Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery
By Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah (InterVarsity)
An alien species invades Earth and threatens to take over the planet. The Americans rise up against the invaders and save, well, everything—except for the invaders, of course.
That’s the basic plot line of numerous TV shows, cartoons and movies—like Independence Day and Mars Attacks!, both released in 1996. Some are comical; some are terrifying. And generally speaking, America wins.
Mark Charles tells of another alien invasion, but this one didn’t involve creatures from outer space, and the Americans didn’t win—though they did rise up. The story Charles tells is that of Europeans colonizing North America and essentially decimating the native populations.
From the beginning, we know this story about America is going to be different. The first paragraph is written in Navajo. If that’s not enough of a clue, in the second paragraph, Charles tells us his people, or Diné (pronounced di-NEH), are matrilineal; they take their identity from their mother’s mother.
Charles’ mother’s mother and father were Dutch; his father’s mother and father were Navajo.
The story gets more difficult.
Charles, along with Soong-Chan Rah—a professor of church growth and evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary and a Korean immigrant—tell the history of the Doctrine of Discovery. For those who have not encountered this history before, the first several chapters of the book may require slow reading.
The Doctrine of Discovery, the beginnings of which reach back to Pope Nicholas V in 1452, sanctioned the conquering of pagan lands by European Catholics under the guise of Christianizing those lands. The conquered people, seen as “enemies of Christ,” could be reduced to “perpetual slavery.” This sanction later was extended to “discovered lands.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Except it’s a history not told in the United States, a nation Charles and many others charge as being built on the removal of so-called discovered people.
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The latter half of the book explains how the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court decisions were based on the Doctrine of Discovery, so much so that the removal of Native Americans from their lands was blessed by that doctrine. In many cases, the doctrine even took precedence over treaties the United States signed with various native tribes. It now serves to undergird land titles held by millions of Americans.
Unsettling Truths is not an easy book to read, and many likely will take issue with at least some of Charles’ assertions. Many readers will find the contents—and the bridled anger—unsettling. Yet, in a year when even an NFL team can change its name, certainly those of us who value the truth can consider the rest of the story, no matter how unsettling it may be.
Eric Black, executive director, publisher and editor