taking the words of Jesus seriously

Featured Photo Credit: Kris J Eden


EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a two-part series introducing the Doctrine of Discovery and Mark Charles’ effort to start a conversation about it among North American Christians. Part II will run tomorrow.


In the summer of 2003 I moved with my family back to Dineteh, the land of my father’s ancestors, located in the Southwest United States between Mount Blanca, Mount Taylor, San Francisco Peaks and Mount Hesperus. Today this land is better known as the Navajo Reservation.


I was born in this area, in a hospital located in a mission compound alongside an Indian Boarding school. When you pass through the tunnel leading to the campus of this mission to the Navajo and Zuni people you are greeted by a large sign which reads “…Now the LORD has given us room. We shall flourish in the land. Gen. 26:22”


In 1896, the first missionaries from their denomination’s “Board of Heathen Missions” arrived on the outskirts of a budding railroad town known as Gallup, which was located in the territory of New Mexico. The United States of America was nearing the end of an unprecedented period of westward expansion. Through military force, the building of railroads and the signing and breaking of Indian treaties, the United States was near completing its self-proclaimed “manifest destiny” of ruling this continent from “sea to shining sea.”


Only 30 years earlier, General Carlton gave orders to Kit Carson and 700 of his soldiers to force our Navajo people to surrender so we could be removed from this area and relocated to a barren strip of land hundreds of miles away in the eastern section of the territory. It was through bloody, violent, and genocidal acts of war that this land was cleared to make room for the approaching onslaught of white settlers, prospectors, soldiers, and missionaries.


But we don’t talk about that.


This unjust and dehumanizing history has largely been forgotten. Even when it is mentioned, it is not connected in any direct way to the missions, towns and people who are living there today.


Why does this mission reference Genesis 26? And why did the founding missionaries claim God’s leading and divine provision for a piece of land that was never given, but rather violently taken?


The answer to that question lies in the selective memory of the people from both the United States and Canada.


There is a broad misconception that the history of Turtle Island began with the “discovery” of this continent by European explorers like Christopher Columbus and Jacques Cartier.


Every year on the second Monday of October, the United States celebrates Columbus Day. There is a statue of Christopher Columbus in Washington DC located to the north of the US Capitol building that reads: “To the memory of Christopher Columbus whose high faith and indomitable courage gave to mankind a new world.”


There is another statue in Grant Park in Chicago that enshrines Christopher Columbus with the label “Discoverer of America.” It also celebrates his words spoken on October 12, 1492, “By the Grace of God and in the Name of Her Majesty Queen Isabella, I am taking possession of these lands.”


Likewise, there are statues and plaques located throughout Canada and France, like the one in Montreal which reads, “To Jacques Cartier, born in Saint-Malo, December 1st, 1491. Sent by François Ier to discover Canada in April 20th 1534. Reaching the entrance of the Saint-Lawrence River, on July 16th of the same year. He took possession of the land on behalf of the king his master, and named it New-France.”


Common sense tells us that you cannot discover and take possession of lands that are already inhabited. That process is more accurately described as stealing, conquering or even ethnic cleansing.


But we don’t talk about that.


Consider these words of Pope Nicholas V, written in 1452 in the Papal Bull Dum Diversas:


…invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens 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, 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.


This Bull, along with others written between 1452 and 1493 became collectively known as the Doctrine of Discovery. The Doctrine of Discovery is the Church in Europe telling the Nations of Europe that wherever they go, whatever lands they find that are not ruled by Christian rulers, those people are less than human and the land is theirs for the taking. It was this doctrine that allowed European nations to colonize the continent of Africa and enslave the African people. It was also this Doctrine of Discovery that allowed Christopher Columbus and Jacques Cartier to land in a “new world” already inhabited by millions, and claim to have “discovered” it.


The notion that Europeans “discovered” Turtle Island is a racist colonial concept that assumes the dehumanization of aboriginal peoples.


But we don’t talk about that.


Read more tomorrow about the Doctrine of Discovery and the conversation we need.

A version of this article was originally published in Comment Magazine, Winter 2015.


About The Author


Mark Charles is a dynamic and thought-provoking public speaker, writer, and consultant. The son of an American woman (of Dutch heritage) and a Navajo man, Mark speaks with insight into the complexities of American history regarding race, culture, and faith in order to help forge a path of healing and reconciliation for the nation. Mark serves as the Washington DC correspondent and regular columnist for Native News Online and is the author of the popular blog "Reflections from the Hogan." Mark also serves on the board of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) and consults with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW). He is a founding partner of a national conference for Native students called “Would Jesus Eat Frybread?” (CRU, IVCF and CICW).

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