Where I think the “Doctrine of Christian Discovery” Report Fails the CRC


My Grandfather with the 1930 Calvin Seminary Choir Tour Visiting Rehoboth

Doctrine of Christian Discover Report

In case you haven’t wade through the whole report the CRC Network Synod page offered a small piece saying why we should pay attention to it. If you read the comments on that page also notice this piece from the Banner.  Classis Red Mesa also has an Overture (14) on this topic in the Agenda for Synod 2016 that is worth reading.

Here are some of my thoughts.

The Biggest, Most Obvious Thing

What happened in the history of European discovery, conquest and colonization of the Americas is one of the saddest, bloodiest and most terrible crimes and tragedies we know in this modern era. The peoples who were here when the Europeans arrived fell victim first to the European’s diseases and then to their greed. This is something that we should all lament. In ways we have contributed to it we should apologize and try to make right.

Unfortunately due to racism and other aspects of human depravity the impact of colonialization on the few peoples that remain with ties to this past and even recognizable community in continuity with this story have repeatedly and continue to suffer from the laws, legacy and aftermath of this dark chapter. Even many attempts to make things right have gone on to sometimes make matters worse. Owning up to this too is important.

This is a story, like many dark stories deserves to be told, explored and retold to help us learn from it and in the future try to do better. The most important people to tell this story are those who suffered from it. They all deserve our ear.

The Report Before Us

Having said this I don’t think the report currently before Synod does justice to this story and is flawed in a number of critical ways. In the end I think it ironically falls victim to some of the dynamics involved in the original and ongoing injuries.

Understanding “Christian” and “human” as Adjectives

The central thesis of the report is that Christian power was responsible for the destruction of the first peoples of North America and that their physical and cultural genocides were intentional expressions of their Christian understanding. I think this thesis is flawed and flawed in such a way as to perpetuate the problem it seeks to address.

Because Christianity has had such a dominant place in world, and especially Western history it is often hard to pull apart the threads that a loose use of the adjective tempts us towards. I will not argue that the papal bulls upon which much law has been based or justified that led to claiming of lands and the subjugation of its peoples weren’t done for what was in the minds of many to be “Christian” reasons. I do see this practice has both predating Christianity and being broader than Christianity to the degree as making the adjective “Christian” in front of it inoperative.

If we can do this for the evil we can certainly do this for the good, which many of my atheist friends remind me of. We often wish to see good things we do as being expressions of “Christian” charity. When we see a hungry person we might feed them and because we are Christians and know what Jesus has to say about feeding the hungry we declare to our non-Christian friends that our feeding the hungry is “Christian”.

To this our non-Christian friends will object and say “well that’s really quite human. We find all over the world, throughout human history people feeding hungry people because of their need. You might connect it with Christianity but given all the other feeding we might also say that this is a ‘human’ activity.”

I think this is a fair point. There are numerous stories of First Peoples doing precisely this even though they were not Christian. Christians don’t have a monopoly on generosity or benevolence, to claim so distorts the human story and in some ways minimizes other human groups.

If this is true for the good it is also true for the bad. We see that throughout history, across the wide breadth of human experience what the Popes did in considering non-Christian peoples, not just non-white, as being subhuman is a human characteristic. I’ll go as far as saying this is a universal human characteristic and I think it can be demonstrated.

To Be Human is to Tribe Up

Here’s a little bit about the people we call “Navajo”

Other tribes preyed upon the New Mexican settlements as well. The Utes in the north, the Kiowas and Comanches in the east, the Apaches in the south. But the Navajos were the strongest, richest, and most creatively adaptable of all the raiding tribes. They were the ancient scourge of an ancient province. As a result of Navajo attacks, the very first Spanish colonial capital of New Mexico, a promising settlement on the Rio Grande called San Gabriel, had been quickly abandoned in 1610 and relocated to the safer remove of present-day Santa Fe. The word “Navajo”—a word of Pueblo Indian origin meaning “people of the great planted fields”—first appeared in a Spanish document in 1626. (The Navajo called themselves “the Diné,” which simply means “the people.”) An account from the early 1600s by a Spanish friar referred to “the Nabaju” as “a very bellicose people…who occupy all frontiers and surround us completely.”

Sides, Hampton. Blood and Thunder (p. 22). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

What the Navajo called themselves, not what their rivals called them, were “the people”. What would they call others? What were others to them?

This might sound harsh and strange but it is in fact nearly universal in human history. Even readers of the Bible might pick up on this. There are Jews and Gentiles. If we read Greek history we know that there are Greeks and Barbarians. Modern anthropologists have noted that his practice is near universal for tribal human beings. Here Yuval Harari notes the dramatic change that the invention of empire brought to human self-understanding.

The presumption to rule the entire world for the benefit of all its inhabitants was startling. Evolution has made Homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, ‘we’ and ‘they’. We are people like you and me, who share our language, religion and customs. We are all responsible for each other, but not responsible for them. We were always distinct from them, and owe them nothing. We don’t want to see any of them in our territory, and we don’t care an iota what happens in their territory. They are barely even human. In the language of the Dinka people of the Sudan, ‘Dinka’ simply means ‘people’. People who are not Dinka are not people. The Dinka’s bitter enemies are the Nuer. What does the word Nuer mean in Nuer language? It means ‘original people’. Thousands of miles from the Sudan deserts, in the frozen ice-lands of Alaska and north-eastern Siberia, live the Yupiks. What does Yupik mean in Yupik language? It means ‘real people’. 3

Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Kindle Locations 3041-3045). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

It is human to tribe up. Jonathan Haidt recognizes this in an old Arab proverb.

The third principle is morality binds and blinds. That’s also relevant here, that’s the idea that people are incredibly good at forming groups — the key idea to keep in mind is the Arab proverb, “Me against my brother, me and my brother against our cousin, me and my brother and cousin against the stranger.”

That’s basic social psychology, coalitional psychology. Once it becomes left versus right over Obamacare, it doesn’t matter however good your arguments are, I’m not listening. I’ve got my team, and we’re on a mission to defeat your team.

Christianity has Resources to See and Resist this Dynamic

I think the adaptation of the “Doctrine of Discover” to “Doctrine of Christian Discovery” is misleading. If you want to drop an adjective into it you should call it “Doctrine of Human Discover”. It is as unfair as claiming that Christianity is responsible for the invention of feeding the hungry.

I would argue that in fact, the leap that Christianity made, which is central to its story, from becoming a story about the exaltation of the Jews against her rivals (The question of the disciples after the Resurrection in Acts 1:6 “NOW will you restore the kingdom to Israel…) into the the story of God’s rescue of humanity. I would go as far as to assert that Christianity almost invented the idea of “humanity”. I say “almost” because I believe it was there in the Old Testament and it was through the work of Christ and the apostles in the church going to the Gentiles and becoming a multi-ethnic religion. It is when Christianity jumps the Jew to Gentile line that a “new humanity” and a “new siblinghood” is formed.

Jesus also taught love of enemies, not just the non-violent ones. At the center of this religion is a man allowing both his own ethnic group and his imperial overlords to take away his property and take away his life while asking for their forgiveness. This is the most basic narrative of Christianity and when papal bulls assign non-Christians and non-Europeans as not being worthy of love and respect these popes and any Christians who follow them or see themselves as being justified by this teaching violate the central Christian narrative.

To use “Christian” in this way prioritizes a betraying sense of the word to its most core narrative.

Christian Humanity Vs. Imperial Humanity

Human tribalism is our most basic instinct as I noted above. It is ancient, universal and basic to how we operate. Christianity’s attempt to overcome tribalism by creating in Christ a new humanity is not the only one. The other major attempt to do so is empire.

The first empire about which we have definitive information was the Akkadian Empire of Sargon the Great (c. 2250 BC). Sargon began his career as the king of Kish, a small city state in Mesopotamia. Within a few decades he managed to conquer not only all other Mesopotamian city states, but also large territories outside the Mesopotamian heartland. Sargon boasted that he had conquered the entire world. In reality, his dominion stretched from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, and included most of today’s Iraq and Syria, along with a few slices of modern Iran and Turkey.

The Akkadian Empire did not last long after its founder’s death, but Sargon left behind an imperial mantle that seldom remained unclaimed. For the next 1,700 years, Assyrian, Babylonian and Hittite kings adopted Sargon as a role model, boasting that they, too, had conquered the entire world. Then, around 550 BC, Cyrus the Great of Persia came along with an even more impressive boast.

The kings of Assyria always remained the kings of Assyria. Even when they claimed to rule the entire world, it was obvious that they were doing it for the greater glory of Assyria, and they were not apologetic about it. Cyrus, on the other hand, claimed not merely to rule the whole world, but to do so for the sake of all people. ‘We are conquering you for your own benefit,’ said the Persians. Cyrus wanted the peoples he subjected to love him and to count themselves lucky to be Persian vassals. The most famous example of Cyrus’ innovative efforts to gain the approbation of a nation living under the thumb of his empire was his command that the Jewish exiles in Babylonia be allowed to return to their Judaean homeland and rebuild their temple. He even offered them financial assistance. Cyrus did not see himself as a Persian king ruling over Jews – he was also the king of the Jews, and thus responsible for their welfare.

In contrast with this ethnic exclusiveness, imperial ideology from Cyrus onward has tended to be inclusive and all-encompassing. Even though it has often emphasised racial and cultural differences between rulers and ruled, it has still recognised the basic unity of the entire world, the existence of a single set of principles governing all places and times, and the mutual responsibilities of all human beings. Humankind is seen as a large family: the privileges of the parents go hand in hand with responsibility for the welfare of the children. This new imperial vision passed from Cyrus and the Persians to Alexander the Great, and from him to Hellenistic kings, Roman emperors, Muslim caliphs, Indian dynasts, and eventually even to Soviet premiers and American presidents. This benevolent imperial vision has justified the existence of empires, and negated not only attempts by subject peoples to rebel, but also attempts by independent peoples to resist imperial expansion.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Kindle Locations 3046-3053). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Empire has been practiced around the world before Christianity as a way to transcend basic tribalism. Tribes are subjugated, individual cultures and languages are suppressed and destroyed being replaced with the language, customs and identities of the new hegemon.

The Bible, Old and New Testaments engages this dynamic in complicated ways.

  • David and Solomon ran a minor empire subjugating Edom, Moab and the peoples around them. This becomes a sort of prototype that gets promoted and sometimes distorted as a basic messianic template that Jesus will rewrite.
  • The OT story is very much a story about struggling with empire and identity.
    • Israel was attempted to be assimilated into Egypt through killing the male children.
    • Israel was nearly assimilated culturally into Canaan which is the story of the book of Judges.
    • The Northern Kingdom was assimilated and scattered by the Assyrians. The prophets saw God using the evil empire of the Assyrians as his tool.
    • The book of Jonah wrestles with God’s love for the evil Assyrians and his concern for even their livestock.
    • Babylon attempts to assimilate Judah and the exiles are told to “seek the welfare of the city”
    • Cyrus is “God’s servant” when he returns the exiles and funds the rebuilding of the temple
  • The Book of Daniel is primarily concerned with the narrative of Yhwh’s human reclamation vs. the empires of their world.
  • Jesus resists Jewish exclusivism and lays the footing for the Apostolic Christianization of the Roman Empire
  • The book of Revelation is a long discourse on the relationship between the imperial reign of Christ and the succession of human empires that usurp Jesus’ claim of Lordship.

What is most striking to me about the report is its blindness to this entire theme in Scripture and its failure to understand or locate the story of European and then American imperial aspirations at the expense of First Peoples in this light. The misappropriation of this story by popes and anti-papist Christians in North America lead to many of the abuses the report highlights. The report looks through a particular liberationist lens in trying to work the complicated relationship between Christianity and empire which I don’t think does justice to many of the resources available in Scripture. The report can’t seem to find some of the most important Scriptural allies for trying to tell its story such as found in Rahab, Tamar, Ruth, Jonah, Daniel, Nehemiah, and Esther. The whole Bible is in fact brimming with conversations, examples and struggles between tribal identity and culture vs. imperial aggression and assimilation. The report seems completely blind to this while late medieval and early modern distortions dominate it’s definition of “Christian”. The report doesn’t seem to have the eyes to see the Bible within this conversation apart from what has become a fairly facile reading of the Bible popularized in mostly secular-narrative liberationist circles.

The imperial conquest and subjugation of tribal peoples in North America by European and American empire is perhaps the best window into understanding and critiquing this long, dark, sad history in conversation with the Bible. By completely missing this enormous Biblical theme and trying to apply these nuances to this instance of human empire does the church a disservice.

Critiquing CRC Missionary Practice toward First Peoples

The first impression from many CRC members (including voices for Rehoboth and Zuni CRC members) is that large swaths of the analysis of CRC ministry were uncharitable and harsh. I can’t read a lot of the report and cringe at what was said and done in the past. I can, however, look back at my own life over things I’ve said and done in the past and not also cringe. This, like our imperialism and our tribalism is part of who we are and what we do. Problems develop when we have power which magnifies our foolishness and makes others the victims of our mistakes.

When the New Testament church did ministry and evangelism they did so from a weak position in the empire. They didn’t have position and institutional authority and were therefore not tempted by what those of us who have such power can be tempted by. Woe be to us.

What has been apparent for a long time (Read Roland Allen’s work) and what we are learning by watching the indigenization of Christianity in Africa and Asia is that all cultures stumble around, get things wrong, do bad things, and need time to work out the complex Christ and culture equations within themselves. This continues to be true of CRC majority culture. This is true of all cultures through all time. We are a work in progress. This should give us some generosity and patience all around.

When, as we see in an imperial setting power gets through into the mix, especially on the side of the group trying to evangelize the other, additional problems develop. Over time with the work of the Holy Spirit and the guidance of the Scriptures strong indigenous churches can develop that come up with their own answers and their own way of embodying Christ in their cultural heritage. Most modern missionary work tends to fall somewhere in between The Poisonwood Bible  and The Surprising Discovery about those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries.

The report is right that this work falls primarily to the people of that culture and that it is important for us to listen to them and to give them the space to do their own, hard work among themselves.

Again, the New Testament is the record of early Christians working hard to try to figure out the shape of Christianity in the light of their tribal, Jewish heritage. All cultures with remembered heritages have to do this work.

Can the Report See Today’s Ascending Western Empire? 

Some people will read this report and see the Western culture war or even Christian liberalism in it. I know why they see that. Part of the difficulty of doing culture work is that there is no control group.

Why is it that the criticism of the previous cultural expression embodied in CRC ministry to first peoples looks so much like forms of criticism coming from other places in the culture not in conscious dialogue with the Native American experience? Just like early 20th century CRC people interpreted the circumstances before their eyes through the set of values that they received culturally so does this report seem to interpret that history through its set of values.

While I believe the Bible has within it the resources for a complex conversation about tribe and empire it is also apologetically imperial when it comes to Christ’s empire. The ascending spiritual and cultural empire in the West is particularly allergic to this Biblical theme. The idea that the Ancient of Days will set up a throne and judge the peoples of the world throughout time based on how we respond to the revelation of the Son of Man is a deeply offensive idea to Western democratic expressive humanists. It would be a deeply sad irony for the children of the victims of 19th and 20th century Western imperialism to fall victim to the cultural imperialism of the West in the 21st century.


I think the CRC could do better than this report.

  1. The report confuses “Christian” with “human” in some ways that perpetuates the confusion.
  2. The report fails to adequately see and apply the Biblical themes of tribe and empire in ways that could serve the church.
  3. The report is uncharitable and harsh in critiquing previous imperial culture bound practices with a current imperial culture bound perspective.




About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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3 Responses to Where I think the “Doctrine of Christian Discovery” Report Fails the CRC

  1. The issue really is who controls “history” and its subsequent revision. It is quite obvious those in the driver’s seat of the Report intend to rewrite history going forward; this is not surprising since ever generation filters the past through its own lens. The trick with history is to place it in a context, don’t ignore it- it is real, and attempt to understand it so going forward we can not make the same mistakes, repeatedly. Cultures have clashed, demonstrably fatally- that issue needs to be addressed, and has in regard to the CRC and the Navajos and Zuni to a certain extent; a revisit to the affected is not bad, in fact it is encouraging.

    However, to engage in a flogging of history such as the Report does…perhaps reopening the wounds. At some point humans need to find restoration and forgiveness, of course if the affected have not come to that point, then it is our job to listen to them. What is the genesis of this Report- the Navajos or Zuni, then we must stop and embrace them for who they are today.

    The past we cannot change, but we have something we can do with the present and future- we must deal with that. In my humble opinion the Report is also about power- who is in control of the process of restoration…the authors seem to feel they are, and everyone else must “toe the line”. It is time to stop our pontificating on history and listen to the aggrieved.

    Listen to the Navajos and Zuni, they are talking to us, see this link: http://www.thebanner.org/news/2016/04/rehoboth-zuni-churches-criticize-doctrine-of-discovery-synodical-report

    Now I believe it is Synod’s turn to listen to them and put the Navajos and Zuni in the driver’s seat for a change; in the end, we may find them going in the same direction toward grace today.

  2. Mark Hofman says:

    Nobody’s pointed out the committee slip-up in the report: the un-edited, first person “I’s” on pages 513 & 514.

    Clearly, there is a single voice contributor to the report who is talking, beginning from the IV. B. paragraph, “In the Southwest, one does not need to speak to Navajo and Zuni people for very long before meeting someone who is struggling with historical trauma as a result of attending boarding school.” Later comes this open-ended statement, “Today a vast majority of the Indian boarding schools throughout NA are closed or even torn down. But Rehobeth is still open.”

    Wow. If that isn’t a dangling indictment! Shortly thereafter, the first slip-up of the first person: “And I am incredibly grateful that at long last the CRC’s boarding school was formally and publicly addressed. But as T&R projects have taught us [who’s us?], confessions, apologies, reconciliation must flow out of a sincere and rigorous search for truth.”

    On the next page, after lots of Biblical descriptions of trauma (Adam after eating fruit, Aaron confronted by Moses re: Golden Calf, Judas after 30-coin betrayal of Jesus), the committee’s voice comes out in the singular again: “In talking with many non-Native CRC people about Rehobeth, I commonly hear acknowledgment followed by the word ‘but’…’it wasn’t all bad.'” The conclusion is stated plainly by this individual: “we must understand that ‘but’ represents trauma.”

    So, DO(C)D committee, was this just sloppy editing, or can you have some self-reflection on the need for your process to be in-tune with multiple voices? Or is this first person account allowed to simply be the final word of truth and reconciliation within the CRCNA?

  3. Pingback: Break the Script, See the Whole Texas Privet, Find your real Confessional Flag and Fly It! | Leadingchurch.com

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