“The United States of America needs a national dialogue on race, gender, and class – a conversation that I would put on par with the truth and reconciliation commissions that happened in South Africa and Rwanda.” So says Mark Charles, a Native American journalist, activist, pastor, and co-author of Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery, who appeared on a recent episode of Christianity Today’s “Where Ya From?” podcast. Hosted by Rasool Berry, a Brooklyn pastor and team member at a millennials-focused nonprofit, the podcast seeks to “dig into the influences and experiences that shape us into who we are today.”
Among U.S. evangelicals, Charles has decried the “Doctrine of Discovery,” theorizing the United States as illegitimate and faulting late medieval popes for Christian European colonization of the Western Hemisphere and genocide of Natives. In 2016, the Christian Reformed Church even formally renounced the Doctrine of Discovery, based mainly upon Charles’s advocacy. (See Albert Thompson’s critique of “Doctrine of Discovery” as historically dubious, Chelsen Vicari’s coverage of Charles, Danielle Royer’s and Mark Tooley’s.)
Charles opens by introducing himself in the traditional Navajo form of identifying his four familial clans, including that of his maternal grandmother who was of Dutch heritage, which Charles translates into Navajo as “the wooden shoe people.” Charles also acknowledges the land he is on in Washington, D.C. as Piscataway land. Despite Charles’s embrace of Navajo custom, he did not grow up with a strong practice or understanding of Navajo culture and only adopted these later in life. Rather, as Charles explains it, he was led to assimilate to a Western status quo, including in his faith.
“The gospel that they were presented said that to become Christian you had to become white European,” Charles says of the gospel as it was taught to his parents and grandparents in boarding schools.
“You have to let us kill the Indian to save the man. You have to give up your language, your culture, your understanding of the sacred, and embrace Western European American Christian culture. My grandparents, along with most indigenous Christians around the world, were colonized by the gospel.” Even in his parents’ biracial marriage, Charles asserts that the status quo was Western European “because of the Christian faith which was adopted… because the Christian faith in that area was highly colonized.”
Charles went on to experience a long and at times difficult personal and spiritual journey, which was shaped both by his involvement in a student ministry for Native students and by his brother’s death in a car accident where Charles was driving. Eventually, Charles and his wife decided to move and live among the Navajo people to do ministry there. Describing that experience, Charles says, “That community had no running water and no electricity. And so we moved there completely prepared and ready to live off the grid… We’re prepared to live by candlelight and haul our water. What we weren’t prepared for was the intense marginalization of the Native community. And the only way I can describe it is it felt like we dropped off the face of the earth.” Charles compares the experience of native peoples to that of a grandmother gets locked upstairs in her large and beautiful house, which proceeds to fill with people. Charles says, “What causes us the most pains is that virtually nobody from this party ever comes upstairs, seeks out the grandmother in the bedroom, sits down next to her on the bed, takes her hand, and simply says, ‘Thank you. Thank you for letting us be in your house.’”
From there, Charles’s focus rests on how to help people of all backgrounds be a part of a dialogue around these issues. He characterizes the Native experience as a kind of “multigenerational and communal manifestation of complex PTSD,” and even argues that a similar phenomenon (perpetrator-induced traumatic stress, or PITS) exists for the perpetrators of historical trauma, which can in turn manifest itself as multigenerational or communal.
In other words, both Native Americans and people of white European descent can experience a kind of trauma today owing to the historical mistreatment of Native peoples. Building his argument on the Doctrine of Discovery, language such as “merciless Indian savages” in the Declaration of Independence, and the 1823 Supreme Court case Johnson vs. McIntosh, Charles posits that this mistreatment is deeply rooted in the fabric of American society and government, and that Americans of different backgrounds are not in fact bound together by “common memory.” He concludes with his belief that lament serves as the entry point for Christianity in this conversation, while also discussing his hope based on the story of Peter and Cornelius and Acts chapters 10 and 11 in a gospel marked by “radical inclusivity.”
There is much to appreciate in Charles’s willingness to engage the history and culture of his people and to lament the evil that has been wrought in the centuries since Columbus’s arrival. However, Charles’s picture of American history is incomplete and distorted. Besides the historical inaccuracies regarding the Doctrine of Discovery, Charles fails to properly credit the central ideals and values of America.
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were in their time — and remain today — the world’s most important bastions of valuing humanity and redefining justice. Yet according to Charles, we live in a nation so foundationally defined by the failures of its past that the consequences are inescapable.
“You cannot build a nation on dehumanizing justice without traumatizing yourself,” Charles says.
At least in this Christianity Today podcast – and undoubtedly among other evangelical audiences as well – Charles’s historical and ideological assertions have met with too little dispute.