Memorial Day, the Doctrine of Discovery and the Honor Code: Or "Why is there a flag on the Moon?"

There's a Flag on the Moon.
Sermon May 27, 2012
Tom Schade

On Memorial Day, we remember those men and women, mostly men, who died in the Armed Services of the United States, fighting in the wars this country has fought. 

It is a holiday that originated after the Civil War -- beginning as a commemoration of the Union dead, but over time, those that fought on the side of the seceding States have been included in the honoring.  Time and war have added more to that number: the soldiers, sailors and marines who perished in the Spanish-American War, World War 1, World War 2, the Korean War, the War in Vietnam, the first Iraq War, the War in Afghanistan and the second Iraq War.  This is not to mention various interventions and invasions conducted throughout the history. 

So many occasions; so many names; so many losses; so much history.

There were more wars in our history:  The wars against the Indigenous peoples of North America: wars to take their territory, wars to remove their populations from the lands to be settled, and most often, wars to find, capture or kill groups or bands that had taken up arms to resist their people's defeat.

The Pequot War, King Phillip's War, the Beaver Wars, the Tuscarora and Yamassee Wars, the Chickasaw resistance, Pontiac's Rebellion, Little Turtle's War, Tecumseh's War, the Creek War, The First and the Second Seminole War, the Trail of Tears, the Black Hawk War, the Apache War, the Navajo War, too many to list, starting in the early colonial period and ending in the twentieth century. 

I have no idea how many US troops died in these many wars.  And we certainly have no idea how many of the indigenous peoples perished in these wars. 

It seems that if the Confederate dead have been included among those invoked on Memorial Dead, these fallen should also be remembered as well.

The military suppression of the indigenous people has come to be known as a group as the American Indian Wars -- and I will call them that here-- even though we know that term is loaded, carrying with it the presumptions of the winners.

When we refer to the United States as a country or a nation, we are referring to both the land and the government centered in Washington DC.  The land was made by God, we say, and we are governed by the state created by the Constitution of the United States of 1789. 

The question that I want to answer is how did this particular government acquire sovereignity over this particular land mass. Well, the present Constitutional Republic acquired it from its predecessor -- the Articles of Confederation government, which had forcibly seized it from the British Crown in the Revolution.  And the British Crown was considered sovereign in much of North America because they, it is said, 'discovered it'.  Which brings us to the Doctrine of Discovery.

The Doctrine of Discovery is a 16th century religious doctrine.  It is not a secular real estate principle, but a religious doctrine, rooted in the Christian church of the time, and reflecting Christianity's theology of history of that time. 

To explain: the Christian church at that time believed that humanity was living in the in-between period between the two comings of Christ -- the first and the second coming which was yet to come.  During this period, it was necessary for humanity to be under the rule of Christian rulers -- otherwise, sinful humanity would come under the influence of Satan.

So the question was: what should be done with peoples who are not under the rule of a Christian monarch?  The answer was that they should be brought under that control as soon as possible.  And which one?  Well, the one that first discovered them. 

The doctrine of discovery was not about discovering lands; it was about what to do with pagan people -- indigenous people.  And when should they be brought under the control of the Christian monarch?  When they were discovered or conquered.

The Doctrine of Discovery gave to the discovering Christian monarch an exclusive right to extinguish the rights of an indigenous people when it was feasible to do so.  Hence, a discovered Indian tribe could not ally itself with another European power -- nor could it sell its land to another power.

So for example, when the United States bought the Louisiana Purchase from France -- it did not actually buy the land; after all, France did not control the land.  Nor did the United States take control of that vast stretch of land.  The United States had bought the rights to be the sole recipient of that land when the Native peoples who actually owned and controlled that land could be coerced into surrendering or selling that land. Those were the rights of discovery, under the doctrine of discovery.

The American Indian wars were all carried out under the doctrine of discovery.  Each war was to carry out the extinguishment of the rights of an Indian nation, to bring  those people under the rule of those who held an exclusive right to rule them, according to international law and religious doctrine.

The doctrine of discovery became the international principle which underlay colonialism around the world.  It is the legal basis of the division of the non-European world into nation-states as we now know them.   

The United States Supreme Court in 1823 incorporated the Doctrine of Discovery into the law of the United States.  It was the basis of all our dealings with indigenous peoples throughout our history.  It is a bedrock principle of American jurisprudence.  It is why the present Native Americans cannot sue the government on the grounds that their rights to life, liberty and property have been taken from them without the due process of law.  It is still why Indian tribes cannot sell their property, or control the leases of their property for mineral rights without the approval of the Federal government. 

In the 1990's, the United Nations passed a Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples -- a Declaration which has been ratified by all but four countries in the world (the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). 

Understanding this doctrine of discovery and the legal principles that flow from it is new information, I expect, for most of us.  It explains the mechanism by which the present world was made.  It answers a How question, but not a what question. 

We all know the broad outlines of this history -- that the taking of the North American continent from its rightful owners and inhabitants was an enormous historical crime -- bigotry, greed, conquest, and genocide. 

But as unjust as it was, It is still fundamental to the way that the world is; it cannot be repealed or reversed, anymore than can the Holocaust be undone, or the African slaves be adequately compensated or made whole.

You cannot unring a bell.

Or at least that is how we think of this now -- that this stuff is the unsavory and unmentionable past that created this unchangeable present.

Which brings us to the question of how change happens.  I have been thinking a book published a few years ago:  The Honor Code, by Kwame Appiah, who is at Harvard.

His thesis, as I understand it, is that the opinions of those with power and privilege changes according to their sense of honor.  Not because of their thinking about the principles of justice.  Not because they are filled with a new compassion.  Not because they feel guilty.  But because it becomes dishonorable in the eyes of their peers to continue in the old ways.

Appiah, he explored two particular issues, neither of which most of us have any deep emotional investment, in which helps. 

The first was the practice of dueling among the aristocracy of Europe.  Dueling went from being a completely acceptable part of life, indeed something by which men defended their honor, to vanishing in a very short period of time -- a decade or so.  It had become dishonorable, and it fell out of social acceptablilty like a rock. No new argument against it had been advanced; no new research had proven it to be anti-social.  It had become dishonorable, and so men of honor avoided it.

Appiah tells the same story about Chinese foot-binding for women.  As you might expect the earliest opponents of foot-binding were women.  But it continued for generations after that -- but a variety of social changes suddenly made it a dishonorable practice.  Men went from being proud of their wives with bound feet to being embarrassed to be seen with them.  It would mark the man as being a retrograde throwback. The facts had not changed and no new information was available.  But the standards of what was honorable and dishonorable had changed among the privileged -- the men, the husbands -- and that brought up the consolidation of the change that had been long brewing.

I have been thinking about this is the context of our culture now.  And if you are my age or older, you can remember the speed with which the N-word vanished from the vocabulary. 

And I look at the speed in which same-sex marriage has become accepted.  It appears that President Obama's endorsement of same-sex marriage has not made much of a difference in opinion polls, except within the African American community.  I would suspect that for some in the community, he made approval of marriage equality an honorable position, and that has moved people. 

Let's look at social change from the point of the privileged -- and really, do we have any choice in that matter?

As a privileged person, for the most part, you consider the present arrangements to be OK in practice.  You may know that there is an unsavory past behind what is happening right now.

When the present arrangements are questioned or protested or some change is demanded, the privileged's first response is to consider those proposals to be somehow dishonorable, in the way that suggesting to change the rules in the middle of the game is not fair or honorable.  I always get this: what?  Now, that attitude which have I had, or words I have said all along, somebody is complaining about.  And I think it is dishonorable at that time: people are trying to get power by guilt-tripping me.  People are being too damn sensitive.

And a social line is drawn.  Those who are privileged maintain the status quo by calling those who want change to be outsiders, somehow dishonorable.  They  threaten to withdraw social respectability on those who want change.

Among the privileged, such as a ourselves, social change comes down to a series of skirmishes about what is honorable and what is dishonorable.  Saying somebody is just being "PC" is a way of saying that they are outside the honor code that we all hold.

What is OK to talk about? What is not? 

I read somewhere recently this line: it doesn't so matter whether you are privileged or not, it's what you do with that privilege.

Obviously, this church and this congregation holds a lot of privilege.  Our building is a landmark in the city and members of this church serve in many capacities throughout the community. It used to be that this congregation had great economic power, and with the changes in the Worcester economy that is no longer true.  But I know that many of us are respected opinion leaders in the community -- in our jobs, in the organizations we belong to, in our neighborhoods.   What do we with that power and privilege?

I say that we are called upon to push the boundaries of what is respectable to talk about. To expand the scope of positions which a good citizen can take with honor. 

Perhaps it seems like a small thing that we try to be affirming of transgender people here in this church -- but we are moving a boundary -- changing the honor code of heterosexual gender typical people.  We are moving closer to a day when it will no longer be an honorable thing to smirk and joke and be derisive about sissies and tomboys, and other people who don't match up to gender stereotypes. 

And, along that line, my purpose today is to push the boundary a little on who we honor on a day like Memorial Day.  Perhaps all the Native Americans who fought and died in the American Indian wars --  men and women and children too numerous to mention, too different to name, too insignificant to remember, perhaps we ought to remember them as well as those who fought against them. 

We cannot change the past, but we can change how we think about the past.  And someday, it will seem small and cramped and somewhat dishonorable to remember the past in ways that remember white people out of proportion.  Let us face down our discomforts and move toward that higher and more expansive honoring.

And to circle around to my title:  when the astronauts went to the moon, the left a US flag on the moon, as though they were a Spainard, or Portuguese or English Explorer landing on the soil of North America.  As though our country discovered the Moon, the same moon that all people everywhere look up and see sailing across the skys of Earth.  Isn't a little embarrassing? 

Let us end today singing this song of international empathy and solidarity-- This is My Song.  Number 159 in the gray hymnal. 


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