In 1454, Pope Nicholas V issued Romanus Pontifex, a papal bull granting Portugal ownership of Africa, well, most of it, everything south of Cape Boujdour, in the Western Sahara.

With these stunning and fateful words, the Pope gave permission to King Alfonso of Portugal…

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…

This bull constitutes what is called The Doctrine of Discovery. Whatever Christian Kings discovered, they could claim as their own and with as they wished. The result would prove genocidal.

In 1215 Pope Innocent III has issued a papal bull annulling the Magna Carta, calling it “illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people…”

Later, in 1520, in Wittenberg Square, Martin Luther famously burned Exurge Domine, the papal bull declaring him a heretic and threatening him with excommunication.

This papal bull, Romanus Pontifex, had even more disastrous consequences. In his book The Great Spiritual Migration, Brian McLaren points out the use of the word “convert” to his “use and profit.” This was the mission of the church. He says Romanus Pontifex was a genocide card given to every white Christian nation.

Christopher Columbus took this seriously.

“In fourteen hundred and ninety five, sixteen hundred people he kidnapped alive.”

Columbus wrote with his own hand,

“It is possible with the name of the Holy Trinity, to sell all the slaves that it is possible to sell… Here there are so many of these slaves… although they are living things, they are as good as gold.”

His crew was given permission to enslave as many Haitians and Dominicans as they wished. Columbus gave many native American girls as sex slaves to his crew. Nine and ten-year-old girls were in high demand.

A Dominican friar by the name of Bartolomé de las Casas wrote,

“With my own eyes I saw Spaniards cut off the nose, hands, and ears of Indians, male and female, without provocation, merely because it pleased them to do it….

“Likewise, I saw how they summoned the caciques and the chief rulers to come, assuring them safety, and when they peacefully came, they were taken captive and burned….

“They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike….

“They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house.”

Words have power.

McLaren points out the cruel religious motivation in Bartolomé’s account:

“They took infants from their mothers’ breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, “Boil there, you offspring of the devil!”… They made some low wide gallows on which the hanged victim’s feet almost touched the ground, stringing up their victims in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles, then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive.”

Bartolomé estimated the deaths from 1495 to 1552 to be 12-15 million.

In 1513, the Spanish government decreed that all people in their colony would be a Christian. The indigenous people must submit to the supremacy of the church. If not, they said,

“we shall powerfully enter your county, and make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses; we shall take you, and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses command.”

I give you the Doctrine of Discovery. You find land; you own it, and the people in it. This is the impulse of white supremacy. The world is ours. Obey us.

The ELCA has repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, but this is only a start. There is much yet to be done to heal the centuries-long wound to indigenous people.

This repudiation called for the church to “explicitly and clearly repudiate” the Doctrine of Discovery and “to acknowledge and repent of its complicity in the evils of colonialism in the Americas.” It called us to take action by having a national ceremony with tribal leaders, holding healing ceremonies, producing resources for congregations, and formulating a strategy for sustainably funded ministry with Native peoples. It passed the Churchwide Assembly 912-28.

Will we do it?