Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery — Book Review

The core purpose of Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery (2019), by Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah, is to highlight the atrocious way white Americans and the U.S. government have treated Native Americans, and how the “Doctrine of Discovery” provided (and provides) the ideological justification for this treatment. Charles, of Navajo and Dutch descent, is a speaker, writer, and consultant on American history, race, culture, and faith. Rah is a Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary, in Chicago. The authors express “hope that healing can occur when unsettling truths are confronted” (9).

The “Doctrine of Discovery” is the name given to a series of 15th century documents originating with Pope Nicholas V that granted the Portuguese, and later the Spanish, permission to invade and subdue non-Christian lands and to hold them as revenue-producing colonies for European powers. According to the authors, this doctrine provided the necessary “justification” for starting the slave trade, for European imperialism more generally, for a value hierarchy that placed white people above people of color, and for eventually supporting the displacement and genocide of the Native American population of “Turtle Island,” aka North America. One section of the papal bull Inter Caetera, issued in 1493 by Pope Alexander VI and addressed to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, argues that “in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself” (19). In essence, if a European power “discovered” a land, even if occupied by non-Christians, it could be claimed as new territory for the Europeans — and later the Americans. It is not hard to see how such a mandate could lead to theft, pillage, and genocide on a grand scale, smoothed over by an evangelizing veneer.

The authors show how this kind of Eurocentric thinking serves as the background to white supremacy in the United States, and “can lead the Christian to assume that they speak from a position of privilege, chosen and preferred by God, and that the Christian has the capacity to know what is best for the rest of the world” (28). Thus, religious leaders like Franklin Graham, responding on Facebook to the terrorist attacks in London on June 4, 2017, can suggest “The threat of Islam is real. The threat of Islam is serious. The threat of Islam is dangerous…. We need to pray that God would give our President, our Congress, and our Senate wisdom — and the guts to do what is right for our nation” (29).

Not surprisingly, President Trump gets called out by the authors for his ban on Muslims entering the United States, his approving of the Dakota Access pipeline that runs through lands “considered sacred to the Dakota people” (32), and general polarizing. More unexpected to me was the criticism of President Lincoln, which I will get to by and by, not to mention Cory Booker, Hillary Clinton, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg at various points in the book for inappropriate glossing over of America’s atrocities committed against indigenous peoples. The authors argue that the “dysfunctional narrative of redemptive violence has taken firm root in the social imagination of America. America assumes it has the capacity to use violence in redemptive ways while the rest of the world does not have that capacity” (35). Many Americans do not, in fact, think this way, but in terms of public policy and actions the authors certainly have a point.

The authors lay out the impact of Christianity moving from a persecuted sect in apostolic times to a state religion under Constantine, to how Augustine’s theory of the “just war” assisted in the development of Christian aggression and conquest and the creation of Christendom, the creation of God’s supposed kingdom on earth — in a sharp contradistinction to Jesus’ clear mission which was not about an earthly kingdom or exercising earthly power. Skipping over many details along the way, we arrive at the authors’ arresting question “How did we get from the Holy Spirit enabling the followers of Jesus to speak the languages of the nations in Acts 2 to Christian missionaries washing out native children’s mouths with soap for having the gall to speak in their own tongue?” (66) — referring to just one of the protocols of the Indian boarding school plan, which attempted forced assimilation of Native American youth to white America’s ways.

The authors continue providing evidence that America was created and developed with a white supremacist mentality, a country to protect the rights of white men, with all others at various lower rungs of the social and political ladder. They point out that although the Declaration of Independence begins paragraph two with the ringing phrase that “all men are created equal,” that “equality” doesn’t include the “merciless Indian savages” who are mentioned a few paragraphs later (83-84). In fact, they say, “The Declaration of Independence gives foundation for a framework of white supremacy as it is rooted in the assumption of the exceptional rational capacity of the ethnically pure, white European — now American” (84); furthermore, the Constitution makes it clear that neither women nor Indians have full rights, and that black slaves “are counted as three-fifths human” (91). Going on to talk about Indian removal, segregation, lynching, Japanese internment, and mass incarceration of people of color, the authors conclude that in the documents and worldview of the original framers — and implicitly in many of the powerful who followed them — “there is not a comprehensive value for life or a true belief in equality. Instead, there is the persistent practice of marginalization and dehumanization” (94).

For a Native American looking back on his heritage — or for a person of color looking at the death of George Floyd — even the lyrics of “America the Beautiful” can be offensive in its glorification of an American ideal that has rarely been achieved. The authors comment that the song, presents “the blatant conflation of American greatness with Christian faith” (102), and as I look more closely at the lyrics in light of this book my attention is drawn to the “beautiful” pilgrims’ feet who “a thoroughfare of freedom beat across the wilderness.” Uh, what happened to the freedom of countless Native Americans whose homes were in the way of these beautiful pilgrim feet? After gold was discovered in California, officials in Shasta city “offered a bounty of five dollars for each California Indian head turned in. Several unsuccessful miners suddenly found a more lucrative living in murdering Indians, bringing in horses laden with as many as a dozen Native people’s severed heads” (113). For those interested, papers of a scholarly symposium on the genocide of the California Indians can be found here.

More people are aware of Cherokee removal, Wounded Knee, the Trail of Tears, and other depredations of white America against the Indians. The authors note that the “US Army website lists 425 Congressional Medals of Honor given to US soldiers between 1839-1898 for fighting in the Indian Wars” (115).

One of the real tragedies of American history is the clash of two vastly different concepts of what it means to own and occupy land. First of all, we need to remember that there were many different tribes of Indians; they were not a homogenous group that can be lumped together and understood under one convenient label. Furthermore, white people have this whole idea of property as a defined commodity, individual ownership with surveyed borders and a title and a specific dollar figure attached to it. I am not well-educated on how different Native Americans understood land ownership, but it was clearly different. White Americans also had different ideas about how to maximize productivity out of the land, and they considered the Native American as less than human and standing between them and profitable occupancy, a nuisance, an inconvenience. So, they just wiped them out, or penned them up on reservations.

Let’s move on to Abraham Lincoln, who gets the lion’s share of two chapters, “Abraham Lincoln and the Narrative of White Messiahship” and “Abraham Lincoln and Native Genocide.” The authors’ basic point is that “the victors write the history” (135), and that even though Lincoln gets a lot of goodwill from the average American for freeing blacks, he is on record in 1858 making statements about the inferiority of the black race, that he would allow the continuance of slavery to preserve the union, and in his first inaugural address he affirms the rights of Southern states to maintain slavery (143). Furthermore, a loophole about “involuntary servitude as a punishment for a crime” in the thirteenth amendment, passed under Lincoln, was exploited to perpetuate white superiority in the South, and eventually set the stage for the disproportionately black mass incarceration that we have in the United States today.

The second “Lincoln” chapter lays the blame for much of the genocide of the plains Indians at Lincoln’s feet: the execution of 39 Dakota men (151), the removal of the Dakota and Winnebago tribes from Minnesota (151), the genocide against the Diné and the Navajo in the Southwest, the massacre at Sand Creek, the slaughtering of Cheyenne and Arapaho (156). In summary, “President Abraham Lincoln is responsible for some of the most significant negative impact on the Native American population in US history” (158). The authors note that during the decade of 1860 to 1870, the Indian population in the US was reduced from 44,000 to 25,713, a decrease of 41 percent. In comparison, the authors state that the Jewish population in Nazi Germany was reduced by only 35 percent (162). As a crowning irony, Lincoln’s face is chiseled on Mount Rushmore, a sacred mountain to the Dakota people (160). As a white person and a reader of Team of Rivals and other books favorable to Lincoln, I think it’s valuable to see how Lincoln’s legacy can look from a Native American perspective.

Although the book provided a lot of valuable content in terms of historical information and a Native American perspective, it could have been better edited. For just one example, a paragraph ends “However, the paradigm of fragility limits the responses that can be taken towards white people to either dismissiveness or walking on eggshells around them” (173). The very next paragraph ends with “The language of fragility can limit engagement on the topic of race as it requires dismissing the feelings of white people or walking on eggshells around white people” (174). Some tightening up and elimination of repetition could have helped the authors’ presentation.

Unsettling Truths lives up to its title. It is not a fun or hopeful book, but it is a valuable educational resource. The authors’ point, that “you cannot discover lands already inhabited” is true — so long as we recognize the equal humanity of those already on the premises.

Scott Moncrieff is a Professor of English at Andrews University.

Book cover image courtesy of IVP.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10546
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AND: @bearcee in response to “I can breathe”

What to do now…

If I had known then, at the age of eight when my parents put me on the boat headed for New York from Hamburg, what I know now - that I was fulfilling the role of a white supremacist, following the paths of the slave traders, I would surely have objected. I didn’t feel like someone with a Eurocentric mandate to become a white supremacist. I just went where my mom and dad took me. They didn’t seem like white supremacists either. All we owned had been packed in a handful of suitcases and one trunk; and had been loaded on a ship from a by-gone era, making its last voyage across the Atlantic. We sailed in steerage on a ten day voyage to a land that offered refuge and hope for a future. I suppose most of these white supremacists took much the same path at one time.

Now that I’m here, what to do as the dizzying crowds yell and scream at my personhood. Should I pack up and retrace the voyage? I feel much like those “dreamers” who were brought to the shores of this land before they could object. We find it deplorable to gather them all up and deposit them in dusty town in Mexico or Guatemala. We object strenuously at the suggestion. I guess I’m a “dreamer” too. I guess we all are - these white people who were brought here as babies. Or, were the “dreamers”
their parents who ALL ran from something unpleasant, finding shelter on these shores only because this land is what they found at the end of a long voyage.

History is cruel. It tells us who we really are, based on values that have had time to marinate, simmer and mature. If only men of “renown” had understood how things were going to change; how different the world was going to end up being in 200 years, they would have made different choices. Wouldn’t we all, if only we had foresight - or a magical crystal ball.

We, Adventist know exactly how that works. We know we can’t harken back to the beginning of civilization, and follow the steps of our religious ancestors. We know there was a time when women were property, and slavery was a common phenomenon even when Jesus showed us how to live and love. We object at the thought that we should follow long-discarded norms and ideas that have been filtered through time. We know what Christian love looks like today, and how different it may have looked over two thousand years ago; or even two hundred years ago. We would never judge our ancestors for not knowing that a day would come when women would be equal to men in legal and social standing; and perhaps remove and tear up the pages in there Bible where that ideology was upheld.

So history is teaching us we shouldn’t even be here - but we are. So, now what? Do we keep the woes going by reminding ourselves how really awful our ancestors really were - our parents, our grandparents, and beyond. They should have understood how the flow of time was going to change how we looked at the world and each other. Should we be deported like the “dreamers”? Do we pick up placards and baseball bats and go on the streets and destroy enough buildings and statues to show how really, really bad we feel about our ancestors - our parents, our grandparents - ourselves.

What are we to do? Burn it all down - tear up the foundations that have made a country that people are still dying to enter - plugging up entry ports?

I wonder why they still want to come to such a “deplorable” place, filled with such “deplorable” people?

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Thank you for your highlighting and reviewing this book. While I also found it a little repetitive as a book, partly this is because of the repetitive and tragic nature of the history it reflects upon.
However, a review of this in an Adventist setting such as this should take some time to reflect on how we celebrate our protestantism at the same time as continuing to preach and insist on this Eurocentric view of history and relying on this papal doctrine of discovery in our interpretation of Bible prophecy (consider our traditional reading of Revelation 13, as a key example). This should remind us how deeply entrench are our racial and historical assumptions—and should require some deep re-examination of how we understand and share these prophecies.
We have much work to do.

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The only answer I have to that is to recognize yet one more time just how much I need a savior. And just that recognition is not enough. But it is a start.
I often wonder how my native acquaintances see the current political argument over building that wall. The land I live on was taken from the Utes. So was the land my great grand mother and 13 children homesteaded. I recall a conversation I had with a distant relative a few years back about various pioneer families in this area. Present in that room was a member of a local Ute tribe. It was a stupid arrogant thing to do and I regret that deeply today. I often wonder how he felt being captive to such a senseless conversation.

This article has me wondering many things. I guess I’ll have to read the book.

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DOES THE BOOK IDENTIFY THE ULTIMATE SOURCE OF “THE DOCTRINE OF DISCOVERY”?

It’s known as THE OLD TESTAMENT!

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… in the Abrahamic tradition.

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I’m just about to finish the book and am wondering what the discussion in forums like this will look like beyond theology and eschatology but on more practical matters. Looks like huge implications are looming.
Prior to this I never heard of the doctrine of discovery. But I’ve been out of the loop.
If what the author says is true, this raises huge questions about everything.
How are you taking his solutions to this?

I’m not sure that religious justifications of conquest are particularly new, but merging that into some directives that constitute white supremacy would be a stretch, given that the context of “white” as some supreme context for color wouldn’t even exist in Europe as such… perhaps ever.

Given the nature of European conquest, it was very much competitive and Ethno-centric. Spain competed with Portugal, Britain and France to grab a chunk of colonial expansion. As such it wasn’t any different than Alexander’s expansion of his Empire, or Genghis Khan’s expansion of his. It didn’t run across certain racial dimension.

In ANY case, in a way history happened to be unfolding at various times, there’s plentiful of conquest and consolidation efforts. In fact, for the most part, human history is one violent march towards consolidation of various ideological positions, which eventually minimized violence and discord. It came with a cost of a lot of blood, and it’s horrible. But hindsight is always 20/20.

We could dial back the history in which all of us live in familiar tribes, in which case it wouldn’t likely be a more peaceful existence. Or we can accept that our history hasn’t exactly been preteen, and try to do much better next time.

Greatness doesn’t constitute lack of flaws. I once called out my humanities professor on the fact that Columbus was not a great man, since he enslaved and murdered a population of people. And, to which my wise professor replied - “Who would you prefer would do that then?”

It was a very uncomfortable question, with answer “I would have preferred for them to be left alone”, but in context of the historical trajectory of the day, someone else would have done that. So, we can go back and attempt to dive into rather incoherently violent human past, or we could learn from it, and begin to appreciate a much more comfortable present. I understand that it doesn’t carry the same level of comfort for everyone, but it’s arguably much better for everyone than it was before the colonial conquest.

We can’t undo these atrocities, but we can make sure that these people have not suffered in vain.

What made you decide to stop with Lincoln? What Lincoln has, we all have.

The Bible has evidence that the basic underlying pathology goes back to Cain as when he was cautioned by God to control sin which was crouching at his door.

We live in a broken world. There is only so much that we can blame on the past. Our task is to move forward and cling to Leviticus 19:18 “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”

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As more truth is uncovered, the Adventist church will need to regroup on the US being something in prophecy. It makes no sense, literally, in today’s light of history. 150 years ago, people had no knowledge of what the US was. We now know that that there were great empires here, with millions of people. Cities rivaled any in Europe. Today, nobody cares about the US or the pope. When are we going to wake up to a realization that the US cannot be the second power rising… And the catholic church does not really foot the bill either. As we speak, catholic statues are being torn down. We need to do a double take on Daniel and Revelation before we get laughed off the planet. But hey, keep waiting for that national sunday law…

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Thanks, @Sirje.

You asked(?):

In response:

The only way to answer that question is in the context of what you are working to get done.

You describe yourself as a young child, carried along, as children should be, by the goals of your parents.

O.K. You’re not a child, any more.

So, what are you working to accomplish?

When you know what you are doing, you will know what you should do now.

HA

Yes well, one thing I’m not doing is apologizing for being white - since I had no more to do with that than my black neighbour has, with being black. And yes, “all lives matter”. And no, I’m not marching on anyone’s behalf. What I can do is what I’ve tried to do all my life, “treat others as I would like to be treated” - that’s all “I got”.

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And what if we do, how would we go about it? There’s much talk about reparations to descendants if African slaves, what about indigenous Americans? Consider the standard of living existing on the reservations today, is this really fair payment to these people?
Anyone committed to truth (a huge SDA claim) and justice owes it to themselves to read the book.

Excellent comments.
What about Exodus 22:1, “If a man steals an ox or a sheep and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.”
What do we do about this?
Does admitting mankind’s “pathetic” condition go far enough?

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When the Soviets took over property (no private property allowed) they figured out how much room a family would need - moved the owners, and placed the appropriate number of people in. If they did that in California there would be no homeless people left in San Fran or LA. Their address would be in Hollywood Hills - all of them.

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In case you want to reply, would that be an option in your view?

Don’t know what you mean.

Very good point fo information.

There is a vast difference between blaming others for one’s behaviors as compared to paying for the consequences of one’s behavior. The former is an excuse to continue with one’s socially inappropriate behavior whereas Exodus 22:1 is a socially appropriate means of paying for one’s bad behaviors.

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This is so true. But the force that makes people stay focusing on the past is too strong. If we only could erase the memory of the past and move forward!

But, again, it’s difficult because “white supremacy” is so deeply ingrained in some people that they can’t move on - they have to stay stuck in the past and continue supporting, propagating, and practicing white supremacy.

People who defend or excuse white supremacy must certainly be a white supremacist themselves. There is no hope for our society until white supremacists “discover” that they are guilty of a horrible crime against humankind. I know that nobody is doing it here on the Spectrum forum, but if someone did, they would be easily recognized as part of that insane group.

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I bet that during the last presidential election in the US many Adventists were attracted to the MAGA idea and voted for it with the best intention of assisting God in implementing His plan. for “the end of the world.”

Well, MAGA is undeniably a total disaster, a complete failure. The world is in awe for what has happened in the almost four past years; many are just laughing at the absurdities happening here. Our most urgent need now is MADA - Making America Decent again.

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