The Unholy Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery

I finished reading Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery, by Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah very quickly after opening it over the weekend. Which for me is always a nice surprise because it generally can take me months to get through a nonfiction book, sometimes a year. The authors put something together that is massively informative and should have been dense but was very accessible reading. Charles is a member of the Navajo nation (and you might not know he’s been running for president), and I believe both authors are Christian pastors.

The Doctrine of Discovery is something I only had vague schoolchild notions of until stumbling across Charles’s TEDx talk a few years ago. Unsettling Truths is a must-read, I think, for anyone seeking to understand the psychological and spiritual sicknesses that North American culture was founded upon. It’s perhaps a beginning book, an opening of a conversation and revision that is long overdue. There is so much to discuss about it, a mass collection of ideas in a very small and well-organized space, but I’ll stick mostly with the Doctrine itself here.

The Doctrine isn’t one document; it’s a set of papal precepts issued in the 1400s that gave official Catholic blessing to the right of Portuguese and Spanish monarchs to claim title to land they’d “discovered” and all that land’s resources, including its people. The first was Pope Nicholas V’s in 1452, a papal bull titled Dum Diversas that gave permission to the king of Portugal “to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens [the word used for Muslim people at that time] and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ . . . and the kingdoms, . . . possessions, and all movable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.” The passage quoted in Unsettling Truths goes on to grant the king the right to appropriate all said kingdoms, possessions, etc., and convert them to the crown’s own use and profit. Romanus Pontifex, written in 1454, expanded the idea to give European Catholic nations dominion over non-Christian lands they “discovered.” The authors’ discussion of this papal bull points to its role in enslavement of people living in Africa by Prince Henry of Portugal, which relied partly on the warped logic that enslaving non-Christians might save their souls by bringing them closer to Christ.

The book leaned far more heavily on Christianity and the disconnect between Jesus’ actual teachings and the pursuit of Christendom—that is, building a Christian nation—than I was expecting, but that’s understandable given the authors’ callings as Christian pastors, and it’s clear that the project of forming a Christian nation can’t be disentangled from the Doctrine of Discovery and the evils that it has perpetuated for centuries. More than that, it puts many current movements, such as Dominionism, into historical context.

A taste of the authors’ thinking on the need to save Christianity, not just America, from the Doctrine’s legacy:

“The formation of the Doctrine of Discovery in the fifteenth century was the culmination of the development of a diseased theological imagination that resulted in the severely dysfunctional expression of the church. This imagination operated beneath the surface of the European mind, particularly towards those deemed as outsiders or infidels.”

The authors trace the Doctrine’s effects through to modern times, including very recent Supreme Court Cases. One was in 2005, and the Doctrine was explicitly cited in 1985 in City of Oneida v. Oneida Indian Nation:

“The ‘doctrine of discovery’ provided, however, that discovering nations held fee title to [lands inhabited by Indian nations], subject to the Indians’ right of occupancy and use.”

As far as I can work out, this means that whoever pays money for land has the right to it, no matter who was there first and whether or not paying for land ownership was a system in place before the “discoverer” landed there. It’s an idea that was articulated in an earlier and more well-known case, Johnson v. McIntosh in 1823, which stated outright that Indian tribes could not own land; only European nations—and after them the United States—that had conquered and settled the land could. Part of the opinion contains the following baffling language: “It has never been contended that the Indian title amounted to nothing. Their right of possession has never been questioned. The claim of government extends to the complete ultimate title, charged with this right of possession and to the exclusive power of acquiring that right.” So Indian nations could have or inhabit land but not sell it? Cue WTF emoji.

(Related: The myth of money and the narrative of capitalism are also on my reading pile.)

There are many other ideas packed into a short book, on white supremacy and power and, something I think about a lot, how narrative is never just words but shapes how people see themselves and others, and how that in turn shapes society, not always, obviously, for the better:

“The captivity of individualism in the West leads many to reject the possibility of institutions and systems inflicting social harm that requires a social response.”

The GoFundMe campaign for this book (disclaimer: I contributed to it) was launched long before the Covid-19 pandemic, and the book itself was published in 2019, but this statement is remarkably prescient regarding the disaster that the U.S. finds itself in this year, not just in a lack of national response to the pandemic, but in the small but extremely vocal minority who rely on the narrative of individualism to reject any moves to promote the common good.

I’ll end with an idea that was slipped in the middle of the book, and one I’m pondering because it’s related to some of my current research:

“The word privilege suggests that the inequality that favors white people is actually a blessing which they must learn to share. The term white privilege perpetuates an implicit bias. Whiteness is neither a privilege nor a blessing to be shared, it is a diseased social construct that needs to be confronted.”

Much of Claudia Rankine’s most recent work is on the subject of whiteness being a social construct rather than a race (and any white nationalist can go to Scotland and see what they actually think of the English to disabuse themselves of the notion that living in a place exclusively reserved for white people will somehow rid society of its ills), so this passage isn’t out of the blue. But I’m not sure if a white person such as myself could, or should, take the step that the authors do here to dismiss white privilege as a reality. I see the logic, but there are too many situations where having pale skin like mine leads to a certain kind of treatment that I wouldn’t get if my skin weren’t the color it is. I’m not sure “privilege” in Unsettling Truths jives with the meaning in the context it’s generally used but will be thinking about it further.


Some stuff to read or listen to:

  • Garrett Bucks on Gerda Lerner’s classic The Creation of Patriarchy (which I have not read but now plan to) and how a patriarchal system that elevates individualism above community makes dealing with a pandemic almost impossible, and how easy it makes it for a white man like himself to sit back and do nothing to forward the causes of justice and equality.

  • An interview with the authors of Angrynomics on the state of the world, the role of anger in social movements, good and bad, and the moral outrage that ensues after recessions.

  • Mark Charles’s TED talk on the Doctrine of Discovery and the failed promise of “We the People.” It presents the overall ideas behind the book, though the book itself obviously has far more information.

  • The Very Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas interviewing Austin Channing Brown, author of I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness.

  • I read Fredrik Backman’s Bear Town this week. Holy wow I could not put that book down, and not only am I not particularly into hockey, I am not into any sport at all (I do enjoy rugby sometimes, and since my spouse is English I can’t help seeing more than a few soccer games). But it’s not really, in the end, about hockey. It’s about many things, the core of which is identity:

    • “One of the plainest truths about both towns and individuals is that they usually don’t turn into what we tell them to be, but what they are told they are.”

    • “The twentysomething men at the Bearskin have become the most conservative people in town: they don’t want a modern Beartown, because they know that a modern Beartown won’t want them.”

    • “You have a ‘job’ so you can provide for your family whereas a ‘career’ is selfish.”