Mark Charles, a Christian blogger who recently wrote of how a spiritually profound experience at InterVarsity’s Urbana 15 Missions Conference influenced his decision to forgo communion, has commented on the trials and tribulations he’s encountered in his mission to raise awareness of the Doctrine of Discovery.

The Doctrine of Discovery is a series of papal decrees that gave Christian explorers the right to lay claim to any land that was “discovered” — land that Christians didn’t inhabit — to expand territory controlled by Christian kings. They would live if non-Christian inhabitants in newly discovered lands were converted. If the inhabitants refused conversion, they were either enslaved or killed.

The doctrine’s postmodern influence re-emerged during the debate about the potential “racism” and “exploitation” of Native Americans reflected in the images of sports mascots, most notably (and seemingly singularly) the Washington Redskins.

It has also been enshrined in U.S. law since 1823 and appeared in a Supreme Court case in 2005 when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited the Doctrine of Discovery in a land-claim ruling against the Oneida Indians, one of the founding nations of the Iroquois Confederacy.

In addition to diligently bringing attention to the Doctrine of Discovery, Charles also uses this issue as a springboard to highlight America’s historical racism, which he argues is found in the Declaration of Independence and embedded in the Constitution of the United States. Charles contends that these founding documents provide clear and irrefutable evidence that systematic racism is part of the country’s DNA, continuing to disadvantage racial minorities at the expense of the white majority.

As a result of the ongoing presence of systemic racism, the uncomfortable heritage of the Doctrine of Discovery, and the belief in American Exceptionalism, Charles has called for the planning and institution of what he calls Truth Commissions, which are, in his words,

A series of national conferences to be held throughout the country that would create space and give a platform for indigenous elders and peoples [of color] to share their stories and let the truth be known about the abuse, trauma, and injustice that they endured.

I appreciate that Charles is laboring to gain a national platform to bring attention to an issue about which he cares deeply. I enjoy the tireless and rarely rewarding hard work and repetitive difficulty that accompanies the process, and I also empathize with him. When one feels that God has called one into a ministry, the understanding is that this ministry will indeed be, more than likely, challenging. It’s even worse when one knows God has called one into a particular ministry.

With that said, I don’t know what Charles’ calling is, but I am curious to see the point of bringing attention to the Doctrine of Discovery aside from the obvious history lesson. And not to play whimsical with relativism, but how is conquering lands by decree — religious or political — different from what almost every nation has done since time immemorial? This question isn’t to draw a moral equivalence. Still, it is to say that the result of the “discovering” (always an issue of perspective) of the Americas by European nation-states, and the eventual creation of the United States itself and conquering native peoples in the process, isn’t unique in its history of discovery, subjugation or plunder.

Charles enthusiastically calls for the United States government to issue a stand-alone declaration or resolution condemning what it did to the native peoples (it already has and has implemented social programs and other monetary goodies as compensation). This declaration would include an apology for its systemic actions of genocide against the country’s “original” “indigenous” residents. Furthermore, Charles longs to see the Catholic Church apologize for and condemn its history of supporting this doctrine if I understand him correctly.

The U.S. government has, in fact, already apologized — a fact that Charles grudgingly admits. But for Charles, the actual apology doesn’t go far enough. The apology didn’t have a ceremonial showing of public confession and penance.

For argument’s sake, let’s say both the Catholic Church and the U.S. government participate in public prostration–repenting for historical sins and the deeds of race-based brutality and destruction. Then what? How would these symbolic apologies and admission of wrongdoings directly and immediately improve the quality of lives of Native Americans? How would these extended apologies mitigate the contemporary, devastating effects that alcoholism, illiteracy, illegitimacy, depression, mental illness, and poverty have on the lives of almost three million Native Americans? Would a symbolic act of apology increase the number of natives to Christ? This symbolic gesture of confession, regret, and repentance doesn’t change history. It does nothing to alter the trajectory of the Native American lives that suffer under the weight of sin and other self-damaging behaviors.

Additionally, it’s abundantly clear that the country has changed dramatically since its colonization and establishment. Yes, the Declaration of Independence referred to natives as “savages” (a mix of racial chauvinism for sure, but history demonstrates that many Amerindians were barbarous); and yes, the Constitution, written initially — and in practice for far too long — understood free men as white men. But it was later amended, so theory and practice were much more aligned, if not perfect, to include Native Americans, blacks, and women.

But what’s the point of this single-minded emphasis if the country isn’t currently reflective of a painful and ignoble past? To assert this idea that the government continues to be “systemically racist” is absurd. Where is systemic racism found? How? What specific laws are encoded with intentionally racist language or have, at their core, inherently racist intentions and applications against racial minorities in favor of white people? (One law is racist and outdated, directly affecting a white foster family, removing and traumatizing their six-year-old foster child and placing her with “relatives” because she’s almost 2 percent Native American. A claim stated that it’s in the child’s best interest to be among people of her own “race” rather than with a family where race is subordinated to love.) Suppose the country maintains its systemic sin of racism. How does a true believer explain the high number of black and African immigrants who deliberately come to our country to take advantage of the same system, with great success that surpasses many native-born blacks? People who want and need answers to explain the socioeconomic disparities along racial lines are likely to be persuaded that the solution to these problems is enduring racism that is “systemic.” Charles and the like-minded are inclined to believe the “system” (however arbitrarily defined) is “set up” to benefit whites under racial “supremacy” and “white privilege” while disadvantaging minorities because, well, they’re minorities, despite all evidence to the contrary.

It’s never explained how such a vast and incoherently described “system” has morphed into a living organism, with the ability to adapt and adjust for limitless variables, particularly those that are unpredictable, to maintain “supremacy” for whites (Christians, too) at the expense of blacks and other racial minorities. It’s also never explained how more and more whites — who should have privilege by being white — have fallen through the cracks, not having found a way to take advantage of their racial birthright.

And when questioned about the increasing number of blacks who haven’t succumbed to the constantly evolving, evil organism of systemic racism, true believers in systemic racism (Christian and non-Christian alike) predictably define or explain away these blacks (and other racial minorities) as “lucky.” When highlighting several examples of other “lucky” blacks and other non-whites who have managed to succeed by outsmarting the adaptive nature of systemic racism, showing a clear pattern of success (and refuting a blatantly false racial narrative), it’s ignored, and the belief in systemic racism remains. For them, it has to.

Highlighting the Doctrine of Discovery as a historical function passes muster. Emphasizing it to “prove” systemic racism and to receive transparent, politically correct, and symbolic gestures of remorse – gestures that won’t help the lives of those to whom the guilt is directed – wastes time. Re-victimizing people along racial lines and encouraging them to embrace helplessness in the present because of past grievances aren’t right, and it isn’t the Christian thing to do.

I fear that the Doctrine of Discovery leverages a tool to manipulate white (Christian) guilt in addition to it being another form of “white privilege,” used to condemn people by racial association for benefiting from it despite their naiveté concerning it.  As is present in other forms of “racial (social) justice” employed by secular progressives or their Christian counterparts, this does little to advance the cause of racial or ethnic conciliation in the church.

I partially believe in Mark Charles’ sincerity, even though I disagree with his platform and its intent. One can be both sincere and wrong at the same time.


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