“You cannot discover lands that are already inhabited.”
Those words beat like a drum through a book I’ve recently read outlining the history of Christianity and its impact on the colonized world. Unsettling Truths is written by Mark Charles (Navajo and Dutch descent) and Soong-Chan Rah (South Korean/American). It tackles the complex and controversial spread of Christianity over nearly two thousand years focusing on exploration since 1400 and the adventures of Christopher Columbus.
As the blurb on the back cover explains: 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.
This is not an angry book at all but a sober and helpful outlining of the mindset behind the scenes of early European exploration. It reveals a deeply unfortunate and flawed interpretation of Christianity and the consequences we still live with to this very day. I found it helpful, insightful, and making a lot of sense. It was……
“Hey what do you…..”
I’m terrible at interrupting. “Please listen….. to the end.”
I am ashamed to admit that I have interrupted way too often, and not listened well. And neither have we as cultures and nations done a great job of listening to one another to better empathize and understand the complexity and history that has formed, shaped, and sometimes disfigured us – and them.
Have you ever dropped your spectacles and been left with cracked lenses through which to view the world? Clarity is impossible, distortion inevitable, and detail virtually unattainable. Cleaning the broken lenses fails to improve or remove the visual inhibitors; there’s nothing for it but to replace the damaged with the new.
Jesus referenced the eyes as the windows to our souls. They are highly valued, created with enormous sensitivity and intricacy, the detail which is lost on my lack of expertise. What we see, and how we see, shapes our perception, understanding, and engagement with whatever it is out there that we are gazing upon. How we view ‘things’ matters.
I remember around the age of thirty five having my eyes tested. I never realized that I was not seeing things clearly until I was shown how spectacles would improve my vision. I was visually impaired without realizing it. The deterioration was so gradual and subtle. Loss of hearing is similar.
Unsettling Truths caused me to drop my glasses and replace my lenses. The read was humbling, sad, revelatory, and extremely enlightening. It is one of those rare books that helps us listen better, because the ones speaking are not beating us over the head but helping us understand another viewpoint. I was listening to an interview the other day where the person was saying that the American Constitution was written with the understanding that people would be reasonable and seek consensus through reason and debate. He was afraid that in the polarized, vindictive, and ‘take no prisoners’ political climate today we are losing sight of that bedrock assumption – at our peril.
We make so many assertions based on flimsy foundations. We seem to be losing the art of discussion where we are interested to learn and possibly change, because truth is our shared goal rather than ‘being right’.
Whatever we grow up with tends to determine our comfort zone, our tradition, and our way of seeing the world. None of us can escape our personal reality/context that so fundamentally molds our perspective. A book like Unsettling Truths helps reveal greater perspectives of which we perhaps were unaware, or never thought to consider. That Europeans exploring the world had no God-ordained right to conquer, exploit, and dehumanize others long settled in foreign lands – in the name of Jesus. Neither America, Canada, Israel, or any country on earth can regard themselves as superior (we are exceptional), or God’s chosen at the expense of others. God’s mandate has never been for a Christian Empire on earth.
We desperately need better conversations, listening and learning from all sides of every issue. We may never agree, but we can respect, create space for others to flourish, admit where we have been wrong, and humbly seek better ways forward. Jesus called his disciples to build relationships, lay down their lives, serve sacrificially, and to love unconditionally. As Unsettling Truths underscores; that has been easier said than done throughout history.
Where Amazing Grace prevails it is still possible to declare:
“I once was lost, but now I’m found
Was blind, but now I see.”
And then, hopefully, change is possible. Listening to God is a good place to start.