“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. – Abraham Lincoln
Americans laud Abraham Lincoln as their greatest president “because they do not know their own history,” said Native American activist Mark Charles on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. According to Charles, who is often invited to speak at Christian churches, colleges, and conferences, Lincoln’s track record with Native Americans stained his reputation irredeemably. He made no mention of Lincoln’s other accomplishments, such as ending slavery, restoring the Union, avoiding war with Europe, or re-introducing the Declaration of Independence to American political thought.
Why was Lincoln such a bad president? Charles obliged with a few juicy details, albeit of questionable historicity. According to Charles, Lincoln displayed his (implied racist) belief in Manifest Destiny when he signed a bill granting land for the transcontinental railroad. It seems Charles anachronistically wanted Lincoln to be an activist that would usurp legislative power by vetoing legislation even if it was not clearly unconstitutional. To find such a president, he would have to wait until the 20th Century.
Charles also blamed Lincoln for having “ethnically cleansed all the tribes from Minnesota, from Colorado, and from New Mexico.” Undoubtedly, the conflicts in all these states were started by over-zealous settlers or unruly officers. However, it seems silly to blame Lincoln, in an age with no federal bureaucracy, when the fastest communication was by rail, for not keeping a closer eye on the actions of frontier settlers two thousand miles away during the height of a Civil War in his own backyard. Therefore, I assume that Charles only meant to blame Lincoln for how he resolved these conflicts, and not how they were started. In Minnesota, Lincoln allowed the hanging of the Dakota 38 after a military tribunal, which Charles has criticized elsewhere for insufficient evidence. It seems Lincoln agreed with Charles, because the tribunal sentenced 303 Sioux warriors to death, and Lincoln commuted the sentence of over 80% of them. In New Mexico, Charles blamed Lincoln for ordering the Navajo Long Walk, which forcibly relocated tribe members to a fort after an uprising. But it’s hard to characterize this as “ethnic cleansing” of New Mexico, as the destination fort was still within the state and the Navajo later were allowed to return home once order was restored.
In all the conflicts, Charles accused Lincoln of nullifying—or at least modifying—treaties with native tribes. In general, Americans’ broken treaties with Native Americans are among their greatest moral failures, but in the specific instances Charles mentioned, President Lincoln had to respond to open warfare. It’s hard to see how a previous treaty is still binding in all its particulars once hostilities resume.
In criticizing the president who saved the Union, Charles demonstrated an “us versus them” mentality. He expressed solidarity with indigenous peoples (which he sometimes equated with all people of color) over against white European “colonizers.” For instance, he said, “we need to teach our colonizers their own history.” And again, he described October 11 as “a day which we celebrate as Indigenous Peoples Day, but our colonizers celebrate as Columbus Day.” Of course, the standard definition of a “colonizer” is “a person who settles in a new region.” Instead, Charles applied the term to his own contemporaries, living hundreds of years after the alleged crimes, including the descendants of later immigrants who fled to America’s shores seeking asylum from wars and famines elsewhere. Perhaps he meant to imply that the current generation of white “colonizers” are committing fresh acts of invasion and annexation against native populations, but that interpretation lacks supporting evidence.
In his contrived “us versus them” scenario, Charles said European Christians are at fault:
You cannot discover lands that are already inhabited. That’s known as stealing, conquering, colonizing. The fact that you call it discovery reveals your implicit racial bias, which is that indigenous peoples—people of color—are not fully human. This is one of the challenges, and it’s come from what’s called the Doctrine of Discovery.
The standard definition of “discover” is “to obtain sight or knowledge of for the first time,” which does not depend on whether any other party had previous sight or knowledge. However, based on the comparison to stealing and conquering (colonizing still doesn’t belong—see its definition above), I believe Charles is using “discover” as shorthand for the “Doctrine of Discovery.”
He traced the Doctrine of Discovery to papal bulls (edicts) from the 1400s that divided the East and West Indies (which would include all the New World) between “the nations of Europe.” Actually, the original papal decree only applied to the loyally Catholic nations of Spain and Portugal, and other European powers were so angry about being cut out of the deal that they started their own competing colonization efforts. So typical were such power plays for the papacy of the Renaissance period that a group of dissenters broke away from its authority altogether, becoming known as Protestants.
It seems disingenuous to pin all the faults of colonization on Christianity, when in fact such sinful abuse of church power sparked world-changing backlash (even among those who remained Catholic). Yet the Doctrine of Discovery survived because it provided ambitious monarchs with a convenient rationalization to acquire more power and wealth with a pretense of religion.
Charles made it seem like the Doctrine of Discovery was fundamentally racist. He said it authorized kings to conquer any lands they found “not ruled by white, European, Christian rulers.” Charles’ ahistorical addition of “white” and “European” to the requirements of rulers safe from invasion serves only his narrative. Equating white, European, and Christian is inaccurate, even to the period; the Catholic Church knew about the Christian nation of Ethiopia since at least the Council of Florence in 1441. The only European power that ever attempted to colonize Ethiopia was not a Christian power, but the secular nation-state of Italy in the 1880s, who had just finished invading Rome and imprisoning the Pope.
Because of their racism, Europeans treated natives as less-than-human, insisted Charles. A more complete picture would show the atrocities committed by all parties, such as the Aztec practice of going to war simply to capture slaves they would use for human sacrifices and then make mountains out of their skulls. A more complete picture would also show that many of the early settlers treated the natives as equally human—even going so far as to sign treaties with them and purchase land from them. Especially in what became the United States of America, colonies like Plymouth, New Amsterdam, and Pennsylvania enjoyed prolonged peace with the Native Americans before international geopolitics imposed war upon them.
Charles saw America as a house divided along racial lines, and proposed a solution. He said that community can only be established where people have a common memory. To establish such a common memory, he insisted whites ought to learn from natives the “the oral history of this land, and their own, genocidal, ethnic cleansing history.” As far as he says that white Americans have done some terrible things to Native Americans, and that they should acknowledge those, I believe Charles is right. But a better way to establish a common memory is to embrace a deeper understanding of history, with all of its uncomfortable contradictions and untidy details.
Oddly, Charles’ argument is ethno-nationalist. He posited that Native American tribes were once great peoples, that foreigners wrongly stole their land from them, and that they have a right to claim recompense. This is a common ethno-nationalist pattern, used by Germany to justify its 1930s annexation of Sudetenland and by Russia to justify its 2010s annexation of Crimea. It is odd because Charles is biracial. According to his biography page at Sojourners Magazine, his father is Navajo, but his mother is American of Dutch descent. So he is equal parts Native American and white European. The marvelous thing about the American melting pot is its capacity to blur the lines between ethnic factions. The more the populations intermingle, the harder it becomes to distinguish the competing parties of “us versus them” (this applies to my heritage as well). If America’s house is divided along racial lines, then blurring racial lines is the way for the house to cease to be divided.
A deeper understanding of history cannot reduce the facts down to only the slim minority that support any particular narrative of villain and victim. But Christians should not be surprised. Paul wrote that “there is no distinction” between races, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Even while we strive to maintain an imperfect unity here on earth, we look forward to the perfect unity that God will create on the new earth among those of every race who put their faith in Christ.Google+