Resisting and Reconciling, A Sermon for Native American Ministry Sunday, Rev. Dee Ledger, September 30, 2018

The Canadian and former chief of the First Nations Assembly, George Erasmus of the Dene Nation once said, “Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community.  Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.”[1]

I’ve been thinking a lot about shared or unshared memory, as it were, in the context of this scripture from James and in the context of our shared American history, as well as the events of this past week.

I do not remember when I first learned of the Doctrine of Discovery.  Certainly, I did not learn it as part of the church.  Somewhere in the recesses of my mind it was all mixed up with the teachings of colonization and Manifest Destiny which showed up on multiple choice exams in history class.  I first learned about Manifest Destiny in literature class.  But these were dry ideas that did not make their mark in a fleshy sort of way, meaning that I could not actually understand their racist imperial consequences in human terms and their subsequent effects.

In James, at the beginning of Chapter 5, we hear “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you . . . You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.”  I am not surprised that the lectionary doesn’t include this bit for public reading! However, we should note that James has a deep concern for the poor and for the divisions and disputes within his own community.  He is particularly concerned about those who oppress, and by their oppression create more division and woe for the community.


Later James envisions a community that is marked by mutual support.  Those who are suffering are asked to pray.  Those who are sick are anointed and ministered to.  Within the community, the sins of members are confessed to each other, each prays for each, and any who have committed sins are forgiven within the community and healed.  Healing results from the mutual confessing of sins, the extending of forgiveness and prayer in the midst and over all.

Today when we focus on the gifts and graces of Native Americans, we would be remiss if we did not confess our collective sin towards Native Peoples – a sin that is collectively known as the “Doctrine of Discovery”.  The Doctrine of Discovery is a series of Papal Bulls or edits from 1452-1493 which resulted in undue harm to Native populations both here and in Africa, North America, Hawaii and in other places.

In 1452, a Papal Bull by Pope Nicholas declared that the Church in Europe (and by extension those leaders representing European interests should “invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all saracens and pagans whatsoever and other enemies of Christ wheresoever places and kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all moveable or immoveable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit.” [2]

This official edict and others like it became the Doctrine of Discovery which allowed Europe and others to colonize Africa, allowed Columbus to “discover” the Americas, thereby disregarding the people already living here, and allowed and promulgated the institution of slavery, dehumanizing various native peoples in the conquest for land.


In 1823, two individuals of European descent had a dispute about land – one had purchased land form the government, another purchased land for a Native tribe.  In this case of Johnson vs M’intosh, the Supreme Court ruled that the Doctrine of Discovery was the principle by which land titles were based.  Chief Justice John Marshall used the doctrine to assert that the United States, as the successor of Great Britain, had inherited authority over all lands within our claimed boundaries. This decision allowed our government to legally ignore or invalidate any native claims to property.  Native peoples had a right of occupancy only; the Doctrine of Discovery gave land title to the government.  According to Navajo Mark Charles, the U.S. Supreme Court, cited the Doctrine of Discovery as late as 2005.    To this day courts continue to cite this legal precedent. It is still being used by courts to decide property rights cases brought by Native Americans against the U.S. and against non-Natives.

Confess your sins to one another, pray for one another, so that you may be healed, writes James.  But I ask God, and all of you, “how can we ‘the people’ or the Church be healed, if one side, or a majority, refuses to acknowledge the sins in which we have either participated or inherited?  How does a community heal when part of that community puts forth claims which are consistently denied or dismissed as no longer relevant?  Whose healing is relegated to the sidelines?

On the following video clip[3], you will see the United Church of Christ taking steps toward acknowledging past sins, confessing harm done, and fostering both better relations and attempts for reconciliation.

Individual confession to God is a necessary first step towards reconciling oneself and acknowledging harm.  But James would likely say that the community — healthy community – requires collective confession and reconciliation if wounds are to heal fully rather than to fester in future generations, or even future institutions.  Part of community is a sense of a shared past – sharing both joys and sorrows, but also past harm against members of that community in order that all members might thrive and the wound might finally close.

May it be so.



[2] Please see this link for an excellent review of the Doctrine of Discovery by Mark Charles, and specific Papal Bulls quoted:



[2] Please see this link for an excellent review of the Doctrine of Discovery by Mark Charles, and specific Papal Bulls quoted:


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