Authors: Mark Charles and Soon-Chan Rah
Publisher: InterVarsity Press
Publishing Date: November 5, 2019
Pages: 248 (Paperback)
If anyone would like to hold on to their idol of a comfortable, blissfully ignorant pursuit of the American Dream, I would not recommend reading InterVarsity Press’s powerful new book Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery. Political heroes (both conservative and liberal, past and present), denominational affiliations, and a host of human-centric theologies all are quickly stripped of their shine and revealed as the idols into which we have crafted them. Co-written by activists Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah, the book tackles American cultural and spiritual idols—bringing political heresies to light—and in doing so, preaches the gospel clearly.
The authors give very frank discussions surrounding the genocide of Native people and the abuse of centuries against minorities. Some of the atrocities related in the book are well known, while others may be new to most readers. What is the most compelling and alarming, however, is learning how our prevailing culture has sanitized both their impacts (the decimation of indigenous peoples) and their causes (ongoing acts of war) by the prevailing culture. Rather than being sporadic and individual, the violence against Native peoples occurred on a large scale and was governmentally sanctioned. Parsing out the math behind the decimation of indigenous peoples from 1492 to 1900 “gives the war of discovery a 96 percent rate of genocide (i.e., 96 percent of the Native population was wiped out during the ongoing war)… by comparison, Nazi Germany had a genocide rate for the Jewish people of 35 percent” (162).
One might expect that with comparisons like these, the authors would play into a mindset of elevating one group’s trauma over another’s, but this is refreshingly not true. Rather, Charles and Rah show how each of the many types of injustices perpetrated against people of color are related to the whole. The archaic yet far-reaching Doctrine of Discovery (a series of papal bulls from the 1400’s) has shaped our warped views of both humanity and the land, and this has allowed for the justification of abuse against people of numerous non-white ethnicities in America. The authors do not hold back in naming perpetrators—even showing through Abraham Lincoln’s own words how the much-beloved president cared for neither Native nor Black lives. More importantly, the authors showcase how, through our own folly, we have canonized men such as Lincoln into the surrogate messiahs of our earthly kingdoms.
Charles and Rah trace a direct line from the Doctrine of Discovery down to, and then through, the institution of chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and the New Jim Crow of mass incarceration; they also show how Lincoln’s specific acts and legislation throughout the 1800’s continued to pave the way for more and more unjust laws and practices—through liberal and conservative presidents alike—to reach our present day. Rather than allowing for the easy out of “us vs. them” politics, Unsettling Truths makes it clear that we have inherited a mindset which has affected us all (to one degree or another), and which can trace its pedigree from ancient prejudices to present conflicts and hatred against both Native peoples and other minorities.
One might also expect that such a passionate tone might prevent the authors from speaking compassionately of the “haves” in our country which have so benefitted from the dehumanization of the “have nots.” But, the gospel is on full display in this book, including the highly unsettling truth that sin twists the imago dei of both the victim and the perpetrator. Charles and Rah show how the dehumanizing legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery also affects majority culture Americans. They do this not for mere sympathy or political correctness, but rather as a necessary corrective to pursue actual progress moving forward. Rather than allowing white people to hide in the overt racism of privilege or in the fake reconciliation of fragility, a third way is offered in which wrongs can be fully addressed by taking ownership not of the land, but of acknowledging participation in systemic harms against the self and the other.
I would have enjoyed hearing more stories from Soong-Chan Rah about the ways in which the Doctrine of Discovery has shaped his life as a Korean immigrant, as well as more analysis of how it affects other minority groups, like women. But, I acknowledge that the majority of this story is Mark Charles’s to tell; and I do think that the book strikes an impressive tone which focuses on Native peoples, even as it highlights the effects of dehumanization on us all. Although the book avoids being stuck in the unhelpful dichotomy of victim versus perpetrator, and despite Mark Charles’ multiethnicity, there was also little mention of the liminal space which ethnically-mixed folks often hold between majority and minority. I assume that both authors simply include all mixed folks in the category of minority—which is true—but this perspective is not as nuanced as the rest of the book is overall.
Ultimately, what sets this book apart as more than a mere history book is the emphasis on Jesus. Acknowledging our country’s inherent injustices is not the goal in and of itself; rather, the authors remind us that “excessive celebration of exceptionalism and triumphalism results in the absence of lament for the American church. Human activity is elevated, and God’s activity is diminished…” which leads to “the message of a messiah who suffered and died for humanity lost in the avalanche of triumphalism” (9). In contrast to these idols and in pursuit of honoring our triune God, Unsettling Truths is full of important historical evidence, rich theological insights, and compelling invitations into lament and healing. It is not an easy read, both in terms of deep theological work and the examination of painful realities. But, it is an important one if we are to remember the truth that although we are currently settled in this present land, the place of which we are citizens is a just, equitable heavenly kingdom.
Full disclosure: I am an InterVarsity Press author (Unsettling Truths’ editor Al Hsu is also my editor) and I have met both authors in passing. However, this review is written without any input, pressure, or reward from InterVarsity Press editors, the authors, or any other entity involved in the promotion of the book.