Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery by Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah

Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of DiscoverySummary: Discussion of the role of the Doctrine of Discovery in shaping not only the development of the US but also the Christian church. 

Usually, I write about books reasonably quickly after I read them. I do this, not just because I like to discuss books and encourage others to read them, but as a type of public spiritual discipline where I try to write about thoughts so I can look back at them later and process books publicly as a means creating some open accountability for my Christian faith. So generally, I read a book, and within a few days, I have written at least something about it. But I first read Unsettling Truths just over six months ago, and I knew I was not yet ready to write about it. I needed to reread it.

Unsettling Truths is about the papal bulls that are referred to as the Doctrines of Discovery. Briefly, the papal bull, Romanus Pontifex, in 1452 declared that Christians (King Alfonso of Portugal) could “capture, vanquish, and subdue the Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ,” to “put them into perpetual slavery,” and “to take all their possessions and property.” Inter Caetera, in 1493, said Spain could claim any populated land as their territory if the population were not Christian. There is context to those papal bulls, but the background is not relevant to how those have been used later to further colonialism, white supremacy, manifest destiny, and even US legal precedent for land ownership.

I have primarily been addressing racial history and current reality through Black/White racial dichotomy and the history of slavery, Jim Crow, etc. It is not that I do not have an interest in other perspectives, but that I tend to follow the next trail on the path, and that has mostly been about issues of anti-Black racism. Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah are here to remind the church that, while those are important, they are not the only important issues in US racial history. Unsettling Truths is exactly the type of book that you need to read if you primarily or only see racial issues in the US through the Black/White dichotomy.

Unsettling Truths is also an explicitly Christian book. Both authors are former pastors. Soong-Chan Rah is currently a professor primarily focusing on global Christianity, church planting/growth, and evangelism. Mark Charles is presently an independent presidential candidate. The entire book is about Christianity.

Many of us are familiar with the rough outlines of slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights era. Many of us are less familiar with the history of Native American oppression. We can start with the early founding of the US:

While the Declaration of Independence may initially assert that “All men are created equal,” thirty lines below that assertion, indigenous people are referred to as “merciless Indian savages.” The Founding Fathers could use the seemingly inclusive term “all men” because they had a worldview informed by the Doctrine of Discovery that gave them a very narrow definition of who was actually human.

But this is not just abstract ideals. John Marshall (Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) used Doctrine of Discovery to:

…established as a legal instrument that governed land acquisition and land ownership in nineteenth-century North America. The court acknowledged that a group of European colonizers created a governing doctrine that determined land title rights among the European nations. Native rights would not be taken into account because those rights would be superseded by the authority of the Christian European governments over against all other claims. The Doctrine of Discovery, steeped in the diseased social and theological imagination of Anglo-Saxon ethnic purity and European Christian supremacy, would become the rationale for the M’Intosh decision.

The M’Intosh Decision invalidated Britsh Common Law rational, which biased current ownership. After M’Intosh, the US assumed a monopoly of Native American land. Once Native Americans could only sell the property to the US government, it undercut the price, and then the US primarily starting pushing Native American tribes off the property regardless of the sale (using the pretexts of a transaction that could not be rejected).

The development of the United States is inextricably linked to the Doctrines of Discovery and the later (and related) understanding of Manifest Destiny. There is far more here than what I want to discuss now, but one more point that I think is worth mentioning and may be worth the price of the book by itself. The chapter on Abraham Lincoln is related to our current era’s discussion about statues and commemorations of our leaders. Abraham Lincoln is often thought of as the US’s greatest president, or at least in the top five. But if you are uncomfortable with the potential of removal of statues and monuments, I think you need to read this book for a helpful discussion about how historical memory works. (I also strongly recommend David Blight’s book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory as one of the best books I have read on historical memory.)

Unsettling Truths is an unsettling book. We need to be disturbed by our history, and we also need to think about how history remembers differently depending on our positions in the world.

Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery by Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook 

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