Sermon: The Hubris of Discovery (audio & text)

READINGS

“next to of course god america i” By: e.e. cummings

next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?
He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

“The Magic Lake” A Cherokee Story
There was a young Cherokee boy walking in the woods one day, and he saw droplets of blood upon the leaves. So, he began to follow the trail because he was concerned that somebody had been hurt. He followed the drops up the hillside and eventually came upon a small bear cub who had been wounded and was bleeding. The cub was climbing up the hill, so he followed it. As he watched, the cub would stumble and fall, but then get up again. He watched the bear make its way up the great mountain that the Cherokees call Shakonige, which is the Blue Mountain, also known as Clingman’s Dome.
Slowly the bear climbed ahead, and the boy followed him until they got to the top. It was hard to tell exactly where he was, though, because fog covered almost everything. Then, as the boy watched, he saw the bear cub jump into the fog. The boy couldn’t believe his eyes, and so he ran up to the spot, figuring the bear was gone. But then suddenly he saw the fog turn to water, and the cub began to swim.
When he came back to the shore, the bear got out of the water, and his injured leg was completely healed. The boy was very confused. But then he saw a duck swim into the water with a broken wing, and it made his wing well, Animals were coming from all directions, swimming in the water and being healed. The boy looked up to the Great Spirit and said, “I don’t understand.”
The Great Spirit said, “Go back and tell your sisters and brothers, the Cherokee, that if they love me, if they love all their brothers and sisters, and if they love the animals of the earth, when they grow old and sick, they too can come to the magic lake and be made well again.”

SERMON
“By gorry by jingo by gee by gosh by gum. . .”
The language of ee cumming’s poem is a little dated – not surprising, as it was composed almost 100 years ago, in the 1920s. But we can still recognize the figure that he archly lampoons here: the blowhard politician whose speech is a kind of scrambled eggs of worn pieties and pseudo-patriotic gobbledygook. Indeed, in this tumultuous election year we don’t have to look far to find them. So, his poem is good for a chuckle and a weary shake of our heads.
But if we linger just a little longer we can see that cummings is also making a deeper and more penetrating point here. His object is to draw attention not just to the politicians spouting the pieties but to the pieties themselves: pieties, the poem suggests, that are in many ways no less foolish than the speaker himself.
We recognize these pieties, for they are not radically different today from what they were in cummings’ time. They celebrate a triumphalist view of American history that we all know from our high school textbooks. As he says: “land of pilgrims . . . in every language, even deaf and dumb” where the voice of liberty rings clear.
There it is in Katherine Lee Bates’s great civil hymn:
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern impassion’d stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

I must confess that I was taught well. My patriotic heart still beats a little faster when I hear those words – such lovely images, such soul-stirring sentiment. There is, it is true, historic truth embedded in those verses, and yet . . . and yet so much else that remains unspoken or even acknowledged that is cause, not for celebration, but for mourning and atonement.

This month in our worship and small group ministry we turn to the discipline of healing. Healing is the process of recovery from a wound – physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual. It is not something we can impose or thrust on another; it is something we can only offer with humility and care. When we speak of healing, we begin with the presumption that the one in need of healing has the natural capacity to recover from injury, but is also likely to need time and some assistance to do so.

Today I invite us to consider what it would mean to be agents of healing of one of the oldest and deepest wounds of this nation, one that centuries after it was first inflicted continues to be aggravated even today, a wound summed up in the word, “discovery.”

We grew up being told of the “Age of Discovery,” a time roughly from the 15th to the 18th centuries when “courageous” Europeans set sail to establish routes to trade with other people in Africa, Asia and the Americas. But truth to tell, those sailors were interested in more than trading. Where they found valuable resources – precious metals, gems and so on – they also sought to seize foreign lands for their own.

In this enterprise, they received the blessing of the church. In 1454, Pope Nicholas V issued a proclamation, or papal bull, that authorized the king of Portugal, whose soldiers were colonizing West Africa, to “invade, capture, vanquish and subdue all . . . pagans and other enemies of Christ . . . (and) to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery. . . (and) to take away their possessions and property.”

After Columbus’s trip to Hispaniola in 1492, the Spanish court sought and received a similar papal bull that extended them the same privileges. Other European courts adopted this “Doctrine of Discovery” to support their own colonizing.

“Discovery”: What an exciting word! Isn’t that what goads so many of us in our work? To discover new things – “To boldly go where no one has gone before,” right? Who would ever have thought that it could become a shield for oppression, murder, enslavement, and even genocide? And yet it did.
Those plucky Pilgrims, among our religious forebears, paid little mind to the indigenous peoples who occupied the land they traveled to. To their eyes, they were looking upon pristine, virginal wilderness.

Remember from “America the Beautiful”?
O beautiful for pilgrim feet, whose stern impassion’d stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat across the wilderness!

Nope. Sorry. As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz points out in An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, that untamed wilderness was actually occupied by some 15 million people, the majority of whom were farmers who lived in towns. Also, by their actions it’s plain that it was not freedom that the settlers sought to spread across the country but dominion.

And Thomas Jefferson, he who proclaimed that it was self-evident that all are created equal, endowed with unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, was quick as secretary of state to claim the European Doctrine of Discovery as a way of denying Indian claims to their own lands and opening it up to settlers.

And later Chief Justice John Marshall declared in a Supreme Court decision that due to the European Doctrine of Discovery, Indians had lost “their rights to complete sovereignty as independent nations,” and would only be recognized as occupying their lands. Subsequent decisions designated Indian peoples as “domestic dependent nations” forever subject to the control of the federal government.

Those precedents not only remain in the law but in years since have been used repeatedly to appropriate Indian lands previously given by treaty and to remove Indians from their ancient homelands, as our neighbors, the Cherokee, experienced. They also were the basis of campaigns of violence against them, including moments that were nothing short of slaughter.

We can even see it in the current presidential campaign. When Donald Trump asserts that the US should have seized Iraqis oil wells when it drove out Saddam Hussein, he is making essentially an extended argument based on the Doctrine of Discovery. It’s the kind of “to the victor belong the spoils” philosophy often asserted by conquering nations but which in fact amounts to nothing short of a war crime.

In America, it is part of a legacy that has crippled and marginalized native peoples for generations. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s book walks us through much of it. I recommend it to you if you’d like to pursue this further: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. It’s published by our own publishing house, Beacon Press.

And so we are left to wonder how to deal with all this now. As Dunbar-Ortiz points out, this notion that we as a nation or even we as individuals are privileged do to what we want, grab what we like and throw our weight around heedless of the consequences or of the impact on other people is collateral damage from the wound that the Doctrine of Discovery has inflicted.

Back in 1993 at the 500th anniversary of Columbus arriving in the Americas indigenous peoples argued that to recognize this history, the day now designated as Columbus Day, which comes tomorrow in our calendar, should instead be designated Indigenous Peoples Day.

Since then, there has been a growing movement seeking to bring attention to the experience of indigenous peoples. This year for the first time, the city of Phoenix will join Seattle and Minneapolis – all places with strong indigenous communities – in recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day. So far, South Dakota is the only state to do so.

Back in 2014 Lakota activist Bill Means had this to say about why the celebration should be changed from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day: “We discovered Columbus, lost on our shores, sick, destitute, and wrapped in rags. We nourished him to health, and the rest is history. He represents the mascot of American colonialism in the Western Hemisphere. And so it is time that we change a myth of history.”

That’s not a bad idea: It’s time that we discard the myth of discovery, that we acknowledge the damage that our forebears inflicted on native peoples by the ravages of colonialism. And maybe it’s time that we open a conversation about who indigenous people really are – not exotic figures out of a mythic past, but people with a unique story and a unique place in this country.

In 2012 at our General Assembly the Unitarian Universalist Association adopted a resolution repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, a move that put us in the company with the Episcopal Church and the World Council of Churches. We also resolved to “expose the historical reality and impact” of the doctrine and eliminate it, wherever we might find it, even in our own policies and practices.

What that might look like is an interesting challenge for us each to consider. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz talks of how frustrated native peoples are that in recent years even as their history has been acknowledged, they find themselves lumped in as just one of many racial minorities who have suffered historic discrimination. All that, she says, ignores the many very real ways that they continue to be marginalized today.

She quotes Ojibwe historian Jean O’Brien who talks of how Indians are written out of existence by what she calls “firsting and lasting.” Towns, she says, create monuments to what they call the “first settlement” or “first dwelling,” as if there had never been occupants in those places before Euro-Americans. Meanwhile, she says, a national narrative tells of “last Indians” or “last tribes”: the last of the Mohicans or the famous sculpture by James Earl Fraser of a mounted Indian slumped over his horse entitled “End of the Trail.”

Among the initiatives our own UUA resolution urges is that congregations make efforts to learn about native peoples in their local context, to develop relationships with them and awareness of their culture.

Several years ago as part of a class here on developing a “Sense of Place” I arranged a visit for our group to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, where Education Director Barbara Duncan told us something of the struggles the Cherokee have faced and still face to claim their identity and sustain their culture.

The Qualla Boundary, the 56,000-acre reservation at Cherokee, North Carolina, provides a place where many in the Eastern Band of Cherokee make their home. But their heritage in this part of the world extends far beyond this narrow space. You can still see it in dozens of burial mounds scattered across this region as well as town sites, and sacred centers of years gone by. You get a sense of it from Cherokee tales that feature places that remain popular today, including what we know as Mount Mitchell, the Devil’s Courthouse, and, as you heard in our story, Clingman’s Dome.
Here, too, though, the Cherokee struggle with being perceived as a relic, rather than an active, evolving culture. To avoid that fate, they rely on the hope that some of the descendants of Europeans who colonized this land will relinquish the hubris of their heritage.

As Charlie indicated, hubris is the pride that blinds us, an overweening arrogance that insists on its way and will not be bothered with the facts or other people’s perspectives. What might it look like to discard outworn pieties and remove the blinders that the “discoverers” of this land left us and look with new eyes on this land and its people?

It could be a path toward healing, a path perhaps something like the one the Cherokee boy found when he followed the wounded cub up the mountainside, leading us to a place where, as the Great Spirit puts it, if we love all our brothers and sisters and if we love the animals of the earth we might just be made well again.