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Doctrine of Discovery: A Lens for Scarcity and Abundance

Grappling with scarcity and abundance, churches in the US must also consider the origin of their theologies.
by Jihyun Oh | April 27, 2020

In the last several weeks, as the coronavirus pandemic has spread throughout the world and social distancing measures have brought life as we know it to a halt, there has been a lot of news about scarcity. The news has shared that there is a scarcity of masks, ventilators, toilet paper, disinfecting household cleaners, webcams and other work-from-home necessities. Many churches have also raised scarcity of resources as an emerging issue as most churches have stopped meeting together in person. These are real concerns.

As much as this crisis might highlight it, however, scarcity is not something that emerged with the novel coronavirus. Whether we call it consumerism or something else, a drive to acquire more, and the often-accompanying sense of scarcity, is part of the fabric of our lives in the US. Even communities of faith are not immune to this.

While there are likely a number of complex reasons why this is so, I wonder whether one of the factors isn’t the legacy of European conquest and settlement on this continent and the theological justification the Church gave to these actions in the Doctrine of Discovery. We, in this country and in the church, live within the legacy of a theology that stated that the acquisition of goods, and land, and even people, were not only desirable, but God-ordained. This God-ordained acquisition of lands, people, and goods that were “discovered” was the blessing of God for God’s people and salvation for the “heathens” who would be converted and civilized through these endeavors. It also meant the expansion of God’s kingdom.

The Doctrine of Discovery predates the founding of the US, but the great American project, and the ways that Christian institutions and individuals have aided or abetted it, cannot be separated out from one another nor from the Doctrine of Discovery. Even for those Christians who eschew the prosperity gospel, a theology that undergirds the fabric of national and continental narratives can still affect us. 

If this is the case, it might be worth pondering whether there can be true and deep changes toward an abundance mindset without coming to grips with the legacy of this 15th century doctrine that paved the way for where and who we are today. If somewhere deep within us lies the legacy of “discovering” an abundance as far as the eye can see that is “free for the taking,” then the inability to expand and acquire to overflowing not only represents scarcity, but even a lack of God’s blessing. This stands in contrast to the story of manna, in which manna acquired to overflowing beyond the daily need rotted away. 

A theology, even an implicit one, that equates continued growth, expansion, and more than we need with God’s blessing might see a small, mission-minded congregation and only see scarcity. It might see a church closing its doors as giving up or failing a fate to be avoided at all costs. When deciding how to steward and invest our resources, how we interpret what we see can make a big difference. Our theology, both explicit and implicit, impacts those interpretations.

Our current global crisis puts into greater relief the effects of how we think about our resources and how we steward them. Issues of real, systemic scarcity and injustice are being highlighted now. Some early reports and analyses underline the fact that who you are and where you live impacts how you are weathering this pandemic. Scarcity seems to be everywhere. How might we grow our abundance mindset even during such a time? 

In this season of Easter, as we remember the wonder and abundant grace of an empty tomb, may we also consider what in our theology needs to be wrestled with and what in our minds needs to be made new.

Photo by Manfred Legasto Francisco) 

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