Conference approves resolution on Doctrine of Discovery

Auditorium filled with people. Large screens show the 2023 Annual Conference moderator and logo
Annual Conference 2023 business session. Photo by Glenn Riegel.

By Frances Townsend

Delegates approved a resolution titled “With Actions and in Truth: A Lament on the Doctrine of Discovery.” The resolution had been adopted by unanimous consent by the Mission and Ministry Board at its spring meeting and forwarded to Annual Conference as new business item 6.

The resolution addresses injustice in the church’s history with Indigenous people, even if indirect, and encourages Brethren to learn the history, name the wrongs, recognize ways in which we have benefitted even if no harm was intended, and take time to lament that wrong. The church is called to develop relationships with Indigenous communities and seek ways to bring healing and reparation to Native people. “We commit to walk side by side with Indigenous peoples as we dream up a just future together,” the paper says.

The resolution describes the Doctrine of Discovery, which is the Christian-supported rationale for historical colonialism by Europeans around the world. This doctrine comes from a series of writings and papal decrees, particularly from the 15th century, and has influenced history up to the present day. The doctrine gave European Christians the right to invade land held by pagans, to capture, subdue, enslave or kill them, and take away their land and possessions. In the name of the church, genocide and enslavement of Native peoples around the world was perpetrated and lands seized. The original documents surrounding the Doctrine of Discovery were written by the Catholic church, but many different Christian churches adopted the idea. It is still the basis of laws today, limiting the rights and sovereignty of Native tribes in the United States.

The Church of the Brethren did not create the Doctrine of Discovery, and did not participate in the military action removing Indigenous people from the land, but Brethren forebears benefitted, the resolution noted. Brethren pioneered land that became available, often very cheaply, because Native people had been removed. The Church of the Brethren did not run any of the boarding schools that removed Native children from their families, language, and culture, forcing them to assimilate, but Brethren Volunteer Service workers served in some of those schools.  

This resolution for repentance and action asks church members to name the harms and seek to undo any systems that perpetuate harm. In passing the paper, Brethren are also calling one another to include this specific issue in the church’s peacemaking witness. The paper’s four recommendations are more descriptive than prescriptive. Each district and congregation may be led by the Holy Spirit on its own path with its Indigenous neighbors. More specific action should grow out of relationship building.  

The delegate body spent more than the scheduled time discussing the resolution, ultimately passing it by a large margin.  

Find details and documents on the Annual Conference 2023 business page.

Find additional resources related to the Doctrine of Discovery shared by Discipleship and Leadership Formation.

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