Remembering the Crosses of Conquest

Katerina Friesen

Katerina Friesen is a student in theology and peace studies, with a focus on climate change and indigenous justice, at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, IN

 Black liberation theologian James Cone recently wrote a book called The Cross and the Lynching Tree. He argues that we will not fully understand the meaning of the cross, nor will we see Jesus rightly, unless we look long and hard at the lynching tree, which epitomized the terror of racism and white supremacy in the U.S. during the Jim Crow era. In the same vein, I think that as Christians in the U.S., or more specifically, for us as Mennonites, we cannot clearly see the cross of Jesus unless we look long and hard at the crosses planted in the soil of the Americas, crosses that claimed and conquered the land and crucified indigenous peoples.

Every Empire depends upon a story about God in order to maintain or grow in power, even in secular society. I believe that no conquest is devoid of theology, whether that conquest is at the hands of Spanish conquistadors claiming land for Christ and King, or whether it is the Israeli occupation of Palestine or Operation Desert Storm. Conquest requires religious justification. For the United States, this justification grew out of the Doctrine of Discovery.

The Discovery Doctrine was basically the religious justification for European conquest; it was otherwise known as the “Law of Christendom.” Under its legal framework, land in the New World could be claimed under the Christian ruler of the explorer that first “discovered” that land. If the land was not ruled by a Christian sovereign, it was considered uninhabited even if indigenous peoples lived there. You’ve probably seen paintings of explorers planting a cross in the soil. This was not just a “photo opp” for the European power; it carried legal implications totally foreign to the indigenous peoples of the claimed land. The cross later became a nation’s flag marking its territory, along with forts and settlements that marked expanding boundaries over and against other nations’ land claims.

For the U.S., the Doctrine of Discovery developed into Manifest Destiny, the idea that it is America’s right and providential destiny to expand. What was first an explicitly Christian European claim to land became generalized to include all white settlers. The early cross-planting migrations of Discovery and the land-hungry conquest by white settlers had devastating impacts on the land and First Peoples of the Americas. Other writers on this blog have shared some of these impacts, which include residential boarding schools that sought to destroy Indian cultural identity, forced removals like the Trail of Tears, genocide, racism, and policies that perpetuate dispossession under legal precedent that goes back to the Doctrine of Discovery.

Though proclaiming peace, Anabaptists often benefited from the violence done before them. Broken treaties, bloodshed and the forced migrations of indigenous peoples paved the way for our people to practice their peaceful forms of agriculture for which we’ve been known. In Indiana, where I currently live, Amish and Mennonite communities moved into “wilderness” land after the Potawatomi people who lived there were forcibly removed by the U.S. military. I’m part of a summer pilgrimage class through Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary that will trace the Trail of Death, the route taken by the Potawatomi tribe as they were escorted by the military to Kansas in 1838. This is Indiana’s version of the Trail of Tears, a painful via crucis that must be remembered.

Re-tracing the Trail of Death offers us an opportunity to learn how to remember rightly. I hope that we participants can learn how to tell our own ancestors’ migration stories in light of the forced migrations of tribes like the Potawatomi. I also hope we can remember our faith and baptism, and lament how the non-violent Christ we proclaim was distorted by the cross of conquest.

As we remember the history of the cross in our own home places, may we also learn to recognize the crosses that colonialism still plants and the crosses that indigenous peoples continue to carry around the world. The Doctrine of Discovery continues to form the basis for land rights in nations colonized by European powers. That means that for the most part, indigenous peoples around the world do not have sovereignty over their own land and lives; they have no legal power to resist the mining, logging, or industrial farming done there by international corporations. And so the forced removals, murders, racism, and policies of displacement continue, from gold mining in Suriname to logging in the Philippines, to extraction in the Canadian tar sands.

The colonial-era cross continues to serve Empire and its manifestations through our global economic system. And so may we join with this cross’ victims and survivors in the work of dismantling its very foundations in the Doctrine of Discovery.