Home Arts & Culture Unsettling Truths: The on-going, dehumanizing legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery

Unsettling Truths: The on-going, dehumanizing legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery

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Unsettling TruthsUnsettling Truths: The on-going, dehumanizing legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery

Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah

InterVarsity Press, 2019

Review by Randy Klassen

What is the subject?

This book shines a damning light on the “Doctrine of Discovery,” the legal framework that grounded and justified European colonial rule of the Americas, and whose fallout continues to impact Indigenous lives to this day.

The Doctrine, established by papal authority in the 1400s, asserts that any territory not ruled by a “Christian prince” is to be deemed “empty” and thus “discoverable” by any (European) Christian ruler—in simpler terms, such lands are ripe for the picking. The Doctrine is unmasked as a racist, white supremacist framework, built atop a heretical and unjust theology. However, since the Doctrine forms the on-going, legal foundation for the territorial existence of both Canada and the United States, it remains gravely problematic for the Church, and for all people of conscience.

Who are the authors?

The book is co-authored by Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah. Charles is a pastor, speaker, writer and consultant, of Navajo and Dutch-American descent, and has been involved with the Christian Reformed Church and the Christian Community Development Association. Rah, a first generation Korean American, is associate professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary, Chicago.

What makes this book important?

The challenges facing Canada in its relations to Indigenous peoples continue to grow. The Truth & Reconciliation Commission (2007-2015), Idle No More movement (begun 2012), and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (2015-2016) are some of the nation-wide headliners that have raised broader awareness of the history of Indigenous/Settler relations in Canada. More and more Canadians are becoming aware of the horrendous impact of Indian Residential Schools, and the domineering legislation of the Indian Act.

But there is a deeper layer of sin and injustice grounding this all, which Charles and Rah unmask in this book: the legal framework known as the “Doctrine of Discovery.” This strikes at the heart not only of our political and legal existence, but also of our Christian self-understanding. So why this book? Because the healing and integrity of the North American (settler) church is at stake. Because reconciliation (God’s desire for all people and all things, Eph 1.10) does not come about without a hard reckoning and wrestling with truth (an alignment with God’s being and doing, centred on Jesus as the Truth).

Finally, while there are other books that explore the Doctrine of Discovery, as the underlying injustice of American colonialism, this is, I believe, the first book from a major American evangelical publisher to focus squarely on this issue. Thus it might reach a new and important audience.

Comment on the book’s perspective in light of the MB Confession of Faith

The starting point of the argument in Unsettling Truths is the nature of the church. The book’s perspective resonates strongly with an Anabaptist (and MB) understanding of the church as a society of regenerate disciples (Article 6), not a Christianized nation. Indeed, the first few chapters may seem redundant to one who is familiar with Mennonite perspectives on the church and Christendom, but they are necessary, and perhaps bracing for those newer to an Anabaptist perspective.

The book engages deeply with Article 12, Society and State, where Mennonite Brethren say that “Believers witness against corruption, discrimination, and injustice, exercise social responsibility, pay taxes, and obey all laws that do not conflict with the Word of God.” The book pushes hard on the fact that injustice is deeply and systemically embedded in our shared history, in national constitutions, and in law. This will be hard for many readers to accept.

And that why it is important (as the authors regularly remind us) to see this issue in light of the theological understanding of sin (Article 4). Unless we take seriously the deep and pervasive presence of sin in the world, our own fallen proclivities and our captivity, we will not be able to respond as we should. We will not be ready to see that the institutions and persons we have honoured are actually based on heresy and injustice. The sin of the Doctrine of Discovery is huge and insidious. Can we see that? Can we embrace our complicity? Can we move forward in lament and confession? These are important points of existential interaction with our theology of sin and evil.

Key Insights

  1. Christendom (understood as the marriage of church and state, begun with Constantine in the fourth century, continued on in the modern world in the notion of a “Christian nation”) is heresy, seriously at odds with Jesus’ gospel teaching about worldly power and how His disciples ought to live.
  2. The Doctrine of Discovery established a dysfunctional theology that set the direction and agenda for European interaction with both Africa and the Americas. It was the source of the African slave trade and the genocide of native peoples.
  3. The Doctrine of Discovery set the direction for today’s dominant American (and American Christian) ethos of “exceptionalism and triumphalism,” i.e. a sense of entitlement to domination, made explicit in the theory of “Manifest Destiny.”
  4. American dominance is rooted, constitutionally and in terms of the national imagination, in the white, land-owning class. This makes white supremacy a systemic reality. Even the messianic figure of Abraham Lincoln is, under closer inspection, decidedly tarnished, with regard to both African Americans and First Nations. (The two chapters devoted to Lincoln were among the most eye-opening of the book. And in a similar vein, the authors challenge the vague and unpublicized Apology to Native People issued by the Obama administration in late 2009.)
  5. The authors challenge the responses of both political right and left, including the current movement of various bodies (civil, ecclesial) to “repudiate” the Doctrine of Discovery. The authors challenge the concepts of both “white privilege” and “white fragility.” They feel that trauma-awareness provides a better framework, for it can meaningfully unpack the experience of both First Nations (as individual or collective victims) and settler societies. The authors suggest using the framework of “Perpetration-Induced Trauma Syndrome” (a form of PTSD found in those actively involved in causing harm to others, e.g. soldiers or police officers), as a way of interpreting white settler responses.


A minor downside to this book is some inadequate editing, perhaps due to the dual authorship of the book. Some repetitiveness made for a bit of a wooden read at times, but the content is nevertheless important.

The greatest challenge for Canadian readers will be that this book is aimed squarely at the American church and American history. The Doctrine of Discovery plays an explicit part in American legal formulations (despite being a Roman papal decree from 1493): it was invoked in an 1823 US Supreme Court judgement, supporting Western expansion, and that precedent has been referenced by the US Supreme Court as recently as 2005. This is not ancient history.

At the same time, Canadian readers should not be smug, or consider the American experience irrelevant. Canadian history is as full of injustice as the American. The issues raised by the Doctrine of Discovery play out in our news every day (for example, with native land claims in BC). There are occasional references to the Canadian experience (for example, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission). Much closer to home, the language and ideology inspired by the Doctrine—empty land, ready to be tamed, settled—is exactly what attracted many thousands of Mennonites, in the 1870s and the 1920s, to come settle the Canadian Prairies (my grandparents among them). Many of us, many of our churches, are direct beneficiaries of this “dysfunctional theology.”

One other comment regarding the book’s American orientation: we should be reminded that the border which partitions North America is just one more European-settler construct. It was imposed upon First Nations groups whose territories it carved up—a colonial artifice that divided families and communities as profoundly as the Berlin Wall did in its time.

This book would pair well with Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian, which covers all of Turtle Island (aka North America); our current book adds a needed Christian theological perspective. For further theological reading, one might also look at important contributions from Mennonite Church Canada (Wrongs to Rights, Quest for Respect) as well as Herald Press (Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry).

Who should read it?

Anyone wanting to learn more about the experiences of Indigenous peoples in North America. It is a needed theological addition to the conversations about reconciliation.

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