“Have Dominion”: Colonialism and Urban Renewal

“Have Dominion”: Colonialism and Urban Renewal June 9, 2018

“The East offering its riches to Britannia”, painted by Spiridione Roma for the boardroom of the British East India Company; Creative Commons

Colonialism is not a thing of the past. It takes place today in urban contexts across the United States in certain forms of urban renewal. In what follows, I will first consider the dominion thesis that was applied to colonialist ambitions in the early modern period and then turn to our present-day context in urban America, specifically North Portland, Oregon.

In his critique of Lynn White’s thesis on the historical roots of the ecological crisis,[1] Peter Harrison argues that the meaning of dominion in creation shifted from control in the mind to “control in the natural world.” This shift was the result of numerous factors. They include: “the ‘death of nature,’ which saw the replacement of Aristotelian vitalism with a mechanical world view; the collapse of the “symbolist mentality” of the Middle Ages and the radical contraction of sacramentalism, which resulted in a denial of the transcendental significance of the things of nature.”[2] It would appear that the shift away from sacramentalism that led to the domination of the planet also resulted in the domination and displacement of people groups who failed to dominate the earth. Harrison writes:

A final incentive for this energetic engagement with the material world came with the linkage of the imperative ‘have dominion’ to justifications of property ownership and colonization. In his Second Treatise of Government (1689), John Locke set out the view that in the state of nature, all land had been common. Land became private property when it was improved by clearing, planting, cultivation, or stocking with animals. The justification for this influential understanding of the basis of property ownership came from the biblical story of creation: for inasmuch as “God and his reason commanded him to subdue the earth, i.e. improve it for . . . the benefit of life . . . he that in obedience to this command of God, subdued, tilled, and sowed any part of, thereby annexed to it something that was his property.” Logically, it followed that those who occupied lands, yet had done nothing to bring them under control, could legitimately be dispossessed of them. Such notions were to play an important role in the justification of overseas plantations and colonies.[3]

Harrison adds, “Developing conceptions of private property, along with commercial incentives for colonization, thus played their role in the modern conquest of nature, and these factors, too, found their ideological justification in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century readings of Genesis.”[4]

In reading Harrison’s article, my mind shot forward from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, from colonized Africa to colonized African American communities in gentrified cities across the United States. Apparently to blue eyes, African Americans (like Native Americans before them) did nothing to bring the land they “occupied…under control.” Thus, it was deemed fitting to dispossess them of the land. Whether one tips the hat to the Genesis creation account for this dominion thesis, as many Europeans did in the seventeenth century and beyond, or to secular sources, the result is the same—displacement.

Such displacement is on full display in North Portland in Oregon (Refer here, for example). This week, my doctor of ministry cohort in Cross-Cultural Engagement at Multnomah University and Seminary had the opportunity to tour one of the neighborhoods in North Portland with Pastor Mark Strong of Life Change Church. Pastor Strong is African American and grew up in the neighborhood where his church is located. Life Change has been a vital presence there for decades. While it was easy to spot the church in the early 2000’s, now it is quite easy to drive right past it, as it is surrounded by tall buildings and ongoing developments.

It is also quite easy for contemporary white urban ‘pioneers’ such as developers and church planters to set up shop in North Portland without acknowledging the communities that already exist there. It is one thing to move into a community and become an integral part of it. It is quite another to move in and operate in isolation, often overshadowing and displacing one’s host community.

The latter approach often betrays the colonialist mindset that the indigenous populations have not done anything to bring the land they occupy under their control. As a result, the colonialist mentality deems it morally appropriate (explicitly or implicitly) to dispossess them of the land. What this perspective fails to realize is that efforts have often been made by African American communities to build their neighborhoods, but they have suffered from redlining and other forms of structural racism. Present-day urban ‘pioneers’ who witness urban decay when they arrive need to account for the historic problem of redlining, which signifies that people living in an area were not able to attain loans to develop their neighborhoods because these locations were deemed financially risky. While redlining is now illegal, one often wonders if such practices continue in more subtle forms, at least when those seeking the loans do not belong to the dominant culture. What is obvious in places like North Portland is that developers and hipster pioneers are getting loans to remake the community in their own likeness and image.

Greater sensitivity is required. White, urban pioneers, including church planters, who develop space and/or who move into North Portland and other African American communities in Portland and across the country need to partner with the African Americans already residing there. They need to learn their history, honor their culture and become vital members of the communities that already exist there rather than operate in isolation.

One of the many tragic ironies in places like liberal Portland is that for all its wonderful environmentally sound practices and rightful concerns over social inequities, the dominant culture so often operates in a colonialist fashion when it comes to property ownership. Urban renewal is often shorthand for what one urban studies professor in Portland critically termed “Negro removal.”


[1]See Lynn White, Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science 155 (1967): 1203-7. See Peter Harrison, “Subduing the Earth: Genesis 1, Early Modern Science, and the Exploitation of Nature,” The Journal of Religion (January 1999): 86-109. Here is a significant example of the critique: “In the rhetoric of seventeenth-century scientists and exegetes, then, we encounter new and momentous applications of the biblical imperatives ‘subdue’ and ‘have dominion.’ It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Genesis creation narratives provided the program for not only the investigation of nature but its exploitation as well. Stripped of their allegorical and moral connotations, these passages were taken to refer unambiguously to the physical world and its living occupants. Whatever the ecological practices of medieval societies had been, at no time in the West prior to this do we encounter so explicit an ideology of the subordination of nature. White was correct to assign an important role to the creation story in the development of modern science and technology but mistaken in locating that effect earlier than the seventeenth century.” Harrison, “Subduing the Earth,” pages 101-102.

[2]Harrison, “Subduing the Earth,” page 96.

[3]Harrison, “Subduing the Earth,” pages 100-101.

[4]Harrison, “Subduing the Earth,” page 101.

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