“We cannot spread the guilt. And we cannot seek to justify our actions,” the report states. “The CRC was wrong to establish and run a boarding school named Rehoboth; the land the missionaries sought to conquer was not theirs to flourish in; it was wrong to punish students for speaking their language; our denomination was wrong to take children from their homes. The CRC Board of Heathen Missions initiated a lot of pain through its dehumanizing view of Native Americans.”That's how The Banner, the official magazine of Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA), the denomination I remain a part of, summarizes a report coming before the Synod of the CRCNA this summer, a report from the Doctrine of Discovery Task Force.
What is the "Doctrine of Discovery"? It was--and still is--a papal bull issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1452 to condemn "Saracens [which is to say Muslims] and pagans and any other unbelievers" to slavery.
“We weighing all and singular the premises with due meditation, and noting that since we had formerly by other letters of ours granted among other things free and ample faculty to the aforesaid King Alfonso -- to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit -- by having secured the said faculty, the said King Alfonso, or, by his authority, the aforesaid infante, justly and lawfully has acquired and possessed, and doth possess, these islands, lands, harbors, and seas, and they do of right belong and pertain to the said King Alfonso and his successors”.What has a 15th century Roman Catholic ruling have to do with 21st century affairs? The Doctrine of Discovery has links to us and our history and our culture today because it was used, especially throughout the 19th century, to deny Native peoples their very identity. It was used to perpetuate the horrifying notion that they had no rights to the land they lived on, land they often even considered sacred. The Doctrine of Discovery was a forerunner of Manifest Destiny, the doctrine that all of the new land belonged to the conquerors, who were somehow blessed by God.
The Doctrine of Discovery Synodical Report claims, not wrongly, that the CRC's desire to do mission work in New Mexico at the end of the 19th century developed out of a view created by European culture's adherence to the Doctrine of Discovery. For that reason, the report says the CRCNA "was wrong to establish and run a boarding school named Rehoboth."
I have great sympathy for the argument. The history of this nation's abhorrent treatment of its aboriginal people is not of particular interest to most of this country's (white) culture. When, on national television, a Hollywood star the magnitude of Leonardo di Caprio takes a moment to dedicate his awards to Native people, we raise an eyebrow, at least until the next award category looms.
What is indisputable is that if you're of European stock, you're an immigrant, and, by Native standards at least, illegal.
But I have significant problems with a report that so baldly states the CRCNA was wrong to do the kind of mission work it did--and still does--in McKinley County, New Mexico. What the report doesn't say is that up on top the hill south of Gallup there stands an impressive health care campus called Rehoboth McKinley County Christian Health Care Services, a facility created when St. Mary's Hospital merged with Rehoboth Hospital, which was the first significant health care facility in the entire region and another outgrowth of CRCNA missionary activity.
In my estimation, the report is not wrong, but short-sighted. That the CRCNA's mission efforts in New Mexico developed out of racist attitudes is undeniable. That we may have uncritically adopted commonly accepted educational theory with respect to our First Nations is obvious. That we preached but rarely listened is impossible to deny. That we were a significant part of a national policy of cultural genocide, difficult as it is to admit and, more importantly, confess, goes without question.
But there's a hospital in Gallup today that bears the name of an institution that throughout its history did incredible work where there was nothing quite like it. And there's a Christian high school just down the road in Rehoboth that professional evaluators claim is one of the very finest in the country, the only one like it in New Mexico.
For the next several days--just as I have for the last several--I'd like to tell another long story, this one, like the one I've been telling, set here in the rural Midwest, not in the American Southwest. I would like to explore the role of mission enterprise by way of a specific series of stories and human beings who were part of the Dakota War of 1862. I'm not interested in establishing heroes or villains, but instead telling a story that is, at once, complex and difficult, a bloody story in which there are no heroes, only humans, in need of grace.
As we all are and were and will be. There lies the tale.