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Unitarian congregation repudiates Doctrine of Discovery

TARPON SPRINGS, Fla. – A Unitarian Universalist congregation in Florida has issued a Statement of Conscience repudiating the Christian Doctrine of Discovery and urging the United States government to adopt the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Tarpon Springs is the oldest Unitarian congregation in the state and the Statement of Conscience is the first it has issued in its 125 years of existence.

“It’s a really big deal in our faith,” said Dan Callaghan, the man who initiated the action in his church.

The Tarpon congregation is the third religious group in the U.S. in less than a year to disavow the Christian Doctrine of Discovery and support the adoption of the Declaration.

The Episcopal Church blazed the path when it passed a resolution called “Repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery” during and urged support of the Declaration at its national meeting last July.

Two months later, the Indian Committee of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends issued a Minute – analogous to a resolution – disavowing the Doctrine and urging adoption of the Declaration.

The Doctrine of Discovery was a principle of international law developed in a series of 15th century papal bulls and 16th century charters by European monarchs. A racist philosophy, the Doctrine gave white Christian Europeans the right to claim the lands and resources of non-Christian peoples and kill or enslave them – if other Christian Europeans had not already done so.

Implemented during the so-called Age of Discovery or Age of Exploration that opened trade routes to Africa, America and Asia, the Doctrine was a prototype trade agreement between the superpowers of the day – Portugal and Spain, followed by France, England and the Netherlands – that laid out the rules of competition between the developing nation states in their ever-growing hunger for colonies, resources and markets.

The Doctrine sanctioned the genocide of indigenous peoples in the “New World.”

And it is embedded in U.S. law through Congress’ assumption of plenary power over Indian nations and via the 19th century U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Johnson v. M’Intosh, which was cited by the high court as recently as 2005 to deny a land claim by the Oneida Indian Nation.

Just as the resolution by the national Episcopal Church began with one person – John Dieffenbacher-Krall in Maine – Callaghan intends to gather support for the Unitarian Universalist’s General Assembly – its national organization – to adopt his congregation’s Statement of Conscience.

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“It will take in this case at least three years of study at numerous levels and the issue will be debated and this Statement of Conscience will be in a kind of content with other really crucial issues – in the past they’ve been climate change and homelessness – and, essentially, we’ll have to make an argument that this will in fact become a pillar of our faith. And if it is accepted after two general assemblies at that point we’ll put all of our personnel and all of our funds behind making sure that our Statement of Conscience comes to fruition,” Callaghan said.

Unitarian Universalism is a unique faith that is rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but does not adhere to any creed or dogma. It is a liberal religion that embraces theological diversity and welcomes different beliefs, according to its Web site.

The church actively involves itself in issues of social justice.

Callaghan learned about the Doctrine of Discovery from his long time friend Joseph Heath, the Onondaga Nation’s general counsel.

“I sent Joe an e-mail last September and asked if there was anything in particular that our church could do for the Onondaga and his response was, ‘Why don’t you do what the Episcopal Church did? They passed a resolution repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery.’ My first response was, ‘What?’ I had no idea what he was talking about,” Callaghan said.

That was the general reaction, but people changed when they learned the truth about the Doctrine and its continuing impact today, Callaghan said.

“I think at first it was astonishment that something so egregious could be part of our justice system, and then I think it was really anger that something like this could persist so long, and as we looked at the issue, we came to realize that in a real sense we’ve managed to camouflage this under the idea of Manifest Destiny.”

Manifest Destiny was the 19th century term for the belief that the U.S. was destined or ordained by God to expand its territories from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It was an extension of the Puritan settler colonists’ belief that they were “chosen people” destined for “the promised land.”

After studying materials that Heath sent him and researching the Doctrine further, Callaghan made an impassioned presentation to his congregation for support, and on Jan. 24, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tarpon Springs issued its Statement of Conscience to “repudiate this Doctrine of Christian Discovery, urging its removal from any standing in U.S. law, and urge the United States to adopt and implement the U.N. Declaration of Indigenous Rights.”

Callaghan has already gained support for the statement from dozens of Unitarian congregations in Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and the church’s representative at the United Nations.

Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape scholar, researcher and columnist for Indian Country Today, who inspired the movement to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery through his many essays and 2008 book “Pagans in the Promised Land,” said it is “absolutely necessary” for churches to lead the way.

“Until there’s a groundswell of support and momentum to address the issue and come to terms with the way in which the Christian Doctrine has been used against indigenous nations of people throughout the world, I don’t believe it will really be taken seriously by people in positions of influence and authority and power within governments in the way it needs to be taken seriously,” Newcomb said.