Race, Privilege and the Doctrine of Discovery

on March 23, 2016

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 wasn’t inhabited by Christians — for the purpose of expanding territory controlled by Christian kings. If the non-Christian inhabitants of newly discovered lands could be converted, they could be spared. If the inhabitants refused conversion, they were either enslaved or killed.

Apparently, the doctrine’s postmodern influence re-emerged during the debate about 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 back 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 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 can appreciate that Charles is laboring to gain a national platform to bring attention to an issue he cares deeply about. Not only do I appreciate the tireless and rarely rewarding hard work and repetitive difficulty that accompanies the process, I deeply 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 know what the point is 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 other nation has done since time immemorial? This isn’t to draw a moral equivalence but it is to say that the result of the “discovering” (always an issue of perspective) of the Americas by European nation states, and 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.

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

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, particularly because it wasn’t accompanied by a ceremonial showing of public confession and penance.

For argument’s sake, let’s say both the Catholic Church and the U.S. government participates in public prostration, lamenting and repenting for historical sins and deeds of race-based barbarity and extermination. 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 symbolic apologies mitigate the devastating effects that alcoholism, illiteracy, illegitimacy, depression, mental illness and poverty have on the lives of the almost three million Native Americans (minus the white people who wear their hair in ponytails to gain access to casino money)? Would either symbolic acts of apology increase the number of natives to Christ? This symbolic gesture of confession, regret, and repentance doesn’t change history whatsoever and 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 clearly many AmerIndians were indeed, barbarous); and yes the Constitution, originally written — 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 an uncomfortable and ignoble past? To assert this idea that the country continues to be “systemically racist” is absurd. Where is systemic racism found? How? What specific laws are specifically encoded with intentionally racist language, or have at its core, inherently racist intentions and applications against racial minorities in favor of white people? (We do know that there is, in my opinion, a racist and outdated law that has directly affected 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, claiming it’s in the best interest of the child to be among people of her own “race” rather than with a family where race is subordinated to love.) And if the country maintains its systemic sin of racism, how does a true believer explain the high number of black and African immigrants (among other brown and dark skin immigrants) who deliberately come to our country to take advantage of the very system, with great success that surpasses many native-born blacks? People who want and need answers to explain the socio-economic disparities that exist along racial lines are very likely to be persuaded that the answer to these problems is found in an enduring racism that is “systemic.” Charles, and the likeminded are inclined to believe the “system” (however arbitrarily defined) is “set up” to benefit whites by virtue of racial “supremacy” and “white privilege,” while disadvantaging minorities because, well, they’re minorities, despite any and 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 virtue of 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.” Yet when highlighting the numerous examples of other so-called “lucky” blacks and other non-whites who have managed to succeed by outsmarting the adaptive nature of systemic racism, demonstrating a clear pattern of success (and refuting a blatantly false racial narrative), no excuse or rationale is given, but 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 remorse is directed – is a waste of time. Re-victimizing people along racial lines and/or encouraging people to embrace helplessness in the present because of past grievances aren’t right, and it surely isn’t the Christian thing to do.

I fear that the Doctrine of Discovery is being leveraged as 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 in regards to it.  As is present in other forms of “racial (social) justice” employed by secular progressives or their Christian counterparts, this does very little to advance the cause of racial or ethnic conciliation in the church.

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

  1. Comment by The_Physetor on April 2, 2016 at 11:06 am

    I don’t see how any Christian could regard the European colonization of America as a bad thing. When people bring the message of salvation, they should be honored, not reviled.

  2. Comment by The_Physetor on April 2, 2016 at 11:08 am

    Agree, totally. Most of the homeless people I see are white males, so I’d say that “patriarchy” is just as bogus as “white privilege.”

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