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

[1] In 2016, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly overwhelmingly passed a “Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery.” [1] Yet in the intervening years I have noticed that most people I come across have no idea what the Doctrine of Discovery is, or how it affects not only the lives of Native Americans, but also the lives of everyone in the Americas.  Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah have written a powerful and accessible book that explores the impact of the 15th century papal bull that mixed imperialism, greed and racism with toxic theology.

[2] It is not that Lutherans in the US have not addressed injustices towards the original peoples of the land.  In the 1970’s, the National Indian Lutheran Board (NILB) was active, especially in the upper Midwest, and collaborated with other Native American advocacy groups.  The legacy of NILB is told in a video produced by the ELCA in 2008–“Native Nations: Standing Together for Civil Rights.”  [2]

[3]  In 2017, the Journal of Lutheran Ethics did a whole issue on the Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, [3] including an introduction by editor Carmelo Santos, a lengthy article by the legendary scholar Tink Tinker, and a reflection on the ELCA’s action (or inaction) by activist Vance Blackfox.  Unfortunately, these resources have not reached the vast majority of non-Indian Lutherans in the pews or in the pulpits.  And the church’s efforts against racism have until now largely been tone deaf to the issues faced by Native Americans.

[4] Charles and Rah offer an antidote to our cultural blindness about the ongoing damage done by the Doctrine of Discovery. They document not only how the Doctrine of Discovery has permanently damaged native peoples, but also how it has infected and corrupted Christian theology.

[5] Chapter 1 begins with a truth that ought to be self-evident. “You cannot discover lands already inhabited.”[4] Describing his encounter with some Columbus re-enactors on Columbus Day in Washington, D.C.,  Charles reports being told by a white man, “You are not welcome here.” [5] He concludes: “The fact that America calls what Columbus did ‘discovery’ reveals the implicit racial bias of the country–that Native Americans are not fully human.”  [6]

[6] The papal bulls that became the Doctrine of Discovery were established in 1452 and 1454, as a way to mediate among European powers competing to conquer non-European lands.  But it did far more than mediate–it justified the European self-understanding of superiority, and gave it a theological blessing.

[7] “The Doctrine of Discovery, first directed towards Portugal, then directed towards Spain, affirmed the imperial ambitions of these two European powers.  It gave theological permission for the European body and mind to view themselves as superior to the non-European bodies and minds.  The doctrine created an insider perception for the Europeans while generating an outsider, other identity for non-Europeans.  It created an identity for African bodies as inferior and only worthy of subjugation; it also relegated the identity of the original inhabitants of the land  ‘discovered’ to become outsiders, now unwelcome in their own land.”  [7]

[8] Contemporary Lutheran readers may wonder why we even have to worry about a 15th century papal bull.  After all, didn’t Luther and his successors free us from the tyranny of Rome?  The answer is that while Lutherans may not have been in the first wave of European invaders, like all Europeans, Lutherans benefitted from the Doctrine of Discovery.  Lutherans moved into and still occupy lands taken from the original inhabitants because of the Doctrine of Discovery.  Lutherans owned slaves and benefitted from a system that privileged whites and dehumanized people of color.

[9] The Doctrine of Discovery is not simply an archaic church doctrine that has had ongoing unexpected consequences.  The Doctrine of Discovery has actually become part of United States law, most notoriously with the 1823 Supreme Court decision in Johnson v. M’Intosh.  Charles and Rah write: “Not only did the 1823 Supreme Court led by Chief Justice John Marshall, and subsequent Supreme Court judicial interpretations, perpetuate the dehumanizing worldview of the Doctrine of Discovery, but they transformed the discovery doctrine into a modern-day legal instrument that has become the bedrock of the legal principle for land titles in the United States.” [8]

[10] Since that 1823 decision numerous injustices against Native Americans can be traced to the Doctrine of Discovery.  They include, but are not limited to the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Trail of Tears (1838-9), the Indian Indenture Act (1850); the Hanging of the 38 Dakota in 1862; the Massacre at Sand Creek (1864); Wounded Knee (1890) and more recently the 2005 decision against the Oneida Nation (written by Ruth Bader Ginsburg). Referring to state-sanctioned actions as well as individual acts, Charles and Rah write:  “The history of violence against Native peoples reveals how a dysfunctional theological imagination results in broken expressions of violence and injustice,” [9]  The authors conclude: “The implicit bias of white supremacy is alive and well in the United States of America, and is a bipartisan value that is perpetuated by nearly every US citizen (or at least every US citizen who owns or hopes to own land.”)  [10]

[11] What distinguishes this book from the many other books written about the Doctrine of Discovery is that this book is directed towards the church.  Like Lenny Duncan, who writes with both love and sorrow in his lament, Dear Church, [11]  Charles and Rah write to a church that they know and love.  Both Christian Reformed in background, they are clear about why they write: “Our connection stems from our mutual love for Jesus and our mutual passion for justice, both of which have found expression in our mutual lament for the church.”  [12]  They see their work as both education and lament, critiquing “dysfunctional theology and broken history.”[13]

[12] Time and again they contrast the development of post-Constantinian Christianity with the biblical experience of Jesus.  “The idea of Christendom, an earthly Christian empire, is an extra-biblical concept that is not aligned with the teachings of Jesus.”  [14] “The creation of a Christian empire forced a paradigm on the church that was never imagined at its beginning.”  [15] “The Christian imagination shifted from a mindset of suffering to a mindset of exceptionalism and triumphalism.”  [16]

[13] In the chapter, “Genocide, the Impact of a Dysfunctional Theology,” Charles and Chan use the “I-thou” relationship to illustrate the problems inherent in the Doctrine of Discovery.  “The positioning of the other as less than–as asserted by the Doctrine of Discovery–breaks the community that God had intended.”  [17]

[14] The authors take historical trauma seriously and address white fragility as well, noting “White America could not perpetrate 500 years of de-humanizing injustice without traumatizing itself.”  [18] “In treating white people as a traumatized people, people of color have the authority to maintain their own agency and humanity in a way that has not been accessible before.  Oftentimes, in conversations on race, whites are viewed as those with power who should initiate the seeking of forgiveness and initiate the process of reconciliation and healing.  Instead, by treating white Americans as a traumatized people, we are called to an equality in our mutual brokenness and trauma.” [19]

[15]  To be clear, nothing that Charles and Rah write about white people should be taken as advocating an “all lives matter” position.  They do not absolve the beneficiaries of the Doctrine of Discovery because they, too, are broken.  Rather, as Christians, they confess the brokenness of all humanity.  They do not let white Christians off the hook of accountability.

[16] The authors are critical of contemporary Christian efforts to apologize to aggrieved peoples without offering any remedy.  Citing an ecumenical gathering at Standing Rock during the Dakota Access Pipeline Crisis in 2016, Charles noted that none of the representatives of primarily white denominations had given back land, nor had they promised not to fight lawsuits over land. Their public repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, therefore, was little more than a photo op, with no teeth. [20]

[17] Charles and Rah outline additional challenges to the white American church:  Reconciliation without conciliation; American Christians’ failure to see themselves as part of a global body of Christ; individualism; confession without consequences; false security; American exceptionalism and triumphalism. Charles and Rah challenge the church: “If the American church were to confess the sin of stolen lands, broken treaties, slavery, genocide, mass incarceration, Jim Crow laws, internment camps, nuclear weapons, the New Jim Crow, and all the social sins justified by the acceptance of the heresy of Christendom, the trauma of such a confession would compel a people unable to cope with trauma to immediately seek out a form of hope.” [21] They discuss the healing power of lament, and describe hope.  “The hope for America does not come from a land covenant with God–it comes from the character of God.  And the character of God is not accessed by our exceptionalism but through a humility that emerges from the spiritual practice of lament.” [22]

[18] This book is timely as American Christians formulate their responses to the many social issues that result from the Doctrine of Discovery.  In 2019, churches and others noted the 400th anniversary of bringing enslaved Africans to the Americas. Slavery and the ongoing racism and injustice are a direct result of the Doctrine of Discovery.  In 2020, the death of George Floyd at the hands of police set off widespread awareness of racism, not only towards African Americans, but also towards Native Americans.  The belated efforts of some professional sports teams were among the actions.  Some religious institutions are beginning to consider reparations for descendants of enslaved persons. Some are arranging to return small, symbolic pieces of land to the original inhabitants.

[19] A second contemporary issue in church and society is immigration. Charles describes a conversation with a Navajo sheepherder about immigration.  It became clear that the conversation was not about the 14 million undocumented people that most people talk about, but rather about the “300 million undocumented immigrants who had been pouring into this continent since 1492.”  [23]  Maintaining that most immigration reformers, whether conservative or liberal, get it wrong, the authors state: “What most Americans miss regarding immigration reform is that without Natives at the table, the United States of America is incapable of comprehensively or justly reforming immigration law.  Without Natives at the table, a generation of undocumented immigrants is trying to decide what to do with another generation of undocumented immigrants.  There is no integrity in the dialogue.  It does not matter if your plan is to build a wall to keep people out or if you are working to open the gate to let people in.  Neither of those decisions is yours to make alone.” [24]

[20]  The book concludes with a challenge and a metaphor.  The challenge: “The United States of America needs a national dialogue on race, gender and class.  A conversation on par with the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions that took place in South Africa, Rwanda, and Canada.  It must be an inclusive dialogue, not one that takes place in specific silos.  And the church must be involved.  But because the American church has so broadly accepted the heresy of Christian empire and because the Western church wrote the Doctrine of Discovery, the church is currently incapable of leading this dialogue.  It needs to participate, but it cannot lead.” [25]

[21]  The metaphor: based on the book of Hosea [26]

“Jesus is the prophet.

The Western/American church is Gomer.

Our adultery is with the empire.

And our only path to healing is through lament and learning how to accept some very unsettling truths.”

[22]  I commend this book to Christians who want to dive deeper into how our church is part of the complex history of the ongoing harm from the Doctrine of Discovery.




[2] “Native Nations: Standing Together for Civil Rights” ELCA, 2008. 


[4] Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah, Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery (Downers’ Grove, IL, Intervarsity Press, 2019) 13.

[5] Ibid., 14.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 21.

[8] Ibid.,109.

[9] Ibid., 119.

[10] Ibid., 128.

[11] Lenny Duncan, Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the United States (Fortress Press, 2019).

[12] Charles and Rah, Ibid., 4.

[13] Ibid., 13.

[14]  Ibid., 57.

[15] Ibid.,  59.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., p. 117.

[18] Ibid., 176.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 185.

[21] Ibid., 186-187.

[22] Ibid., 188.

[23] Ibid., 129.

[24] Ibid., 130-131.

[25] Ibid., 205.

[26] Ibid., 206.