The Doctrine of Discovery, Manifest Destiny, and American Exceptionalism

February 7, 2018
Posted in Blog
February 7, 2018 Editor

Challenging Christian Hegemony

Practical tools for recognizing and resisting Christian dominance

WN: Every time I read an essay so well presented as that highlighted below (and so beyond tragic!), as a committed follower of Jesus, I know that I don’t have to wear the blame, but I do have to feel the shame. This of course does not hold for all Christians past or present, who are found virtually in every culture the world over, many millions of whom not only suffered from European “Christian Hegemony” though themselves Christian, but obviously did not participate in the the oppression of others through the Western Doctrine of Discovery with all its centuries-long horror. Again, as a white person, though I do not bear the blame for past injustices of colonization and imperial expansionism the world over, down river, as aboriginal people tell us, I am/we are in some ways obscenely advantaged beneficiaries. And though male, and also work with men who have abused partners, though I am not specifically guilty of abuse, I participate in a wider culture that is constantly objectifying women, and thus doing/legitimizing/inducing violence. There is much on my website about how this all plays out. (See here and here also.)

And of course, this kind of horror is not a past reality only, but is as contemporary as modern-day colonialism practised by corporations, modern-day slavery, and a massive host of travesties the world over tied to Empire expansionism (the United States the leading such, but also aspiring empires such as China and Russia, and all of us tied (thus implicated) to their policies), unfettered capitalism and ubiquitous human rights abuses. Sigh…

As to religion in general, literary critic Terry Eagleton writes in Reason, Faith and Revolution:

Religion has wrought untold misery in human affairs. For the most part, it has been a squalid tale of bigotry, superstition, wishful thinking, and oppressive ideology (p. xi).”

In my review of the book I write:

Those who ignore or suppress this are arguably on a par with Holocaust deniers.[note]This is my suggestion. James Carroll argues in Constantine’s Sword (book and documentary) that in fact the Church in its centuries-long antisemitism and silence towards Nazism is profoundly accessory to the Holocaust.
Eagleton adds chillingly:

I also seek to strike a minor blow on behalf of those many millions of Muslims whose creed of peace, justice, and compassion has been rubbished and traduced by cultural supremacists in the West.  We live in an age in which, since 9/11, racism is becoming once more intellectually respectable (p. 34)[/note]

He also suggests that God, if there is one, surely could have chosen some better means of redemption than religion!  Anyone possessing even a passing acquaintance with Western Church history surely has to agree, while acknowledging it is not the whole story.

Makambe K. Simamba and Shayna Jones take you all the way there in Ruined. (Photo by Jalen Saip)

My daughter-in-law, Shayna Jones, is a professional story-teller and actress. She was recently playing at Pacific Theatre (Vancouver) the role of Salima in Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning (2009) Ruined, about Congolese women utterly degraded/ruined in the 20-year battle in the Democratic Republic of the Congo between “freedom fighters” and the government for control of abundant natural resources (not least coltan – used in all kinds of electronics, including ubiquitous cell phones). The women are used as weapons, and  also abused sexually beyond obscenity. The play began February 2, and ran through to February 14,  It is a highly disturbing yet powerful production, featuring an almost all-black cast. Top Vancouver critic Colin Thomas writes of the production here (“Ruined: Don’t look away”):

It’s clear that the actors in this production by Dark Glass Theatre know that they’re working on something important, something that’s bigger than they are. Those are the only circumstances in which you get performances that are this deep and humble.

Watching Ruined is harrowing. There’s also hope—in the tale itself, but mostly in the play’s insistence that we recognize its characters’ humanity. I have no idea what to do about my cellphone dependence, but I am more aware of the suffering in which it implicates me. And I have been forcefully reminded of the evils of war, misogyny, and unfettered capitalism.

The play is but one example of ubiquitous harrowing injustices the world over.

Were a Martian to travel to our planet, and scientifically observe humanity’s treatment of “the other” in every epoch of human history, in every culture, he would in one way be justified in observing that “Man is Wolf To Man” – and hopelessly flawed to the core by violence. But he would in another way be wrong! Likewise, though religion in every era and place has been to blame for gross atrocities committed against “the other“, one is wrong to conclude (as the new atheists delight in asserting) that religion is hopelessly characterized by violence to its core. And of course, not only religion but ideology of all stripes from political to imperial has ravaged humanity; and zealous nationalism in the name of Empire has violently dominated humanity through the ages as well. Etc. In short: man is “the most dangerous animal” to be sure, but that is not the whole story either!

But still Western (European) Christianity has, and continues to have, justified untold violence in the name of Jesus.

Please read and appreciate the following highlighted article. There are also excellent resources given at the end of the article.

excerpts:

“American Progress” John Gast 1872

And God blessed them, and God said unto them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.[note]Genesis 1:28, King James Version.[/note]

We live on the Earth as part of a vast, interdependent web of life. But dominant Christianity sees the Earth not as sacred but as something to be ruled over as God commanded—i.e. discovered, occupied and made productive.  This article describes some of the direct results of the Christian belief in God-sanctioned dominion.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”[note]Matthew 28:18-20, New International Version.[/note]

This section of Scripture is known as the Great Commission. As the last recorded personal directive of Jesus to his disciples, it holds great significance to all his followers. It is the theological foundation for Christian evangelism, Crusades, and the Doctrine of Discovery. Christians have read this statement as God’s mandate to convert the world to Christianity so that the millennium could begin.

Many Native Americans, when speaking about Western civilization, Christianity and colonization, will immediately name the Doctrine of Discovery[note]Native American legal scholar and activist Steven Newcomb refers to it as the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Domination.[/note] as the root of the colonization, dispossession and genocide they have experienced from the western colonial powers throughout the Americas.[note] See, for example, “Indigenous Reflections on Christianity” available at http://christianhegemony.org/resources.[/note] The roots of the Doctrine of Discovery lie in the two biblical quotes above but it took a long time to coalesce into official western Christian policy.

Native peoples in the Americas are still fighting to resist western colonialism and reclaim their land and sovereignty. The Doctrine of Discovery still stands in their way. And the entitlement, arrogance, and righteousness it is based on is evident in the common use of the word discovery in this colonizing sense. People discover new restaurants, bars and hotspots. They discover other people’s rituals, sacred texts or sites, music or art and then feel entitled to possess them. They discover new neighborhoods with inexpensive prices and move in. This contemporary doctrine of discovery, labeled gentrification, carries a presumption of entitlement to invasion and possession just from the fact people now recognize something they were previously unaware of. They often don’t see or are oblivious to the prior residents of a neighborhood (or they may be seen as a nuisance to avoid or get rid of just at Native Americans have been). The privacy, sovereignty and rights of the people whose space they are invading are disregarded as they appropriate land, culture or spiritual practices.

American Exceptionalism

Commonly paired with the phrase “manifest destiny” and with the same roots in the Crusades and the Papal Doctrine of Discovery, American exceptionalism has been described as “a pervasive faith in the uniqueness, immutability, and superiority of the country’s founding liberal principles, accompanied by a conviction that the United States has a special destiny among nations.”[note]Deepa Kumar. Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire. Haymarket, 2012, p. 114.[/note]

Today this missionary zeal is still linked with what the US considers its responsibility to bring US-defined modernity, democracy and most recently, free markets, human rights, civil society, and humanitarian intervention to other peoples – almost always against their will and with the use of overpowering force. Those who lose in struggle with us (the Russians or Saddam Hussein) are confirmed as evil, and our every victory is taken as a sign of divine providence and the country’s exceptional goodness.

Of course, if a government sees itself as anointed by God and carrying out God’s mandate, then there is no moral or legal standard it need accept about its actual behavior. As cultural historian Robert Jewett has noted, this leads to “a problematic sense of innocence, moral superiority, and entitlement … [because] … If you believe you are already virtuous, you feel automatically entitled to reform others.”[note]Robert Jewett. Mission and Menace. Four Centuries of American Religious Zeal. Fortress, 2008. p. 101.[/note]

There is no end of statements from our most powerful leaders confirming that manifest destiny, American exceptionalism and millennial beliefs are foundations of US foreign policy. In 2003, US General Boykin, who, while in uniform, gave talks at churches around the country, declared that in his battle with a Muslim warlord in Somalia, “I knew that my God was bigger than his God. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol,” and that George Bush is “in the White House because God put him there.”[note]Deepa Kumar. Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire. Haymarket, 2012, p. 114.[/note] President Obama regularly emphasizes the belief that the United States is an exceptional, God-blessed country. In a national address on Syria on September 10, 2013 for example, he said,

Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used. America is not the world’s policeman… But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth. Thank you. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.[note] Published on Wednesday, September 11, 2013 by Common Dreams http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2013/09/11. Viewed on 7-8-15.[/note]

US domestic and foreign policy is an extension of a thousand years of Christian holy wars against Muslims, heathens, heretics, indigenous peoples, Jews, and others. These wars were carried out by military forces, “explorers,” traders, missionaries, settlers, law makers, court officials, and individuals imbued with the belief that they owned what they “discovered” and it was their God-given right to grab anything and everything that those who are inferior possessed. The doctrine of discovery is still used by law makers and judges to deny indigenous peoples rights to their lands, manifest destiny is still used to justify “humanitarian” invasions of other countries to bring them if not explicitly Christianity, then such benefits of our superior Christian society as freedom from “evil” dictators, democracy, free markets, material aid, and human rights. American exceptionalism is still the oft-used phrase to remind us that we should be unconstrained by international law because anything we do is blessed by God and therefore, by definition, beneficial and above critique.

Native peoples have been working for centuries to defend themselves against attack and dispossession justified by the Doctrine of Discovery. They are demanding that the US adopt and implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which explicitly repudiates the Doctrine of Discovery. Recently some faith-based groups in the US have stepped up to support their efforts and to support local sovereignty struggles. The Episcopalians (2009), Quakers, (Pennsylvania, 2009), Anglicans (Canada, 2010), the Unitarian Universalists (2012), and the World Council of Churches (2012) have passed resolutions rejecting the Doctrine of Discovery and calling on their congregations and members to work with local Native American groups on issues of land and sovereignty.

There are many ways to resist Christian Hegemony. Working in solidarity with indigenous groups to reject the Doctrine of Discovery, working to stop all wars, invasions, and interventions justified by the concept of manifest destiny, and rejecting all attempts to circumvent international law and human rights based on beliefs in American exceptionalism are necessary and useful ways for every one of us to get involved.

Please click on: The Doctrine of Discovery, Manifest Destiny, and American Exceptionalism

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Editor

Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.

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