Did the Doctrine of Discovery cause or justify greed and exploitation of native peoples? It’s unlikely the Pope received a flash of spontaneous illumination telling him to initiate colonization. Given the timing, it appears the Europeans created the Doctrine of Discovery as a religious justification or a divine mandate for the colonization process. The Vatican used religion to justify a political purpose, a misuse of religion.
Moving from the 15th to the 21st century, in our Unitarian Universalist world, does our religion inform or justify our politics? Do we take Unitarian Universalist principles and apply them to political issues? On the other hand, are our minds made up and we cast a divine mandate onto our politics?
Philocrates, actually Chris Walton, editor of UU World, says, “The danger is not that Unitarian Universalists derive their political values from their religious commitments, but that they sometimes dress up their political values in religious clothing . . . It’s a way of claiming extra legitimacy for a political opinion by treating it as divinely or at least religiously mandated.” Blog 12-26-02
For instance, we affirm the goal of world community. Some may believe the best way to achieve world community is via free markets and globalization. Others may feel open borders are the best way to go. Still others may think the United Nations is the best way to achieve world community.
But what if people who had already decided the United Nations was a perfect organization joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation to make sure nobody questioned whether the UN was the best and only way? Now we have an ideology: politics joined with religion. “The . . . danger of a political ideology that pretends to be religiously motivated is that it demonizes its political opponents,” says Walton. Not a way to respect the inherent worth and dignity of others.
Another feature of ideology is that one must use any method to further one’s cause. The end justifies the means. Ideologues use propaganda. They cherry pick facts to fit the case. They use emotional appeals rather than reason.
Returning to the Doctrine of Discovery issue, the Unitarian Universalist Association apparently believes the Doctrine of Discovery caused oppression of indigenous people, therefore repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery will end it. There is a video on the UUA website, supposedly a grandfather explaining to his grandchild the evils of the Doctrine. The video illustrates that repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery has become an ideology because the video is propaganda rather than a free and responsible search for truth. One piece of evidence for the persistence of the Doctrine of Discovery the video cites is that the early settlers in the northeast named streets and towns Canaan. This proof rests on the dubious assumption the early settlers recognized a connection between the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites and the exploitation of the Indians. However in the United States, there are 11 cities named Canaan (representing conquest), 25 named Salem (representing peace), and 49 named Greenville (representing prosperity). Proving the United States is four times more interested in prosperity and twice as interested in peace as in conquest? Or since the Canaanites invented the alphabet, the settlers were vested in universal literacy.
When we Unitarian Universalists remember the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, we won’t need to stoop to propaganda. Facts speak for themselves.
“You need not think alike to love alike,” said early Unitarian Francis David. We Unitarian Universalists love alike, that is, what unites us is working together for social justice. Social justice, Tikkun olam or repairing the world in the Jewish tradition, has two parts, helping the victims of injustice – charity – or modifying systems – political action.
Charity, acts of compassion, such as feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, visiting the sick, the corporal acts of mercy are the proper province of churches. We take care of those in our own congregations and extend our charity to the wider community.
The problem with acts of compassion is it’s one act at a time. It’s a lot more efficient to tackle injustice from a political perspective. Legislation like food stamps and rent control address the problem of hunger and housing for the many, not just one at a time. Political change is infinitely more efficient because it fixes a whole system.
Hence, we Unitarian Universalists often enter the political arena. We work for immigration justice, water justice, environmental justice, food justice. (Whatever we work for we call it justice.) We rail against injustice but we don’t have clear goals or strategies to get there, which is bad politics. Moreover, politics divides people. There’s more than one right way to accomplish a goal. Politics attracts people who are angry at injustice, that is, it attracts angry people. Also political work is like women’s work; it’s never done. There’s always more injustice to fight against.
We have only a finite amount of energy to work for a better world. Spending time and energy to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery is not a good use of it, because the Doctrine of Discovery never caused oppression in the first place. An analogy: Christine Robinson on the glass ceiling for women ministers. “That letter to Timothy which says that women can't preach, and how it trumps Jesus' evident attitude towards women seems to be the cause [of inequality among female ministers], but we all know that the cause is much deeper than that, and that Timothy is only an excuse.” Iminister blog 8-26-08
I suggest we keep our political arm separate from religious life. We could take a lesson from the Quakers. The Quakers worship in silence, but they have a separate political arm, the Friends Committee on National Legislation.
To honor those who work for a better world, I suggest a Heal the World ceremony. Participants add stones to a hollow globe representing earth. Each stone represents a good deed or progressive political action. This ceremony respects different ways and avoids wrangling over the best way. Tikkun olam.