This presentation was given as the third of six offerings in a lament over the Doctrine of Discovery held on Tuesday, July 10, at the 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, in Indianapolis. As far as I know, the Episcopal Church is the first in history to publicly repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, and this was the first international event of Christian worship to overtly lament the events and consequences so long ignored. It is important to say that since very shortly after the arrival of the “conquistadores” in the Americas, Bartolomé de las Casas and many other Christians have spent their entire lives trying to reverse the tragic direction of colonialism.
I speak of lament in response to this grievous past and present as the daughter of my Norwegian/British-American ancestors. I speak to your heart, from my heart. I am humbled by your presence and willingness to participate in this lament. These are difficult things to say and difficult things to hear.
As God is gracious to us, so may we be gracious to one another for those things that are incomplete and even painful about this lament. It is no small thing that we, the Episcopal Church, took the unprecedented step in 2009 of repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery.
Many, if not most of us, did not learn about the term “Doctrine of Discovery,” nor of the events to which it refers, in school. The Doctrine of Discovery is an umbrella term used in international law referring to a range of papal bulls, royal charters, laws, decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, and policies that justified, made legal, and blessed the Crusades, colonialism, slavery, and ongoing economic and social disparities between those who were here long ago and those who came as “discovers,” “conquistadores,” and settlers. Although many of us knew there were some problems of injustice, violence, and greed associated with the settlement of the Americas, not many grasp the nature and extent of that injustice and violence, carried out in the name of Jesus Christ as the will of God.
Although nothing we do today can remove that past, there is a great deal of healing, understanding, and transformed vision to be gained from a thoughtful, prayerful study and reflection on our history. A modest understanding of the reasons used to justify the injustice, violence, and greed cannot help but transform the way we see ourselves and each other.
We dare not pretend that this lament will undo the past or make everything okay. It will not do that. Yet, because we do believe that “God cares for all of us,” and because we long to live in that care for each other and with all of Creation, we gather to open this wound, very gently, by lamenting together – to cast this great grief upon God; not to leave it there as checked off from a list of things to do, but as an act of discipline and hope in response to God’s grace offered to us all.
We offer this lament so that we might move together into a new kind of future – one not founded on false understandings of the nature of our past and present. Tonight, we begin cautiously to put flesh on the bones of that repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery.
What Is a Lament?
The prayer of lament is a type of honest, daring, intimate discourse, demonstrated by a note I received from my daughter when she was 10 years old: “Dear Mommy, I hate you. Love, Mieke.”
A lament is a first person (singular or plural) sound, conveyed with risk, that opens those who lament to God, each other, and to themselves, setting in motion God’s Spirit of compassion, healing, and dignity.
The English the word “lament” comes from an Old Norse word for the sound of the loon – that haunting, unforgettable, pain-conveying sound we hear on the waters in many parts of the world.
Through a practice of communal lament, of which there is a great deal in Scripture and the Psalter of the Book of Common Prayer, over time we can learn how to rejoice and how to weep together. Scripture (Old Testament and New Testament) is abundant with laments in both poetic and narrative forms.
An example of lament poetry is The Psalter, part of the Book of Common Prayer (pp. 585-809), which contains more laments than praise.
Examples of narrative laments include:
Genesis 4:10: “And the Lord said [to Cain], ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”
Romans 8:22-23, 26: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. … Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
We live in a time when this daring prayer is very gradually making a comeback as a fundamental part of the Christian tradition of prayer and worship. The absolute necessity of this kind of prayer is denied, though, when we cannot hear lament as a profound demonstration of love and trust; of a daring opening-up to God and to each other. Lament is not whining, because it risks the relationship rather than merely seeking attention.
In this lament, we come together tonight to cry out to God, and to each other, over the Doctrine of Discovery; to acknowledge, and honor; to lay before God something of this great grief over the violence, genocide, and greed of colonialism – carried out in the name of Jesus.
With our lament, like the sound of the loon, we begin to acknowledge, honor, and give voice to more than 500 years of injustice and distress through our presence, songs, silence, stories, and prayers; witnessing to that distress in our bodies. Lament is a deep bodily practice for acknowledging distress and building compassion and trust, not just the idea of lament.
The prayer of lament is an occasional or temporary practice – not a lifestyle or personality type. It offers many opportunities for learning from each other about injustice, distress, suffering, hope, compassion, honesty, joy, and love – given and received. We do not know each other’s pain. We do not all lament the same things at the same time.
Especially here tonight, some of us sit low in our seats because we know that our ancestors were not kind to your ancestors, and that we have benefited from the grave injustices addressed to you and your people. Others of us may sit here in our seats wondering if this is really necessary. While yet others know only too well why this lament is necessary. This lament is necessary in order to give voice and honor to those who have experienced oppression, injustice, the wounds, the evil, and the suffering that have been far too long ignored. This lament is necessary in order to acknowledge and witness to an unholy past, if there is to be any possibility for coming together as God’s people in a new way:
“with humility in our dealings with one another.
For God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble" (James 4:6).
No more arrogance, condescension, and triumphalism. But rather, something we have not tried before – love offered in humility and grief.
What Do “We” Acknowledge in Our Lament?
There are truly noble and inspiring aspects of the history of all of our nations. But when we know only the sanitized version of our histories and build our identities upon that incomplete story, we are left with an inadequate and fractured vision of the past as a foundation for the actions of the present. (Here, I move to the first person singular, and pray that you will add what fits your life, faith, and experience.)
Thus, tonight, I acknowledge and witness to my own suffering and sins and to those of my ancestors. I acknowledge and witness to your suffering, my sisters and brothers, and that of your ancestors. I acknowledge my own ignorance of much suffering and sin and the shame/grief/ shock that comes with finding out, for the first time, what happened. I acknowledge and lament the injustice, violence, cruelty, and greed that mar the history of my people:
the evil done to us and to our ancestors, to our brothers and sisters,
the evil done on our behalf,
the evil of things left undone, of failing to pay attention to history
and what was and is actually going on with other people around us
I acknowledge with deep grief the way in which I believed what I was taught by my elders, that our nation came to be by entirely honorable means. Yet, when I look more deeply into the history and become aware of what actually happened in the name of Jesus, I am overwhelmed by strong emotions of:
I acknowledge that I did not know.
Comparing Grief and Guilt
One of the things we have not tried before in efforts to respond to the legacy of colonialism is an appeal to grief, rather than to guilt. Grief, rather than guilt! “I am very, very sad,” rather than “I am guilty.” We know the guilt move well, but grief as a constructive, strong emotion is something else. When we are moved to “do something,” responding to injustice moved primarily by guilt, our motives usually have more to do with our own status, salvation, and conscience than with the well being of those who are harmed by our sin. Guilt is usually about me; it is not about the ones I/we harm.
If guilt somehow manages to keep moving, to mature and go deeply into the soul, becoming something much more, it may lead to a transformation. But lament works in another way. Lament is a small form of death and resurrection. It does more than cleansing. Rather, lament may transform by opening our eyes, ears, hands, hearts, and minds to each other, to God, and to ourselves – so that we see what we did not see. With that opening, we do not see in the same way; we are not the same persons we were before. When we allow ourselves to come together for this challenging purpose of lamenting the Doctrine of Discovery, there is a possibility for New Life. A possibility for the planting and growing of seeds of compassion, wisdom, collaboration, and even a new kind of love.
Perspective From All Directions
We sit together tonight in this Sacred Circle, looking at each other – all God’s people from many tribes and nations, all God’s people, all made in the image of the Creator. We see and feel and hear and think very different things, depending on where we come from, who our ancestors are, what we bring with us, and where we are in our lives. We come here this night to cry out to God, to hear and witness each other’s cries, and then to go from here changed by what we hear, acting from that transformation. We offer this lament so that we may rejoice together one day.
The qualities associated with the Doctrine of Discovery – arrogance, ignorance, short-sightedness, dishonesty, privilege, deception, blindness, and failure in human relationships on the part of the invader/settlers – demonstrate that this horrific past was an abuse of the Good News of Jesus Christ, unrecognized as such at the time. Today, we have the opportunity to be moved by grief and compassion so that we do not continue the injustice and oppression, and so that we may find new ways to be God’s people, all of us, listening, honoring, and working together for the reign of God here and now.
Here, we take the risk of telling and hearing the truth, trusting that truth to each other, and to God. We allow ourselves to come apart, to open up the various pieces: of hope, rage, fear, puzzlement, denial, wondering, longing, love. In this lament, we take things apart so that God can weave us back together again. Amen.
For more information about the Doctrine of Discovery, please visit http://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/topics/doctrine-discovery.