Photo: Public domain.
A papal bull of Pope Urban VIII, 1637.
Photo by Public domain.

A task force mandated by Synod 2012 to examine the Doctrine of Discovery will be starting its work next week with a two-day meeting at the Christian Reformed Church Indian Center in Denver, Colo.

Synod 2012 affirmed a report calling for the CRC to examine, better understand, and respond to the Doctrine of Discovery, a theory of law on colonial expansion that has been used for more than 500 years.

Synod also instructed the task force to examine the document’s historical impact and its continuing effects on indigenous peoples in Canada and the United States.

The CRC’s Board of Trustees (BOT) formed the task force in September 2012.

“This task force came out of a recommendation of the Creation Stewardship Task Force that was discussed at Synod 2012,” says Mike Hogeterp, a task force member who serves as director of the CRC’s Centre for Public Dialogue in Canada.

The Doctrine of Discovery is a theory of international laws justifying colonial expansion into North and South America, arising from a series of papal bulls (declarations) issued issued by the Catholic Church granting European powers the right to take over land in North America.

Besides the papal bulls, the doctrine emerged from the reflections of political philosophers and legal precedents.

The U.S. Supreme Court, for instance, dealt with the issue in 1823 and issued a series of decisions upholding the right of newcomers to the U.S. to lay claim to the lands, ultimately forcing Native Americans onto reservations.

“The roots of the doctrine may date back 500 years but it’s implications remain fresh in indigenous communities,” says Hogeterp, adding that the CRC’s Canadian Ministries have been putting an emphasis on justice and reconciliation with indigenous peoples.

The nine-member task force will address such questions as how and why the Doctrine of Discovery came to be and what was the role of the church and European social/cultural attitudes in its creation and propagation.

The task force will likely make recommendations to the BOT in 2014 on how the CRC ought to respond to the Doctrine of Discovery. It also will conduct a number of hearings.

“I feel this is an important issue for the CRCNA because as a denomination we have been trying to grow in our diversity, especially in leadership, both in our local churches as well as for the entire denomination,” says Mark Charles, a Navajo writer, CRC member and Native Rights activist who is member of the task force.

“In order for us to make headway in this growth we need to understand how we have allowed doctrines, like the Doctrine of Discovery, to mold and influence our thinking, our actions, our structures and our theology,” Charles says.


It is instructive to understanding the changes in practical CRCNA governance to note that the proposal for this task force study came not from an overture sent to synod by any classis or congregation but by the report of the Creation Stewardship Task Force (which reported to Synod 2012) -- and that composition of this task force (re Doctrine of Discovery) was formed by the CRC Board of Trustees, again not Synod itself, nor by the classes.

This is troubling. Increasingly, higher level CRCNA decisions are being made by a very few people who tend to have semi-perpetual positions of practical power/authority. The result is, cannot be otherwise, that the denominational level is less and less directed from the congregations (even through the classes) and more and more directed by the personal perspectives of a very few. And as this trend has progressed, denominational decisions (increasingly not made by synod) have become more and more "out of sync" with the perspectives of CRC congregations.

Take this Doctrine of Discovery as an example. Certainly, the Doctrine of Discovery can be said to be associated with past injustices. But what can't be said to be associated with past injustices. Any serious student of world history is aware that the current world political configuration (the various nations being what they are) result from, among other things, war, personal injustice, public injustice, political injustice, murder, starvation, torture, etc. Indeed, one of the CRCNA's own confessions, the Belgic Confession, also written about 500 years ago (correlating with the age of the Doctrine of Discovery), was a response to Spanish authorities who, in concert with Roman Catholic authorities, slaughtered the ancestors of many CRC members. Those who confessed to their heresy were given the mercy of being killed then burned, and those who wouldn't confess were burned alive. And this is only one example of the millions of injustices that comprise the actual history of Europe (and the rest of the world) since the birth of Christ. And before then, it was worse yet.

So, given all of this human horror, how is it that the CRCNA, at the denominational level, has found its way to putting the spotlight on this particular centuries old legal doctrine? I would suggest this decision emanates from the particular political perspectives of a relatively small group of folks who increasingly determine the denominational agenda. But, I hear in protest, this a justice issue? Well, sure, I guess it is. On the other hand, all issues are justice issues. "Justice" (the juridical modelity if you like) is a facet of all human actions and decisions. I've practiced law for 33 years. I can unload thousands of justice issues for the CRCNA to take up at a denominational level, but decline out of respect for existing governance structure of the CRCNA (see, e.g., article 28 which requires that we take up ecclesiastical matters only) and my disinclination to demand that my particular pet political issues become the spotlighted issues of my denomination. And tens of thousands of other CRC members do the same.

In that sense, this is about humility. One could even specifically say it is about the refusal to attempt to "lord it over others" (which is actually prohibited by CO Article 85).

I'm quite sure of course that those who believe the Doctrine of Discovery to be an important issue are quite sincere. And I suppose it is an important issue in a sense. But so are millions (literally) of other issues that the denomination could take up but doesn't. Again, this is about picking and choosing which few issues are granted the privilege of the denominational spotlight. There are plenty of ecclesiastical issues that could fill the denominational spotlight space, and the entirety of the time synodical delegates have in their one week out of 52. Given that, the study of a 500 year old legal doctrine, even if it is fresh in the memories of indigenous communities, simply shouldn't receive the denominational spotlight. If it should, then perhaps there should also be a task force to study (and then presumably pronounce a round a condemnation points) the slaughter of Dutch Calvinists during the time of Guido de Bres. And a million other European injustices. And a billion other injustices from other parts of the world (after all, we shouldn't focus on our own Dutch people).

The solution to this problem won't come from the few who make these kinds of decisions for the denomination. The solution must come from the congregations, and classes. For the sake of the CRC, I pray that we all take note and require change. If we don't, the CRC will increasingly become more and more an organization that pontificates on stuff like what percentage of scientists believe what as to global warming, and whether the House of Representatives Agriculture Bill should be supported, and less and less an organization that deals with "ecclesiastical matters." And its theological perspectives will increasingly bend to political perspectives -- again, those held by a very few of us who happen to have the practical reigns of the denomination.

Report Abuse 

Entirely agree with you, Doug. While taking up more and more trendy issues (trendy among those quite out-of-touch church leaders and a few others of a certain perspective), those leaders and their decisions are leaving a great many of us cold. Is that because church members are apathetic? I think not. I think it's because most church members don't see the Church of Jesus Christ as being the kind of layer-upon-layer corporate entity that the CRC has become, and don't see that kind of church as simply and obediently following Christ's commands for his Church.

I work as a musician in another denomination that came out of the Reformation, so I no longer often attend CRC services. And I find much of The Banner positively annoying. Truth be told, though I'm still officially a member of the CRC I no longer have any interest at all in the CRC as an institution, and have been thusly disengaged for a long time. I keep up with what they're doing because it's part of my job is as a journalist for a publication in Canada. But time and again I shake my head and/or roll my eyes at what they have wrought. I deliberately say "they" -- NOT what God has wrought.

Report Abuse 

As I understand it, the impetus for this study came from a member of Classis Red Mesa, himself a native. One does not need to read far in native voices to see the prominence this issue has in the Native American community. If it is important to them, it probably merits a fair hearing and not a quick dismissal.

While at first blush it may seem that the Doctrine of Discovery comes from a distant time and so is of limited relevance to how we live today, the reality is that this doctrine has served as the basis for a series of SCOTUS decisions, that have served to define federal government relations with native peoples. The Doctrine has been used to seize economic resources and most notoriously to provide the rationale for the Indian removal to reservations.

Going forward, the Doctrine is used to define the question of Indian sovereignty, and the degree an extent of native control over their own economic resources. It is a question, in one sense, of property rights. The question of justice is far more contemporary than we might initially think.

Report Abuse 

Bill Harris' comment somewhat makes my original point. The original impetus for this task force may well come from one person (and I believe too it does, he having been on the Creation Stewardship Task Force). So again the question is, why are denominational policies, activities and positions being driven/made by so few people?

The last SCOTUS (Supreme Court) decision mentioning the Doctrine of Discovery was in the early 1800's I believe -- nearly two centuries ago. Certainly, one can argue into infinity about the interactions between the US government and the many, many different native tribes tribes that existed in this continent pre-United States, but that kind of argument can be had about thousands and thousands of historical scenarios, including but not limited to the Israelites taking the land flowing with milk and honey from various Palestinian tribes.

And to what end does the denomination study this? So that a tiny, ethnic Dutch denomination, begun after the US government policy as to the native peoples was in place (and decades after the last Supreme Court mention of DOD was made), can, in 2013, collectively beat on its chest in repentance about injustices not of their making that are undoubtedly going to be declared out of this study?

To another (but related) point: Exactly what particular expertise will the Synod to which this study is presented have about this political theory/legal issue? I can probably understand a group of Christian jurists or lawyers pontificating about this (although I'm not sure to what end), but a body predominantly made of persons with theology degrees and the occupational experience of being church pastors? If this is a "property rights" issue, what would the synod's credentials be in property law and political theory (to mention just a couple of expertise areas required)?

And then as to the practical realities in all of this: so if this report declares that the US government wrongly took land from native tribes, will the CRCNA then order or even recommend that its members who live on those lands to give them back to the native tribes? And if so, which ones? Would they be ordered to give the land to the tribes who hunted those lands just before Americans settled on them, or to the tribes/people that they had displaced, or the tribes/people that in turn they had displaced (etc)??? After all, native tribes committed their own injustices.

And finally, should a CRC Task Force be formed to take up the question of the displacement of the Palestinian peoples when God gave Palestine to the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt? Or the Vikings takeover of England, or the subjugation of many European groups by the Roman Empire, or the (again, infinite list). And in all of those Task Force reports, exactly what would be the intended end result?

Report Abuse 

I would agree with you that there is little utility in examining the Doctrine of Discovery through the lens of lament, what has been done etc. If my reading of current material is correct, then we should probably look at this more in the context of establishment of Sovereignty and rights for Native communities, and especially with their relationship with the federal government in Ottawa or Washington. As I noted earlier, these questions turn on property questions of self-management, but also involve issues such as adoption, foster care and handling of domestic abuse cases as recently reported in the Wall Street Journal.

The question, of course, is whether such concerns are those that belong to us as a denomination. In the upper Midwest, in eastern Washington, and certainly with Classis Red Mesa, these questions have some practical bearing. If we can consider the question from our own experience and engagement, I believe that even a small, still ethnically Dutch denomination might be able to say something.

Report Abuse 

Anything that happens starts with one person. But what is important is that Synod, a large body of diverse persons delegated by their local classes, affirmed the creating of this task force. It is owned by the ruling body of the CRC. It was not a decision made by "a very few people" nor ""out of sync"" with the perspectives of CRC congregations."

This is also an "ecclesiastical matter." The CRC has had for some time had a number of ministries in Native American/First Nations contexts in both the US and Canada. And the history of this work is complex. According these brothers and sisters in Christ, our continuing ministries in these places require a better understanding of the "Doctrine of Discovery" and its continuing effects. When CRC members call out for listening and understanding to enable and improve our witness to God's grace, we ought to listen.

Report Abuse 

Mike: When Synod is one week and their schedule full plus (two weeks isn't enough time), it doesn't take a lot to get something like this through (delegates will say "okay, we'll do a study, next item please..."). Do you really think even a small minority of synodical delegates understood anything about the Doctrine of Discovery when they gave their "OK" vote to this task force request? Besides, how could they say no to a "native peoples issue." Just what kind of people would they be to do that?

And even if more than a small minority of Synod 2012 did have a clue about the Doctrine of Discovery, this request still skipped the usual channels? This was not something coming from the classes or the congregations. It was instead done at the synodical level. I would even argue, despite no one making the point of order on the floor, that taking this action violated church order rules (Article 85 even if not 27, although I think both). Certainly, this was quite unusual.

As to working with native peoples (your justification for calling it ecclesiastical as per Article 27), the CRC works with all kinds of people across the planet. Are we doing task force studies as to the Japanese (the US nuked them), the various African countries (slavery?!?!?!?), eastern European countries (crushed by the USSR), and all other countries who have histories filled with injustices? We work with them after all. And how about examining the OT Israelites displacement of the native peoples after their exodus from Egypt? That actually would be ecclesiastical.

One politically active CRC member and his politically active son called out for this particular "listening and understanding." There are many other individual CRC members who over the years have called out for many other things but they are ignored (which is inevitable). What is different about this one is that is is a fashionable issue, in the politically correct sense, and the CRC has become increasingly political, wanting to fit in with the Ron Sider styled, left wing of the political spectrum, political scene. In doing that, and this task force study, the denomination finds itself more than a little out of sync with its congregations across the country. I'm on the west coast and come from NW Iowa. Folks will be polite about this but still will have their brow furrowed when they say "why in the world are we doing that?" It was thought that the congregations supported the Belhar also, but that turned out to be very much not so either. Staying "in sync" is, in part at least, why overtures come from congregations and classes. The impetus for the Belhar and this did not. And the effect of that approach was, is, and always will be, unnecessary division.

Finally, Mike: what do you think is the ultimate purpose of this? What action do you expect we will take assuming the report comes back saying what we both know the report will say? What gains, for anyone, are to be had? This is a legal doctrine. Will we be lobbying for political (which is legal) action? Will we seek to overturn some 1823 Supreme Court decision? What's the end game here?

Report Abuse 

Starting with your last comment, the end desire is understanding and, therefore, better ministry and relationships with Native Americans/First Nations people.

Doctrine of Discovery was covered briefly in the Creation Care Report. Every delegate should have read the report long before hand and therefore known what it was about. As a past delegate, I find your cynicism about Synod and it's delegates offensive. Yes, Synod works hard to get it done in one week. But to say that delegates are unprepared for the work is both mean and wrong.

You're concern re: CO Art. 27 and 85 show a misunderstanding regarding Reformed polity. The CRC is governed by its officebearers. In Classis and Synod, the officebearers still govern. Classis or Synod can therefore deal with any matter "that concern its churches in common", whether it comes from a congregation or classis. Synod can do whatever Synod chooses to do. There is no requirement for items to come from a congregation or classis, only that it may. (This is unlike the US judicial system where the Supreme Court call only rule on cases which are appealed to it from a lower court.)

Report Abuse 

Mike: Your offense notwithstanding, I'll stand by my comments as to the busy-ness of Synodical delegates and the inclination of many, even most delegates, not to be thoroughly informed about everything put before it. I was a delegate to Synod 1992, and an extremely conscientious one. In addition, I was a practicing attorney, quite used to reviewing a lot of materials. And I spent many weeks (months really) in preparation for Synod (I was on the committee to decide whether to ratify WICO). Still, I didn't thoroughly review all the materials that other committees had assigned to them, and certainly not thoroughly. I needed to especially focus on my committee's tasks. And I can quite confidently say I was not unusual in that regard, and even that I probably reviewed more than most other delegates.

And that was a two-week Synod.

Beyond that, I would suggest the section in the Creation Stewardship report on the the Doctrine of Discovery was, frankly, an immaterial section to the charge of that study committee. I remember reading the report before Synod and saying to myself, "so someone found a way to get their pet political peeve into a report that would go to synod." I couldn't figure out why the Doctrine of Discovery should end up on that report. It seemed gratuitous and it was.

Beyond that, if a delegate did review the section in the Creation Stewardship report that discussed the Doctrine of Discovery, he/she would have found a pretty incomplete treatment of the doctrine. To really make any drilled down sense of it, one would also have had to do a good bit of independent research, including but not limited to reading an 1834 Supreme Court opinion (which I did) and others that that are barely readable to most who haven't gotten through law school at a minimum and spent time reading the difficult style found in early 1800 court opinions.

So you say the end goal is "understanding." I have talked with with native peoples who are still hung up with the Doctrine of Discovery (and always will be) and with native people who think its something some natives people just don't want to let go, to their own disadvantage. Still others want nothing to do with native tribes, having decided to integrate fully in American culture in order to "get on with life" (Dutch people have the same varied responses to the proposition of giving up the wooden shoes or at least the distinct comforts of Dutch/American communities). The world's oldest displaced people, the Palestinians, have the same reactions. Some still complain about the disparate treatment of Isaac and Ishmael and some say "let's move on." I'm just not sure how this is so not understood, nor why it takes a task force appointed by the BOT to study it, except to appeal to a political perspective, which I think is the driving reason for this task force.

I'll also stand by my understanding of CO Art 27 and 85. Article 27 says the assemblies should take up ecclesiastical matters only. You may say that they can deal with any matters "that concern its churches in common," but that doesn't negate the ecclesiastical limitation expressed in the CO article. Otherwise, for example, Synod should/could take up the question of whether the interstate commerce clause should be as broadly construed as the US Supreme Court has construed it. Certainly that affects every member in every CRC church, not to mention the churches in common.

But in a real way, I admit you are correct when you say "Synod CAN [emphasis mine] do whatever Synod chooses to do." It can, that is, CAN. Because it is, if analogized to the US federal system, all branches of the federal government (certainly both the judicial and the legislative). But that doesn't mean it should, that is, SHOULD. Nor does that mean it SHOULD violate its own rules, even though it CAN and DOES violate its own rules. When church order rules puts a subject matter jurisdiction fence around Synod, it is literally up to the integrity of each Synod to respect that -- or not. Again, Synod is its own "supreme court" -- there is no appeal from it. Thus, if it the will of the majority of synodical delegates that it will ignore one or more of its own rules, it will. But that still doesn't mean it should, nor that it is not, in an objective sense, violating its own rules when it ignores the plain meaning of those rules.

BUT, there are effects to Synod disregarding its own rules. If it does it enough, CRC members lose and will lose respect for it. In the long run, that is corrosive. Pretty clear evidence of this is found in what happened with the Belhar. The initiative for it did not come from the congregations or classes. The denomination powers that be pitched it with everything that it could muster but the denomination powers that be were obviously not in sync with the CRC membership as a whole.

Again, when synod violates its own rules, it loses credibility, it causes members to no longer care about denominational matters and focus only on local matters (and is that not happening?). It causes really good elders to be unwilling to stand for appointment as a synodical delegate (and is that not happening?), which of course in turn exacerbates the base problem. Unfortunately, it seems there is a great deal of push back when this reality is talked about. The standing powers that be within the denomination, who exert a highly disproportionate amount of influence even with synods, don't want to hear this message, and when they do hear it, they seem to go into denial. And that does not bode well for the CRCNA future. If this course doesn't change, the bleeding will simply continue and the CRCNA will become pretty much what the WCRC already is -- a purported church institution that is more political than ecclesiastical, with a knee jerk left wing political agenda that can be recognized miles away. As least some will be happy with that.

I'm yet hopeful this can be avoided. :-)

Report Abuse