Unsettling Truths
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Unsettling Truths

The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery

Mark Charles, Soong-Chan Rah

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Unsettling Truths

The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery

Mark Charles, Soong-Chan Rah

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ECPA Top Shelf Book Cover AwardAmerican Society of Missiology Book Award? Publishers Weekly starred reviewYou cannot discover lands already inhabited.Injustice has plagued American society for centuries. And we cannot move toward being a more just nation without understanding the root causes that have shaped our culture and institutions. In this prophetic blend of history, theology, and cultural commentary, Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah reveal the far-reaching, damaging effects of the "Doctrine of Discovery." In the fifteenth century, official church edicts gave Christian explorers the right to claim territories they "discovered." This was institutionalized as an implicit national framework that justifies American triumphalism, white supremacy, and ongoing injustices. The result is that the dominant culture idealizes a history of discovery, opportunity, expansion, and equality, while minority communities have been traumatized by colonization, slavery, segregation, and dehumanization. Healing begins when deeply entrenched beliefs are unsettled. Charles and Rah aim to recover a common memory and shared understanding of where we have been and where we are going. As other nations have instituted truth and reconciliation commissions, so do the authors call our nation and churches to a truth-telling that will expose past injustices and open the door to conciliation and true community.

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The Doctrine of Discovery and Why It Matters

YOU CANNOT DISCOVER lands already inhabited.”
I (Mark) said this almost under my breath, as I walked past a line of men dressed as Spanish sailors from the 1490s. I was in front of Union Station in Washington, DC, near the massive statue of Christopher Columbus overlooking the United States Capitol. Every Columbus Day, there is an official ceremony in this plaza honoring Columbus as the discoverer of America. I had stumbled upon this ceremony by accident the year prior. There were a few non-natives holding signs and protesting the ceremony but nothing very disruptive. I came back the following year primarily out of curiosity. I was not intending to protest, nor did I want to make a scene.
As I walked up behind the statue and approached the group of men dressed as Spanish sailors, the words just came out of my mouth: “You cannot discover lands already inhabited.” As I walked farther down the line, I said it again, this time a little louder. “You cannot discover lands already inhabited.” As I continued walking, I came to the front of the line, where a group of men dressed in suits were standing. I repeated myself, making sure they could hear me. “You cannot discover lands already inhabited.” “Suck it up” was the reply I heard as I kept walking.
By this time, I had walked around the statue and reached the front, where a small stage had been erected and chairs set up for people to watch the ceremony. It hadn’t started yet, but more than half the audience was seated, waiting for it to begin. So I stopped near the center, turned toward the gathering crowd, and in a calm but loud voice I said to the people: “You cannot discover lands already inhabited. That process is known as stealing, conquering, or colonizing. The fact that America calls what Columbus did ‘discovery’ reveals the implicit racial bias of the country—that Native Americans are not fully human.”
Quickly one of the white men dressed in a suit walked over and interrupted me. “You are not welcome here,” he said as he grabbed my arm and began walking me away. I attempted to explain the inappropriateness of both celebrating this holiday as well as hosting this ceremony. But instead of engaging in conversation, he threatened me with arrest and escorted me from the area. As I walked away from the gathering, I was amused at his words and at the irony of their context: a white man, participating in a public ceremony honoring Christopher Columbus as the discoverer of America, telling a Native man he was not welcome in that space.


How did a flawed assumption about the place of the indigenous population in US society become normative? How are assumptions so deeply ingrained in the American psyche and imagination that dysfunctional and oppressive actions emerge? How did a dysfunctional idea and worldview form that allows for the displacement of Native bodies? One of the explanations for the formation of this dysfunctional worldview is the Doctrine of Discovery.
The Doctrine of Discovery is a set of legal principles that governed the European colonizing powers, particularly regarding the administration of indigenous land. It is the “primary legal precedent that still controls native affairs and rights . . . an international law formulated in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.”1 From a theological perspective, the legal and political role of the Doctrine of Discovery is rooted in a dysfunctional theological imagination that shaped the European colonial settler worldview.
The doctrine emerged from a series of fifteenth-century papal bulls, which are official decrees by the pope that carry the full weight of his ecclesial office. On June 18, 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued the papal bull Dum Diversas, which initiated the first set of documents that would compose the Doctrine of Discovery. The official decree of the pope granted permission to King Alfonso V of Portugal “to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens (Muslims) and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery (emphasis ours), and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit.”2
Dum Diversas would identify Saracens (a common term for Muslims at the time) and pagans (essentially identifying any non-Christian or “others”) as those who could be targeted for “perpetual slavery.” The papal bull intentionally used language that identified those outside the European Christian world and enforced the Western theological imagination of non-Europeans as “other.” The Portuguese took these ecclesial statements to heart and perpetrated the slave trade from the African continent to the European and the American continents. As a Christian ruler, the king of Portugal would have power endowed from the church to take possession of “the other” as slave labor from the continent of Africa. The pagan African body was just another commodity to be taken for the pleasure and profit of the European Christian body, the one made most fully in the image of God.
In January of 1454, Pope Nicholas V authored the bull Romanus Pontifex, also directed towards the kingdom of Portugal. Written as a logical sequel to Dum Diversas, Romanus Pontifex allowed the European Catholic nations to expand their dominion over “discovered” land. Possession of non-Christian lands would be justified along with the enslavement of native, non-Christian “pagans” in Africa and the “New” World. The church believed that Alfonso “justly and lawfully has acquired and possessed, and doth possess, these islands, lands, harbors, and seas, and they do of right belong and pertain to the said King Alfonso and his successors.”3 The abusive system of transcontinental slavery initiated by Portugal would be seen as just and lawful.
The church claimed that what benefited the European colonial powers would benefit the church. The warped Western social imagination that saw slavery as a just and legal institution would be rooted in the dysfunctional assertions of this papal bull. The Doctrine of Discovery deemed as just and lawful what benefited the European powers, affirming the privilege of the “pure” European Christian to determine what is right and just. Because the pure European body held an inherent spiritual worth, the actions of European Christians would be deemed just. King Alfonso as the true image bearer of God held the right to discover the land and to pass along the rights to the land to his children and to his people. Alfonso would operate as an agent of God, while the conquered and enslaved people would have no agency before God. The Doctrine of Discovery created the possibility of significant harm upon those outside the privileged position of the pure European body.
Romanus Pontifex revealed Pope Nicholas V’s desire to seek “the salvation of all . . . [that] he may bring the sheep entrusted to him by God into the single divine fold, and may acquire for them the reward of eternal felicity, and obtain pardon for their souls.”4 The papal bull would cite spiritual and theological motivation for the acts of atrocity that followed the Doctrine of Discovery. The pope believed that “if we bestow suitable favors and special graces on those Catholic kings and princes, who . . . restrain the savage excesses of the Saracens and of other infidels, enemies of the Christian name, but also for the defense and increase of the faith vanquish them and their kingdoms and habitations.”5 There would be an unashamed elevation of the European rulers with a subsequent diminishing and demonizing of non-Europeans who would be rightly vanquished. The slave trade would become the fulfillment and material expression of the dysfunctional theology offered by the church.
The papal bull asserted the “noble personage” of Henry, uncle to King Alfonso of Portugal. Prince Henry would be one of the progenitors and propagators of the African slave trade. The pope would again assert the specious spiritual rationale that Henry would “bring into the bosom of his faith the perfidious enemies of him and of the life-giving Cross by which we have been redeemed, namely the Saracens and all other infidels.” Henry’s work of furthering the slave trade would therefore be seen in the most positive light, his pursuit of the slave trade being described as “growing daily more and more zealous in prosecuting this his so laudable and pious purpose.”6
One of the immediate consequences of the Doctrine of Discovery, therefore, was the furtherance and establishment of the African slave trade by Prince Henry, the very person verified by the pope as an agent of God. The first captives from Africa were taken into slavery in 1441 by Portuguese explorers who brought twelve slaves back to Portugal. The timing of these papal bulls corresponded to the emboldening of the Portuguese to expand this initial action of subjugation. The year 1502 is often cited as the year that African slaves were brought to the American continent, and by 1525, the direct passage of slave ships began from Africa to the Americas. The papal bulls of the mid-fifteenth century, therefore, would provide the theological justification for the actions of the kingdom of Portugal and for other European powers to initiate and expand the slave trade from Africa.
Prince Henry would be affirmed and emboldened in his actions off the coast of Africa by the papal bulls. Not only would Henry relish in his status and position as an agent of God, his subjects and his ships’ crews would likewise embrace Henry’s role. Willie Jennings notes that the ritual that sealed the Portuguese prince’s possession of African lives in chattel slavery was characterized as “deeply Christian”: “Prince Henry following his deepest Christian instincts, ordered a tithe be given to God through the church. Two black boys were given.”7 So, the slave trade becomes an act of worship in the diseased imagination of the European explorers engaged in it.
Jennings also narrates the story of Zurara, who served as Prince Henry’s historian at the onset of the transatlantic slave trade. Zurara is troubled by the inhumane treatment of African lives and “recognizes their humanity, their common ancestry with Adam.”8 Zurara’s realization of the humanity of the African points towards the thought process of a well-intentioned bystander. Zurara’s conscience and maybe even his upbringing in a Christian context aid his realization of the humanity of the African lives before him.
However, while disturbed by the scene before him, Zurara will accept these actions because Prince Henry has been affirmed by the pope as one who operates under the authority and sanction of the Christian church. Zurara describes Prince Henry as “mounted upon a powerful steed, and accompanied by his retinue, . . . he reflected with great pleasure upon the salvation of those souls that before were lost.”9 Zurara continues to give justification for the slave trade by asserting that “we, the Portuguese, will save them. They will become Christians.”10 The theological imagination of the Doctrine of Discovery would justify the actions of Prince Henry, in his own eyes and the eyes of those who would follow him.


On May 4, 1493, the year after Columbus sailed the ocean blue, Pope Alexander VI issued the papal bull Inter Caetera, addressed to our very dear son in Christ, Ferdinand, king, and our very dear daughter in Christ, Isabella, queen of Castile, Leon, Aragon, Sicily, and Granada.” Once again, the pope offered a spiritual validation for European conquest, “that in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”11 In particular, the bull served as an ecclesial affirmation of the state-sanctioned expedition and work of conquest by Christopher Columbus. In recognition of the hard work and zeal exhibited by these explorers, they were lauded for their evangelistic zeal in concert with their exploration, discovery, and conquest. The bull would affirm “the spread of the Christian rule to carry forward your holy and praiseworthy purpose so pleasing to immortal God. . . . who for a long time had intended to seek out and discover certain islands and mainlands remote and unknown and not hitherto discovered by others.”12
In the papal bulls, Columbus would be singled out and honored for his efforts to expand the Christian empire:
As was pleasing to the Lord, you [Isabella and Ferdinand], with the wish to fulfill your desire, chose our beloved son, Christopher C...

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