Monthly Archives: October 2014

Indigenous Peoples, the United States, and the Church

Recently we marked the passage of another Columbus Day. Fortunately a number of states no longer celebrate this travesty(instigated by the Catholic lay group, Knights of Columbus, lobbying President Roosevelt to create “Columbus Day”), but too many still do celebrate this day and current school history books still carry a distorted and sanitized view of this man. Certainly for those who are as old as me have experienced this “unreality” being taught to us in grade school and even high school without even a trace of what Columbus was really all about. What’s truly sad and mind boggling is that there are quite a few people who still today defend the myth and laud the man as one of the greats of history. And what a shame that this takes place in Christian and especially Catholic circles. And the role of the Church in all this is not pretty reading. To be liberated from the myth and to come a bit closer to the truth I would suggest that you read this book: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.

Let us consider a few historical facts–primarily to begin to understand why we are where we are and why we are the way we are. It is not an encouraging picture. So Columbus first lands on an island which is among what is known today as the Bahamas, and there encounters his first indigenous inhabitants of the new land (or of Asia as he first thought). Here he is in his own words: “They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. They would make fine servants. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” So his intentions are bad from the get-go, and it’s not the fact that he simply lost control of his men. The expedition’s main purpose was to get wealth: slaves and gold. Here is Own McCormick writing in Truthout on the sanitization of this history:

“With an extensive arsenal of advanced weaponry and horses, Columbus and his men arrived on the islands that were later named Cuba and Hispaniola (the latter, present-day Dominican Republic and Haiti). Upon arrival, the sheer magnitude of gold, which was readily available, set into motion a relentless wave of murder, rape, pillaging and slavery that would forever alter the course of human history. A young, Catholic priest named Bartolomé de las Casas transcribed Columbus’ journals and later wrote about the violence he had witnessed. The fact that such crimes could potentially go unnoticed by future generations was deeply troubling to him. He expanded upon the extent of Columbus’ reign of terror within his multivolume book, History of the Indies:

‘There were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over 3,000,000 people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it.’”


Thom Hartmann writing also in Truthout puts it more succinctly and in very timely terms: “Christopher Columbus was the ISIS of his day. He justified rape, murder and pillage with religion and funded his efforts with whatever he could steal.” Columbus was also making money from the child-sex-trade. In a letter to a friend he wrote this in 1500: “A hundred castellanoes (a Spanish coin) are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten (years old) are now in demand.”


Thom Hartmann again: “Eventually, Columbus resorted to wiping out the Taino altogether. Prior to Columbus’ arrival in the New World, scholars place the population of Haiti/Hispaniola at around 1.5 to 3 million people. By 1496, it was down to 1.1 million, according to a census done by Bartholomew Columbus, Columbus’ brother. By 1516, the indigenous population was at 12,000, and by 1542, fewer than 200 natives were alive on Hispaniola. By 1555, every single native was dead. Every last one.” This was basically state-sponsored genocide, sponsored by the Catholic state of Spain.


But now let us look at the “theory” you might say behind such activity, the idea that drove this activity and all colonization by all the European nations. There is a little-known principle in western law known as the “Doctrine of Discovery,” which allows the major powers to subjugate, exploit and ultimately without saying it explicitly to exterminate indigeneous peoples. Listen to Professor Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz explain it:

“According to the centuries-old Doctrine of Discovery, European nations acquired title to the lands they “discovered,” and Indigenous inhabitants lost their natural right to that land after Europeans had arrived and claimed it. Under this legal cover for theft, Euro-American wars of conquest and settler colonialism devastated Indigenous nations and communities, ripping their territories away from them and transforming the land into private property, real estate. Most of that land ended up in the hands of land speculators and agribusiness operators, many of which, up to the mid-nineteenth century, were plantations worked by another form of private property, enslaved Africans. Arcane as it may seem, the doctrine remains the basis for federal laws still in effect that control Indigenous peoples’ lives and destinies, even their histories by distorting them. “

You might be saying to yourself that surely the Church was not part of this and that later the United States of America did not recognize any such “doctrine.” But then you would be wrong! (The only “bright light” in the Church at this time was the Dominican De Las Casas who championed the cause of the Native Peoples–why he is not canonized but some of these popes are I cannot figure out). Professor Dunbar-Ortiz again:

“From the mid-fifteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, most of the non-European world was colonized under the Doctrine of Discovery, one of the first principles of international law Christian European monarchies promulgated to legitimize investigating, mapping, and claiming lands belonging to peoples outside Europe. It originated in a papal bull issued in 1455 that permitted the Portuguese monarchy to seize West Africa. Following Columbus’s infamous exploratory voyage in 1492, sponsored by the king and queen of the infant Spanish state, another papal bull extended similar permission to Spain. Disputes between the Portuguese and Spanish monarchies led to the papal-initiated Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), which, besides dividing the globe equally between the two Iberian empires, clarified that only non-Christian lands fell under the discovery doctrine.  This doctrine on which all European states relied thus originated with the arbitrary and unilateral establishment of the Iberian monarchies’ exclusive rights under Christian canon law to colonize foreign peoples, and this right was later seized by other European monarchical colonizing projects. The French Republic used this legalistic instrument for its nineteenth- and twentieth-century settler colonialist projects, as did the newly independent United States when it continued the colonization of North America begun by the British. In 1792, not long after the US founding, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson claimed that the Doctrine of Discovery developed by European states was international law applicable to the new US government as well. In 1823 the US Supreme Court issued its decision in Johnson v. McIntosh. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Marshall held that the Doctrine of Discovery had been an established principle of European law and of English law in effect in Britain’s North American colonies and was also the law of the United States. The Court defined the exclusive property rights that a European country acquired by dint of discovery: “Discovery gave title to the government, by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it was made, against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession.” Therefore, European and Euro-American “discoverers” had gained real-property rights in the lands of Indigenous peoples by merely planting a flag.” A figure no less than Martin Luther King put it bluntly: “Our nation was born in genocide.  . . . We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode.”


Now the question we are left with is where was the Christian community, the Church, in all this? Hard to answer. Even Church intellectuals and theologians and most of those saints we canonized in this era were silent about this murderous push by Western Civ into the “New World.” Only marginal church bodies like the Quakers and Unitarians have denounced the “Doctrine of Discovery” and its continuing influence on our law(also the Episcopalians). Strange that today we are so obsessed about the “War on Terror,” all those terrorists out there…..when we, Western Civ, were the most efficient practitioners of Terrorism.





Merton et al.

  1. We are coming near the anniversary of Merton’s death in December of 1968. It is hard to believe that this tragic event took place 46 years ago! Merton was only in his early 50s–to think what he would have written after his Asian trip….if he had only lived at least into his 60s like Abhishiktananda…. Sad too that he never met Abhishiktananda when he was in India. The two men were very different in some significant ways and had some very different interests–Merton was ranging far and wide with his interests in the Sufis and Buddhism and Christian monastic sources and social movements–not very much interest in Hinduism, showed little penetration of the Upanishads; while Abhishiktananda focused almost exclusively on his India and Hinduism and even there almost exclusively on the Advaita of the Upanishads–ignoring the very real dualistic schools of India.   But I think the meeting would have been something exceptional.


  1. Some of Merton’s writings seem now a bit dated; others are not only still very relevant but truly prophetic pointing us to a future not yet realized. Also in light of Abhishiktananda’s journey and explorations, Merton’s seems more cautious, more conservative, not so much “pushing the theological envelope.” But in his encounter with Tibetan Buddhism I think he turned a certain corner, and you wonder where he was headed for….! I think his main contributions can be summed up as: a.) focusing us on the contemplative and mystical dimension of Christianity and Christian monastic life (as opposed to a simple institutional “belonging” or some exercise in piety and morality); b.)showing the deep connections between the contemplative and social concerns; c.) helping bring back the whole hermit tradition in Christianity; and d.) opening to the great world religions and willingness to learn from them.


  1. In his Asian Journal Merton relates this encounter with a Tibetan Lama:

“The Khempo of Namgyal deflected a question of mine about metaphysics…by saying that the real ground of his Gelugpa study and practice was the knowledge of suffering, and that only when a person was fully convinced of the immensity of suffering and its complete universality and saw the need of deliverance from it, and sought deliverance for all beings, could he begin to understand sunyata…. When one read the Prajnaparamita on suffering and was thoroughly moved, ‘so that the hairs of the body stood on end,’ one was ready for meditation–called to it–and indeed to further study.”


  1. As is well known Merton was very much attracted to Tibetan Buddhism once he was exposed to it. Tibetan Buddhism is a very beautiful and profound religious path and currently a very vital tradition with many true practitioners (one can’t say the same about Chinese Zen or Japanese Zen at this time). However, I think it has one “weakness” which keeps some from fully engaging with it and it earns it a kind of superficial mystique that distracts from its real truth: its enormous complexity and the manifold and systematic elaborations. On the one hand this leads to an atmosphere of “esoterica” and hidden knowledge; on the other there is that feeling that one is climbing this endless mountain with endless steps on the way “up.” A lot of this has been demystified by the Dalai Lama and other deep practitioners–without taking away the truly laborious nature of the path–they point to the basic goal: utter selflessness, unspeakable compassion, an unfettered view of the world, true peace, etc. The ultimate goal of Tibetan Buddhism is really utterly and unspeakably simple(just as in every major spiritual tradition, the Ultimate Reality is always Absolutely Simple)–so simple that in fact paradoxically the “way there” can seem very complex. Merton handled the complexities of Tibetan Buddhism in an interesting way. He had this incredible gift for peeling away the secondary and tertiary matters to get to the “essence” or the heart of the matter at hand. In his conversations with some of the lamas when they talked of mandalas or something downright exotic, etc., he would note it down in his notebook later on but then he would add something like, “That’s not for me;” or “I don’t think I need that.” I don’t know how that would have worked out in the long run, whether he could have really gotten to the core of Tibetan Buddhist meditation–this is what he was most interested in–not any theological or philosophical speculation, whether he could have done that without that elaborate apparatus, we will never know.


  1. On their part the lamas also had an interesting response to Merton. Most of them could see that he was an “accomplished meditator,” not the usual Westerner that approached them. Both from his discourse, the questions he asked, and from his presence they could tell he was a deep person spiritually, although they were surprised that was possible for a Christian!! Mostly Christianity was seen as an external, institutional religion (which by the way the Dalai Lama very much respects). Recall his meeting with Chatral Rimpoche, the lama he deeply connected with (in addition to the Dalai Lama). Here is Merton in his own words:


“We started talking about dzogchen and Nyingmapa meditation and ‘direct realization’ and soon saw that we agreed very well. We must have talked for two hours or more covering all sorts of ground, mostly around the idea of dzogchen, but also taking in some points of Christian doctrine compared with Buddhist: dharmakaya…the Risen Christ, suffering, compassion for all creatures, motives for ‘helping others,’–but all leading back to dzogchen, the ultimate emptiness, the unity of sunyata and karuna, going ‘beyond the dharmakaya’ and ‘beyond God’ to the ultimate perfect emptiness. He said that he had meditated in solitude for thirty years or more and had not attained to perfect emptiness and I said I hadn’t either. The unspoken or half-spoken message of the talk was our complete understanding of each other as people who were somehow on the edge of great realization and knew it and were trying, somehow or other, to go out and get lost in it–and that it was a grace for us to meet one another. He burst out and called me a rangjung Sangay (which apparently means a ‘natural Buddha’)…. He told me seriously that perhaps he and I would attain to complete Buddhahood in our next lives, perhaps even in this life, and the parting note was a kind of compact that we would both do our best to make it in this life. I was profoundly moved, because he is so obviously a great man, the true practitioner of dzogchen, the best of the Nyingmapa lamas, marked by complete simplicity and freedom. He was surprised at getting on so well with a Christian and at one point laughed and said, ‘There must be something wrong here!’”


  1. No one know where Merton would have ended up, both physically and spiritually. After India and Bangkok there were plans to go and visit some Zen masters in Japan and then a little -known venture was planned to go and visit some Sufis in Iran, before returning through Europe to Gethsemani. One wonders where he would have settled after that. My guess is that he would have tried to live as a hermit at Redwoods where many would have come to see him. No matter where he went, there would have been a crowd! And I think he needed that in spite of his search for “more solitude.” He really flourished when he was interacting with other spiritual seekers.
  2. Let us conclude with another quote from the Asian Journal, among his last words, from that famous “enlightenment moment” before the great Buddha statues. These are also among his most beautiful words:


“I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand. Then the silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything , rejecting nothing, the peace not of emotional resignation but of Madhyamika, of sunyata, that has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything–without refutation–without establishing some other argument. For the doctrinaire, the mind that needs well-established positions, such peace, such silence, can be frightening. I was knocked over with a rush of relief and thankfulness at the obvious clarity of the figures, the clarity and fluidity of shape and line, the design of the monumental bodies composed into the rock shape and landscape, figure, rock, and tree…. Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious. … The thing about all this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, and really no ‘mystery.’ All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear. The rock, all matter, is charged with dharmakaya…everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination. Surely with Mahabalipuram and Polonnaruwa my Asian pilgrimage has come clear and purified itself. I mean, I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don’t know what else remains but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise. This is Asia in its purity, not covered over with garbage, Asian or European or American, and it is clear, pure, complete. It says everything ; it needs nothing. And because it needs nothing it can afford to be silent, unnoticed, undiscovered. It does not need to be discovered. It is we, Asians included, who need to discover it.”


Good words to end with.   Good words to begin with.