Magazines 2021 Jul - Aug Why we do a land acknowledgment in my church

Why we do a land acknowledgment in my church

04 July 2021 By Ken Shigematsu

Ken Shigematsu reflects on rejecting heresy and choosing reconciliation.

At Tenth Church Vancouver we begin our public worship services with an acknowledgment that we live, work and worship on the traditional and unceded territory of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish Coast Salish peoples. (You can watch our two-minute video about it at

This acknowledgment is a way for our congregation to say we categorically reject the Doctrine of Discovery, the church teaching that supported the evils of colonialism.

A couple of years ago, some Christian and secular people connected to Tenth asked why we didn’t include a land acknowledgment. These questions spurred our staff leadership team and board of elders to discuss this and pray for direction.

A minority of our leaders felt it would be too political a gesture or worried it would feel repetitive, but most of our team believed it would indicate an acknowledgment that the larger Christian Church has been complicit in perpetuating injustice toward Indigenous Peoples. It would also indicate our intention to pursue reconciliation with our Indigenous neighbours.

When we began, some congregation members also felt the land acknowledgment was political and more appropriate to a public school or civic forum, but most people have come to support and appreciate this part of our service.

Rejecting the Doctrine of Discovery

Simply put, the Doctrine of Discovery, although it was once supported by the Church, is heresy.

An important part of the rejection of this heresy comes from some of the very first words of the Bible where our Creator declared all human beings are created in the image of God. "So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:27).

The Doctrine of Discovery has done a huge amount of damage in Canada. In 1882 Canada’s first prime minister John A. Macdonald said to the House of Commons, "I have reason to believe that the agents as a whole … are doing all they can, by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense."

In other words: Let’s starve the Indians to death to cut our expenses.

In 1876 the Canadian government passed the Indian Act, seizing control of Indigenous land in most cases without properly compensating them. The Act also set in motion a process which led to the destruction of Indigenous traditions.

The Doctrine of Discovery contributed directly to these horrible actions. It created the political and legal justification for European colonists to seize lands already occupied by people and, among other abuses, take Indigenous children out of their families, put them in residential schools and essentially tell them, "The Indian in you needs to be killed."

A history that still hurts today

The Doctrine of Discovery emerged from papal bulls issued by Pope Nicholas V. The first was Dum Diversas, issued on June 18, 1452. The doctrine created political and legal justification for European colonists to seize the land of Indigenous Peoples and paved the way for them to be abused. It authorized King Alfonso V of Portugal to enter foreign lands and subjugate Muslims, pagans and any other unbelievers to perpetual slavery.

Pope Nicholas issued another bull in 1454 that gave Christian nations of Europe dominion over lands they "discovered," and encouraged them to enslave native, non-Christian peoples in Africa and the Americas. Eventually these pronouncements became the basis for European nations to dominate, oppress and claim the lands of people in Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

The Doctrine of Discovery asserted that if a Christian European claimed to discover a land in the name of the European monarch, and planted the flag of the king on its soil, the land was now the king’s – even if someone else was living there.

                      -- Advertisement --
Advertisement: acacia

As Navajo activist, author and pastor Mark Charles points out, you can’t discover land that already belongs to other people. Many people still assume Christopher Columbus discovered North America. He didn’t. There were Indigenous people who had lived there long before he arrived.

Part of our current systemic racism can be traced back directly to the legacy of the institutional church. We need to own that part of our history. It was the Church that created the Doctrine of Discovery, the heretical teaching that non-white, non-Christian people are less than fully human, so that their land could be taken, their children could be taken and the people themselves could be enslaved, raped and abused because they were merely property.

Loving each other today

The effects continue to this day with courts in Canada and the U.S. still referring to the doctrine into the 1800s and 1900s.

I have a Caucasian friend here in Vancouver who has many significant friendships with Indigenous women. When those Indigenous women have been pregnant, my friend accompanies them to the hospital, fearful if she does not that the Indigenous women will be racially profiled and deemed unfit to raise their child. My friend believes if she advocates for her Indigenous women friends, they are far less likely to have their babies taken from them by social workers or others. This is so disturbing.

Churches were part of the creation of this problem, and churches need to be part of the solution. We can only move forward and live free from the evil of racism when we recognize every human being reflects the image of God.

Churches were part of the creation of this problem, and churches need to be part of the solution.

Most people would not admit to being racist. Most people don’t see themselves as racist or intentionally act in a racist way. But as those who know and seek to serve the living God, we’re called to be more than not racist. We’re called to be even more than anti-racist.

We are called to actively love the other. God became a human being in Jesus Christ, and while we were yet sinners, still enemies of God, Jesus died for us so our sins might be washed away. So we are called to move into the lives of people who are very different from us, and perhaps even hostile toward us. Like Jesus we are to move toward them and lovingly sacrifice on their behalf.

And when we move toward people who are different from us – whether because of their race, ethnicity, culture, gender, orientation, whatever – our prejudices tend to fall away.

Ken Shigematsu is senior pastor of Tenth Church in Vancouver, B.C., a diverse city-centre church. He’s author of God in My Everything (Zondervan, 2013) and Survival Guide for the Soul (Zondervan, 2018).