Sr. Joan Brown on colonialism’s reach into the present and relation to our climate crisis
In the midst of these messages there is one that keeps following me. This particular theme has taken me by surprise. In fact, I have tried to put this message on the back burner for a number of years because there is so much pressing work around climate change and climate justice.
The message of white superiority, racism, and colonialism rooted in the Doctrine of Discovery has put its tentacles very clearly within my climate justice work this summer. While climate justice work which includes racial and economic justice has been part of the work of New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light and other groups, getting to the deeper places of this work is more challenging.
In this Year of Mercy, when people pilgrimage to church doors, I have been reflecting upon the many doors that people and now the earth knock upon. The passage from Luke 18 about the widow who kept knocking upon the door of the judge seeking justice against an opponent stands out as a parable for our moment. Finally, her persistence caused the judge to act. “And will not God grant justice to the chosen ones who cry out day and night?”
The people and Earth with just concerns have been knocking on our doors, especially those of us who are privileged, for decades, if not hundreds of years. Day and night we hear the knocks in the form of gun shots, unprecedented storms, poverty, failing schools, and the voices in lands like New Mexico which continue to be sacrificial zones for greed and outdated philosophies of national security and energy production rooted in colonizing attitudes that are very much alive.
Our doors open maybe a crack to offer works of mercy, to reflect for a few hours at an undoing racism workshop, to lobby for climate change legislation, to advocate for immigration reform or any number of good and important works. However, the deeper roots of the current crises we find ourselves within will continue to fester like a splinter infecting a hand until the splinter is painfully dug out and smothered in alcohol to stop infection. But not even that is enough, the splintery handle of the tool must also be replaced.
For me, it has become very clear that climate change is just the most recent form of colonialism connected to the many concerns knocking at our door. It seems we have minds that are colonized and we do not even realize the worldview out of which we live. As we reflect upon the Year of Mercy and consider reconciliation, would it not be important to seek mercy, reconciliation, repudiation and reparation for the past and current sins of the Doctrine of Discovery?
The Doctrine of Discovery is a philosophical and legal frame work rooted in 15th-century decrees and papal bulls from the Vatican that gave Christian governments the right to take land and subjugate indigenous people on all continents. From this history a paradigm of domination continues that legitimizes extractive industries and attitudes of violence for one another. The Doctrine of Discovery continues to hold deep and active roots for Theologies of Entitlement, Justification of Violence and Terra Nullius (Empty Land). As a philosophical and legal framework it has held up in U.S. Supreme Court rulings as recently as 2005.
My Franciscan community and a number of other women’s religious communities signed a collective letter in 2013 calling for repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery that was sent to the Vatican. It has not been repudiated. A number of Protestant denominations have repudiated the doctrine and some, like the Mennonites are actively working to address their part as colonial settlers on Native American land and as part of the Mission School phase of U.S. history.
Implications of colonialization of our minds, hearts and lifestyles looms large as we face climate change and decisions about who will live and who will die, about whose land can be taken for extractive industries and whose land will remain intact, about who will have water and who will have polluted water or no water.
We have only to look at a few of recent headlines to make the connections. Worldwide Extraction of Materials Triples in Four Decades, Intensifying Climate Change and Air Pollution by the U.N. Environment Programme stated, “The amount of primary materials extracted from the Earth rose from 22 billion tonnes in 1970 to a staggering 70 billion tonnes in 2010, with the richest countries consuming on average 10 times as many materials as the poorest countries and twice as much as the world average.”
The Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines (CHR), a governmental body, sent the multinational “carbon majors” a 60-page document accusing them of “breaching people’s fundamental rights to ‘life, food, water, sanitation, adequate housing, and to self-determination,'” The Guardian reported.
Education about the Doctrine, repudiation by the Vatican, reconciliation by all of us and appropriate reparation could be very important for people of faith who sincerely desire to dig out the splinters infecting our communities, culture and world, and address structural change.
The events of the summer continue to surprise and sear me. But what is more surprising are the workshops, retreats, events and conversations with people that I have been part of this summer. I believe such messages are more than synchronicity. The Spirit is moving.
We cannot ignore the knocking. The challenge is to figure out what to do as we open the door. However, I feel a deeper hopefulness with the fresh air blowing through the door of Mercy shedding light on the splinters I will be digging out for some time.
[Sr. Joan Brown, OSF, is a Franciscan sister of the Rochester, Minnesota community. Her Kansas farm roots, our New Cosmic Story, Franciscanism and multi-cultural experiences in New Mexico inform her work as Executive Director of New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light.]