A Reflection on the 2016 ELCA Churchwide Assembly’s Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery


[1] At the 2016 churchwide assembly, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America passed the “Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery” resolution[1], which calls for the church to “explicitly and clearly repudiate” the doctrine and “to acknowledge and repent of its complicity in the evils of colonialism in the Americas.”[2] It also correctly requires the church to take action by developing a corresponding statement, holding healing ceremonies, producing resources for congregations, and formulating a strategy for sustainably funded ministry with Native peoples. The proclamation was widely favored, gaining endorsement from more synods than any other in the history of our young church. It would seem, then, that the ELCA has garnered overwhelming support in taking on the task of repudiating this damaging doctrine. However, it remains to be seen whether the church will meet the task at hand in word only, or in word and in deed.


[2] If accomplished successfully, the planned repudiation actions will be, without a doubt, some of the most progressive since Lutherans accepted the challenge put before them on August 3, 1970, at Augustana College in Sioux Fall, South Dakota, when leaders of the American Indian Movement occupied a dormitory and challenged the church to evaluate its complicity in oppressing Native peoples across Turtle Island[3]. Similar to the recent repudiation resolution, the church began with an apology and commitment to repentance. This was followed by the creation and subsequent labor of the National Indian Lutheran Board.  Because of the real work that this group did to build better relationships with Native peoples, the formation of the NILB is arguably the most committed act that a Lutheran church body has ever made to acknowledge complicity in oppressing Native peoples. Many individuals and congregations of predecessor churches to the ELCA and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod took the challenge extremely seriously. They helped Native communities and organizations across the United States in innumerable, immeasurable, and lasting ways.


[3] Will the task of repudiation put before the church at present be taken as seriously? Or will it be--not unlike the countless gestures that churches, schools, corporations, cities, states, and even countries have made to Native peoples in the past – all apology and no action? They happen. They are meaningful. There may even be a ceremony performed or a letter written, but then there is… nothing.  The good feeling subsides, and the work goes with it. The apologizers feel absolved and believe that actual progress has been made. Meanwhile, nothing changes for Native people. The daily oppression and brutal conditions that we are forced to survive remain the same. As a result, we become even more disillusioned by the failure of our allies and missionizers – the brothers and sisters in Christ who were supposed to begin loving us more.  


[4] Another issue is found within the process by which the Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery resolution was developed. Like all successful resolutions, it underwent a thorough but subjective vetting process. It was meticulously molded and manipulated towards the ultimate-goal of using language that would be most acceptable and palatable to voting members. The resolution was carefully crafted to appeal to voters, the majority of whom are not Native people. What elements, then, had to be omitted, edited, and left out so as not to offend or alienate voters, but rather draw them in? The result then is that the document is not a justice document but rather a manipulation document, sanitized in a way that appeases the mind and guilt of the voter, of the Christian. 


[5] This is the system that 21st century Lutherans have inherited. We lift up how responsible the church is, exhibited by the many justice statements the church has made over time, but whom do those statements serve? Those for whom we seek justice, or those voting on them? We proudly lift up Lutheran Social Ethics as amodel worthy of being followed by others around the world interested in doingsocial ethics, yet we mold and manipulate language for the sake of not offending the bound conscience of those who would sit in opposition to a differently worded statement.  Because of such carefulness, it often seems that we can never say what really needs to be said. As a result, we cannot do what really needs to be done.


[6] The church’s current resolve to repudiate could indeed be the catapult that flings us into a future of real solidarity with indigenous peoples. It could be the re-start of a church so committed to justice for Native peoples that the racist policies embedded in the fabric of the church and American society in general begin to really be reformed, allowing for Native Nations to be freed and transformed unreservedly.  This resolve could inspire such grand changes to happen. However, the reality today is that, in many cases, Native peoples still face unimaginable existences.  Although some tribes are seeing economic development that is unprecedented in Indian Country, many are still enduring extreme poverty and its effects. We are still suffering from the traumas experienced by generations of our ancestors.  Such generational and historical traumas have been inflicted upon us through the systems and policies of the federal government, state governments, and churches that worked persistently to eliminate our cultures and our lives.  This trauma is witnessed in the diseases we live with and die from, the elimination of our languages, the deletion of our traditions and cultures, the dismissal of our lifeways, the high levels of addiction, the large number of suicides, the disappearances of our women, our imprisonment on reservations, or our isolation due to a forced and lonely diaspora.


[7] The repudiation resolution could serve as another good start in the history of Lutheranism in Native America, but we must remain vigilant in our work to assess two critical pieces. First, does this repudiation do enough, challenge us enough?  Second, what might Native people really want from the church, aside from the activities listed in the sanitized resolution regarding repudiation?


[8] The straight-shooting wisdom of Vine Deloria, Jr. (Standing Rock Sioux), continues to be as relevant today as it ever was. In his book, God is Red, he reminds us just how long the church has been implicated by such an inhumane and justice-absent doctrine, how long the church has needed to rebuke and live in opposition to the doctrine:. He writes:


the kings of Europe badly needed an inexhaustible source of income to maintain themselves. Visualizing a steady stream of wealth from the Indies, which would allow them to avoid giving political rights and economic benefits to the rising commercial classes in return for financial support to the crown, the heads of the European states saw in the New World the only hope of maintaining themselves.”


And he continues to explain that:


   The Christian church was also eager to exploit the new lands. Its political power beginning to wane with the rise of strong European political leaders, the Christian church saw a means of directing the invasion of the new lands by placing its imprimatur on exploitation, in effect taking a percentage of the loot in return for blessing the enterprise. In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued his Inter Caetera bull, which laid down the basic Christian attitude toward the New World: ‘Among other works well pleasing to the Divine Majesty and cherished of the heart, this assuredly ranks highest, that in our times, especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be care for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.’[4]


Deloria concludes that:  


What this pious language meant in practical terms was that if confiscation of lands were couched in quasi-religious sentiments, the nations of Europe could proceed. In an immensely practical gesture the pope noted that he did thereby ‘give, grant, and assign forever to you and your heirs and successors, kings of Castile and Leon, all singular the aforesaid countries and islands …hitherto discovered … and to be discovered …together with all their dominions, cities, camps, places, and villages, and all rights jurisdictions, and appurtenances of the same.’[5]

   The lands and villages were not, of course, the pope’s to give…”



[9] Will the church, once again, take seriously the need for better relations with and advocacy for Native people through the work laid out before it by the Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery?  That would be our hope.Native people continue to work for justice for ourselves, particularly for our elders and the seven generations who will journey here on Mother Earth after us.  Yet we are very aware of the fact that the odds are highly stacked against us.  We recognize that the power systems and structures were built to keep us down, not lift us up.  Still, we are resilient people, strong, and will continue to climb for the sake of those who come after us.  We, the original peoples of Turtle Island, know the pain and hard work that the climb requires.  The repudiation and what it asks of the church is not painful, nor is it hard work in comparison.  So, is the church willing to face the pain and hard work with us?  We pray so. Lord in your mercy.

Vance Blackfox received an MATS from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and has worked in social services, with a focus on youth.


[2] Ibid.

[3] Turtle Island is the name most Native people use to refer to North America due to the important role that turtle plays in many tribe’s creation stories.



Articles published in the journal reflect the perspectives and thoughts of their authors and not necessarily the theological, ethical, or social stances of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.​

© March 2017
​Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 17, Issue 2