Review: Unsettling Truths

unsettling truths

Unsettling TruthsMark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: Shows how “The Doctrine of Discovery,” an outgrowth of a Christendom of power rather than relationship has shaped a narrative of the United States, to the dehumanizing  of Native Peoples, slaves, and other non-white peoples.

Columbus discovered America, right? Pilgrims, Puritans, and other Europeans “settled” America and drove out the “Indians” who threatened their settlements. That’s what I learned in history class. 

That’s not how the Native Peoples of Turtle Island (what they call North America) saw it. They were invaded and had the land of their ancestors taken from them, were displaced, often with genocidal marches, to inferior lands. Unfortunately, victors usually write the history.

The two authors of this work show the complicity of the church in the “Doctrine of Discovery” that justified the settlement of Native lands, and the subjugation of Native Peoples that resulted, as well as the dehumanizing treatment of African slaves. They trace this back to the transition the church underwent under Constantine, when church and state became Christendom, and Constantine’s “faith” was written into the narrative by Eusebius. The crusades led to classifying “infidels” as inferior human beings and the church baptized the early explorers efforts as “evangelistic,” and the early settlers appropriated Israel’s land covenant and Jesus’ “city on a hill” to articulate their justification for “settling” the Native lands.

The most disturbing part of this narrative is the genocidal effects of this settlement reducing a population of approximately six million to under 240,000 at one point. Some was disease. Some was warfare. Some was outright massacre, like Wounded Knee, and some, like the Trail of Tears or the Navajo and Apache removal to Bosque Redondo, when thousands died. Proportionally, the death rate of the latter was greater than the Holocaust.

Another “unsettling truth” was the equivocal character of the “Great Emancipator,” Abraham Lincoln. There is a plaque at the base of the Lincoln Memorial that records these words of Lincoln:

“I would save the Union. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not to save or destroy slavery.  If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

An uprising of Dakota initially led to 2 of 40 being sentenced to death. Lincoln expanded the criteria for death sentences resulting in the execution of 39. Subsequently, Lincoln signed into law a bill nullifying treaties with the Dakota and Winnebago tribes in Minnesota and mandating their forced removal to the Dakota Territory. Bounties were set on those who who tried to escape the roundup.

The authors conclude with how we react to these unsettling truths, including the efforts of Christian boarding schools designed to “kill the Indian to save the man.”. One of the most interesting ideas, but also one on which I’d like to see more research is what they termed Perpetrator Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS). They contend that Native Peoples and African Americans are not the only ones traumatized by the Doctrine of Discovery. White America is also traumatized. The authors propose that this may explain the “triggering” effect of the election of Barack Obama as president. They also propose that healing can come only through lament, relational apologies to the Tribal People whose lands were taken and the children of slaves forcibly brought here, and with Tribal peoples, and acknowledgement of thanks to them as hosts in a land where we are guests. That’s only a beginning, but a necessary one.

The “unsettling truths” of this book don’t appear in traditional histories, and I’m sure there are those who will contest them, particularly because of the sweeping nature of this account, from the beginnings of Christendom to white trauma. While there is extensive documentation in the form of endnotes, the case of this book would be helped with a bibliography of further readings for each chapter. From other readings, I found much to warrant this cumulative case. Furthermore, the authors write both unsparingly, and yet with the hope that their narrative will contribute to the equivalent of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. The question is whether there will be leaders in local communities as well as national bodies willing to acknowledge the truth, make honest and sincere apologies to the peoples whose lands they occupy.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.



5 thoughts on “Review: Unsettling Truths

  1. Well written review Bob. Though not new historical analysis to me, the book you review seems to have as its mission to dredge up rather than heal for now. How does the academic historical review help practically for churches, schools, local governments,
    politics etc. It is easy to dredge up to motivate with guilt but it that guilt will not have follow through without a Danile 9 type approach in prayer. The Truth and Reconciliatuon Commission in South Africa was set up during and right at the end of apartheid patterns. How does a person, a church, a community, a nation do similar with events and scourges that are hundreds of years in the past?

    There are also current scourges on our nation. The legality of child sacrifice in abortion has conservatively made it such that 60+ million of our fellow Amercians have not been allowed to be born to exercise the God given endowment to life.

    The guilt and anger and dredging without humility, love and reconciliation breeds more anger, hate and the culture war where many views are unChristian and produce consequent mental and physical violence.

    And Christian’s isolate and insulate themselves from the issues because, you know, life is busy. Yet others who are biblically sensitive and are attentive to the issues and who listen to the Spirit and who are willing to build bridges of reconciliation and lament and friendship get overwhelmed with the Macro-Historical Scourge Dredging of books like you review.

    What are the authors doing personally? What are you doing personally ? What can be done personally to mend and heal the “sins of the past”? The sins analyzed in the book are overwhelming and it sounds like the goal was to de-legitimize our country and Lincoln etc.

    I have not read the book so I am only responding to the Trube review, yet my perspective is driven by not only a knowledge of the many sinful and and genocidal realities of our country’s history but by a Right Now daily interaction with brothers of several different ethnicities (I don’t use race) in which life stories are told and bonds of friendship and common mission are formed in Indianapolis.

    Liked by 1 person

    • John, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I did not see the review as “dredging up” but rather summarizing as accurately as I could the content of the book. The only way to test my accuracy is by reading. I would encourage you to read my Friday post []. My own desire is that our country would be more honest and truthful and not heal our national sins lightly, which, especially as it concerns what we did to Native peoples and blacks, I believe we have done. Rather than touting “greatness” I think we ought to take a modest estimate of our country, acknowledging both its strengths, like the first amendment, and areas of deficiency. Suppressing the latter only allows them to fester under the surface (as is the case with sin in our personal lives. You also know that on a personal level, there is superficial reconciliation that does not bring real healing. These authors want to move beyond real superficial, where both church leaders, and hopefully, national leaders, name specific wrongs done to the ancestors of those who experienced them, and can be granted real forgiveness. While personal relationships are essential, you also know that corporate acknowledgement of sin done corporately is appropropriate (for example with church sexual abuse covered over by leadership). Rather than delegitimizing, calling out our nation’s “original sins” and inviting lament, repentance and conciliation, offers a chance for the emergence of the best in our national character. If nothing else, reading an alternate account of our national history by two people who are ethnic minorities was challenging to me. You will note that I wanted more in the way of supporting material for further reading, both to do so and to support the broad case they were making. At any rate, it is always gratifying to know that someone actually reads the reviews. Thanks for writing. It is good to hear from you! Bob


  2. History, sadly, shows that “might makes right.” The more technologically advanced triumph; morality is thrown to the winds. Today, those with money prosper, most rationalizing their good fortune–caring parents, early nurturing, good nutrition, as earned. Those less fortunate are deemed self-victims: it is their own fault that they are left out and left behind. Do our churches really teach brotherhood, sharing, caring for others or are they too much places of self-congratulation and self-affirmation>

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: March 2020 | Bob on Books

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