April 06, 2013
Balancing Theology, Polity, and the Indigenous Voice is an “Item For Reflection And Research” document moving through the process that leads to its consideration at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in July 2013. The following is based on an argument I learned from Sarah Augustine about how Christendom (the Christian Church and European nations) justified the Doctrine of Discovery.
A century before the voyage of Columbus, Pope Nicholas V wrote the papal bull Romanus Pontifex (1455). The bull followed-up his 1452 bull Dum Diversas which permitted Alfonso V of Portugal to place pagans, specifically Saracens (Muslims) into generational slavery. In writing Romanus Pontifex Nicholas V enhanced his early bull by allowing the subjugation of non-Christian land and peoples by Catholic/Christian nations. A century later, in 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued the bull Inter Caetera. This bull fashioned the last bit of theology needed to endorse the colonization desires of Christian European nations, by asserting that once a Christian nation claimed and subjugated a land and people, no other Christian nation could occupy and claim that particular geographic landscape. These three bulls, Romanus Pontifex, Dum Diversas, and Inter Caetera are the theological documents of the Christian Church that serve as the Doctrine of Discovery’s documents of origin. In time, other theological and secular documents led to a political philosophy that cumulated in Emer de Vattel’s 1758 work The Law of Nations or the Principles of Natural Law Applied to the Conduct and to the Affairs of Nations and of Sovereigns, which influenced the development of United States law and legislation.
The Law of Nations is but one of many works making up the body of laws, edicts, bulls, pronouncements, and books that make up the body of work called the Doctrine of Discovery. Long before Vattel’s work though, the Doctrine of Discovery created a systemic worldwide slavery trade, supported the genocide of indigenous people, and the robbery of non-European land resources. There are many theological, political, and business oriented writings endorsing the subjugation of non-European land and peoples, however three concepts, two of which are Christian, led Pope Nicholas V, Alexander VI and their successors to believe worldwide European conquest and colonization appropriate: The Great Commission, Terra nullius, and Romans 13.
The Christian Testament’s gospel of Mathew speaks of what folk call The Great Commission. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus reappears to the eleven remaining disciples on a mountain in Galilee. There Jesus says,
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore 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 that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (MT 28:18-20)
The concept to make disciples of all nations became a foundational concept of the Christian religion. As Christianity grew into a dominate religion of European empires after the Roman Emperor Constantine legitimized it in 313 C.E., Christian leaders began to take advantage of power gained in a Religion/State relationship and soon the notion of Christianizing the world became embedded into national laws.
Terra nullius comes from the Roman legal concept of res nullius—things without owners. Res nullius allowed nations to develop the idea of land without owner, leading to the concept of terra nullius. By occupying and subjugating a terra nullius, a nation obtains sovereignty over that territory. Such occupation meant indigenous peoples were not only not owners of the landscape they had lived within since ancient times, but because of their primitive-pagan state, they were also not fully human and because they were sub-people without political order they were a people not capable of negotiations. Thus, all non-Christian lands were open to occupation and all non-Christian people open to perpetual slavery.
The last concept arises from Romans 13 of the Christian Testament.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. (vv. 1-4)
Christian European empires used Romans 13: 1-4 to argue they obtained their authority and dominion because God ordained it so. Such a theological construct gave European empires the God given right to bear the sword and impose genocide upon any land and people whom they believed the wrongdoer.
Together these three concepts allowed Pope Nicholas V, Alexander VI, and successors to argue; the Great Commission imposes an order from God to convert the world to Christianity; Christians and Christian states have the right to occupy and subjugate non-Christian terra nullius; and should the people of terra nullius refuse to become Christian and recognize the States ordained authority, then as a servant of God the State must execute wrath and place the people into perpetual slavery at best, or to the sword at worst.
© David B. Bell 2013