By the Rev. Norman Franklin,
I read a Time Magazine article recently by Dr. Robert Jones. He is the author of “White Too Long” and is a White southerner from Mississippi. His latest book is “The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future.” The Time article pulls from the content of the book.
I find the whole thing unsettling.
Two Papal Bulls were issued in the 15h century that unleashed atrocities against humanity in the immediate and for centuries beyond. That theological error undermines the hope of social equality and undergirds the social construct of race and race superiority. The crimes committed under the authority of these papal edits have not escaped the notice of the God we serve. The crimes committed by those with internalized racial superiority will likewise be held accountable.
The initial edit by Pope Nicholas in 1452, Dr. Jones notes, laid the theological and political foundation for the Doctrine of Discovery. The nefarious doctrine granted Portugal the unfettered right to invade, conquer and enslave any they encountered. The Portuguese were prominent in the trans-Atlantic slave trade from the 15th to the 17th century. Pope Alexander, in 1493, issued his papal bull with the express purpose of validating Spain’s ownership rights of lands they stumbled upon.
It baffles the mind, it stretches the boundaries of spiritual credulity, how a man, the Pope, the Holy Father, who God talks to, could issue a Papal Bull, a theological doctrine, that is antithetical to the character and nature of the God he serves.
It makes Him a liar, the God who said He is impartial, the God who said through the apostle Paul, that there is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free for those in Christ, the God who said that His Word does not change and that He does not change, became the god of White Europeans rather than the God of all creation.
At that time there was no one to challenge the theological soundness of the doctrine. The bulls were not widely distributed. Only church leaders who held positions of authority and members of nobility and aristocracy, particularly those with church and political ties, had access to the documents.
The Bible wasn’t readily accessible to low-ranked clergy or the common man until after 1455. Then the Johannes Gutenberg invention of the printing press significantly reduced the cost of producing books. That made the Bible accessible to low-ranked clergy and the common man.
We can excuse the clergy of that day for their silence, we can excuse Portuguese King Alphonso, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Their concerns were with expansion and power, not the soundness of Papal Bulls. Christopher Columbus, even on his second voyage, still believed that he had reached Asian shores; we can excuse his silence. But we cannot excuse the churches, the theologians, the seminaries of the enlightened eras.
“There comes a time when silence is betrayal,” Martin Luther King Jr., said as he spoke out against the war in Vietnam. The same principle applies to sounding out the error of theological doctrine.
I can’t help reasoning that at some point religious leaders, particularly since America experienced three “Great Awakenings” of religious revival and spiritual renewal, would have spoken out against an ideology undergirded by false theology that was drenching the faith in sin.
The first awakening was 1730-1740, a period of colonialism and the grumblings of Christian nation building. The second was the 1790s-early 1800s, America was fully engaged in chattel slavery, land grabbing and genocide of Native Americans. The latest was in the late 19th and early 20th century. There was a marked emphasis on social reform, abolishing slavery and women’s suffrage.
None of the awakenings put the axe to the root of our sin.
The Doctrine of Discovery escapes the scrutiny of most White scholars and theologians, Dr. Jones states.
Whites are unwilling to consider the illegitimacy of privilege and its damning effect on social equality, unwilling to acknowledge their internalized superiority beliefs and implicit bias, unwilling to point the finger of accountability at a pillar of their faith whose misstated doctrine unleashed a torrent of hatred, murder and sin that yet permeates every fiber of our world.
I find it disturbing that there is no moral outrage at the scriptural ignorance, the positional arrogance, the audacity of the content and context of the papacy’s statement that led many to commit sins. I’m disturbed that the average White person harbors internalized superiority.
This ideology gave us years of genocide, chattel slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, the torture and massacre of Emmitt Till, mass murders of Native Americans and the assassinations of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr.
The silence of the church and the silence of so-called progressive White America is a betrayal of biblical principles, Christ and of the Christian faith. I needed to find some understanding for why Pope Nicholas, a “man of God,” one believed to possess the power of papal infallibility, would misrepresent God with his 1452 edit.
I reached out to my friend, former pastor, writer and Christian thinker, the Rev. Joel A. Bowman Sr., for some perspective.
Bowman says, “This indicates that Western Christian theology was shaped by White supremacy. When one baptizes this pernicious ideology with the allusion of God’s sanction, it is especially dangerous.”
I pensively processed all this through the prism of the hope of justice, as I paced back and forth through the annals of my mind. The problem, the error, the false theology can never be resolved until it is confronted.
James Baldwin, renowned African American writer who challenged the social order, said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
It’s past time for us to face this.