a treaty to the US Senate, it would give it the force of law.
2012 is the year The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (Eleventh Session), will address the Special Theme: "The Doctrine of Discovery: its enduring impact on indigenous peoples and the right to redress for past conquests [v] Could this be a moment of Turning for the status of Indigenous persons around the world? Chief Oren Lyons says questioning Doctrine of Discovery in international law “Really shakes the root… of colonization”[vi] Which must be why we have avoided public discussion of this Doctrine because so much is built on it. We have in fact built our very presence here on this legal precedent, these papal bulls in terms of who can claim land. This is huge. It’s like when you realize that not only is your shower leaking, but that it’s been leaking for 400 years, and probably the wood underneath is not so stable any more. We have built hundreds of years of law on this Doctrine, It would send many things into ambiguity if this doctrine were re-examined.
When I was in Canada a few years back a colleague encouraged me to go visit the “women are persons” monument. The monument is a tableau of larger-than-life statues of the five Alberta women who fought a legal and political battle in the 1920s to have women recognized as persons. Because of their efforts, in 1929 the Privy council ruled that the word “person” includes both men and women. It made quite an impression on me, standing among the statues of these activists, to remember there was a time when women were not considered persons. It hardly seems possible now, does it? Women like me who lived in New York State could not own property until the “Married Women‘s Property Act” of 1838. Imagine the upheaval such a great legal turning must have caused in the minds and hearts and realities of our women, of men, of nations was huge. And yet today this seems very ordinary and reasonable. As people of conscience we can not refuse to reconsider the structures of our society when the moral foundation they are built on is rotten. We cannot overlook the doctrine of discovery and the “entire framework of laws that rest on the Doctrine of Discovery”[vii] just because the implications of repudiating it would ripple so far and wide.
Our religious heritage does not allow us to walk away from this issue, not only in spite of but perhaps because of the magnitude of what this could mean. Because we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Because we believe that “God’s love embraces the Whole Human Race” and because we believe those things, we know that any legal question about the personhood of any human being on this planet has only one possible answer.
This week, as we gather to celebrate Thanksgiving, I challenge us to do so with two stories in our mind. Not only the story of Indigenous peoples and recent immigrants to their land sitting down together in a feast of harvest gratitude, but also the story of peoples coming together right now in 2012 to in dialogue and understanding. It is time finally to not only proclaim, but to bind into law the worth and dignity of every person.
[i] Pope Nicholas V issued to King Alfonso V of Portugal, the bull Romanus Pontifex.
[iv] http://www.uua.org/multiculturalism/dod/230890.shtml Report from the UUA Board of Trustees on the Doctrine of Discovery January 2012
[vii] (UUA Discussion guide lesson 2) http://www.uua.org/multiculturalism/dod/230890.shtml