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A role for churches in overcoming "trauma from the 'Doctrine of Discovery'"

Updated: Apr 30, 2023

“Most Americans are not overtly racist, but we live in a systemically racist nation with systemically racist institutions…. anti-racism has very little to do with your personal racist views, anti-racism is all about your willingness to change the system." --Pastor Mark Charles

Recently my seemingly matured understanding of what it means to worship in spirit and in truth has been upended as I have read through Racism and the Church by Dr. James Collins (a book gifted to me by my beloved brother in Christ, First Assembly of God Pastor Mike Modica) and by a YouTube video series on “The Trauma of the “Doctrine of Discovery’” by Pastor Mark Charles (a series first shared with me by Heart of Christ Church friends, David Charter and Debra Richardson).

· A month or so ago I utilized Dr. Collins’ book to facilitate a discussion at the Iron Sharpens Iron 2019 Annual Retreat about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion generally and whether racism is at its core “a spiritual problem”. Even after that group decided to extend the time for our discussion from 1.5 to 3 hours, we were only able to scratch the surface of this rich topic and I look forward to exploring it further with other spiritually-based groups in the coming year.

· I also look forward to facilitating discussions on the important questions raised by Pastor Mark Charles’ proposal that churches take on a leadership role in facilitating truthful community conversations about the Doctrine of Discovery and in framing those conversations to become the balm that heals our nation from the trauma of what he describes as “multigenerational systemic corporate sin”.

But first a Paulian reflection on my bona fides to post this comment with a suggestion that churches get more involved and help lead this nation to engage in such truthful community conversations. I grew up in both Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church where my father was a member for over seventy years and was a Chair of the Deacon Board and also Greater Union First Baptist Church where my mom was a faithful member for over sixty years and was an usher, Deaconess and Deaconess Emeritus. My own institutional religious journey has included membership or regular visitation at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church (Lake Helen, FL), Greater Union First Baptist Church (DeLand, FL), The Memorial Church of Harvard University (Cambridge, MA), Concord Baptist Church (Boston, MA), First Baptist Church (Charlottesville, VA), Bethel Baptist Church (Tallahassee, FL), Bible Based Fellowship Church (Tampa, FL), Beulah Baptist Institutional Church (Tampa, FL), Macedonia Baptist Church (Eatonville, FL), Metropolitan Baptist Church (Washington, DC), Emmanuel Christian Church (DeLand, FL), First Presbyterian Church (DeLand, FL), First Assembly of God (DeLand, FL), Grace Life (Deltona, FL), and periodic worship in a diverse range of others, including Mt. Hermon A.M.E. (Opa-Locka, FL), Evergreen Congregational Church (Beachton, GA), Oak Grove Primitive Baptist Church (Beachton, GA), The Riverside Church (New York, NY), Abyssinia Baptist Church (New York, NY), New Hope Baptist (Deltona, FL), Heart of Christ Church (DeBary, FL), St. Annis Primitive Baptist Church (DeLand, FL), The Sanctuary (DeLand, FL), Resplendency (Lake Mary, FL), Christ Community Church (Daytona Beach, FL), Bethel A.M.E. (DeLand, FL), Bethel C.M.E. (Macon, GA), Mt. Olive A.M.E. (Lake Helen, FL), Central United Methodist (Fayetteville, AR), Macedonia Baptist Church (DeLand, FL), South Thompson Street Church of Christ (DeLand, FL), Greater Bethlehem Baptist Church (DeLand, FL). For nearly 35 years, I have also intentionally visited a range of synagogue and churches too many too name while on travel and for funerals and special occasions, including memorable worship at Saint Francis De Sales Catholic Church (New Orleans, LA), Glide Memorial UMC (San Francisco, CA), Salem Baptist Church (Chicago, IL), Temple Beth-El (Ormond Beach, FL), Bridgeway Community Church (Columbia, MD) and at community churches in Zambia and Seoul. I LOVE churching... so much so that for the past several years from Good Friday to Easter/Resurrection Sunday, I have devoted myself to visiting a range of diverse churches in order to hear at least 20 sermons and sermonettes during the weekend which I like to refer as the “Superbowl of Christianity”.

With this background, it is inescapable that my passion for facilitating meaningful dialogue about race, poverty and law intersects with my hope and faith that churches will play a pivotal role in promoting truth and conciliation to heal the our nation of what Pastor Charles describes as the “Trauma of the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’” In short, Pastor Charles defines the Doctrine of Discovery (“Doctrine”) as a series of papal bulls or decrees issued between 1452 and 1493 in which the nations of Europe were told by Pope Nicholas V and his successors that wherever you go and whatever lands you find that are not already ruled by Christian rulers, the people in those lands are less than human and the land is yours to be taken. The papal bull of 1452, for example, was addressed to Portugal and stated in the relevant part:

We grant you by these present documents, with our Apostolic Authority, full and free permission to invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, and other property [...] and to reduce their persons into perpetual servitude.

For Pastor Charles, America’s original sin is not racism, but the founding of this nation upon this heretical Doctrine including its incorporation into the wording of the Declaration of Independence (refers to Native Americans as “merciless Indian Savages”), the United States Constitution (Art I, sec 2 “excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons”) and well-settled United States Supreme Court real property law, (Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823) (Europeans get title to all land they discover which title extinguishes a mere “right to occupancy” by indigenous occupants), and into the foundational doctrines and missions (e.g., boarding schools) of America’s faith communities. His overall message is full of detailed and specific references and thoughtfully nuanced so I highly recommend that you listen to several of his speeches by searching for “Mark Charles” and “Doctrine of Discovery” on YouTube.

It is noteworthy that several institutional church communities have at least taken the step of repudiating the Doctrine, including the General Convention of the Episcopal Church (2009), the Unitarian Universalist Association (2012), the United Church of Christ (2013), the Christian Reformed Church (2016), the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (2016), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (2016). In addition, approximately 500 clergy members publicly denounced the Doctrine on November 3, 2016 during a protest of the Standing Rock pipeline.

His speeches are rife with conversation starters, but the below excerpt from Pastor Mark Charles, along with some questions I derived from his talks, is what I would utilize as a starting point to develop an organization and community-specific framework for facilitating the type of truthful community conversations he proposes:

From Prophecy to Proverb by Pastor Mark Charles

“This week I had the privilege of speaking at Calvin College to a couple hundred worship grant recipients from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. In a plenary session titled “Learning How to Talk in Proverbs” I was given a few minutes to “Propose a proverb about your prophetic insight using a ‘prophecy to proverb’ mode of speech.” This is what I wrote and shared:
Wise is the church that refuses to buy into the trappings of partisan politics
Remember my brothers and sisters, Jesus did not come to create a Christian Empire
He came to make disciples. He came to offer his body as a living sacrifice. He came to plant a church.
When the church merely lobbies one political leader and protests the other
When, for the sake of argument or political gain, the body of Christ turns a blind eye to one sin and magnifies another
We are not representing the headship of our body…
who is Christ.
As vile, repulsive and urgent is the Trump administration’s separation of families at our border
it is not the first time…
Indian Removal, the slave trade, Boarding Schools, lynching’s, Japanese Internment camps, mass incarceration, even the deportation numbers of the Obama administration
the list of ways the United States government has worked to destroy the family structure of people of color throughout our history is as long as it is depressing.
So let’s stop pretending that President Trump is the God ordained savior, or the ultimate demise of our union.
The same with President Obama.
What our nation needs is not for democrats to be better democrats.
Nor do we need Republicans to simply be better Republicans.
We don’t even need our nation to be more Christian.
My brothers and sisters, the United States of America is not, never has been, nor will it ever be Christian.
Jesus did not come to create a Christian Empire
He came to make disciples. He came to offer his body as a living sacrifice. He came to plant a church.
And wise is the church that refuses to buy into the trappings of partisan politics.
I agree with Kenneth Kaunda, the former president of Zambia, who said, “What a nation needs more than anything else is not a Christian ruler in the palace but a Christian prophet within earshot.”

Example of a question to generate group discussion:

For Christians, to what extent is your religious identity based upon a belief that your church is a constituent part of a Christian nation within a Christian empire/Christendom that is built upon promised lands and prosperity pursuant to the Chapter 30 of the Book of Deuteronomy?

· Is there sound doctrinal basis for extending God’s covenant with Israel promising land and prosperity to include other nations and territories outside of the land of Canaan?

©2019 by DEI Facilitation & Consulting

Contact DEI Facilitation & Consulting (386-473-1033) to discuss how Ted Small can utilize Pastor Mark Charles’ proposed solutions to address the “Trauma of the Doctrine of Discovery” as a framework for facilitating honest dialogue, mutual understanding and a basis for true collaboration between stakeholders in your organization.

Mark Charles (Navajo)

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