Truth Be Told

Signed copies of the book I co-authored with Soong-Chan Rah, "Unsettling Truths - The Ongoing Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery" are available from my website:

Saturday, January 10, 2015

2015 New Year's Reflection: American Exceptionalism and an Invitation to Lament

As the Ball dropped and the clock struck midnight, crowds cheered, fireworks exploded, couples
kissed, balloons fell, and a New Year was rung in. It was a huge celebration.

But in many ways 2014 was a difficult and painful year, especially for minority communities in the United States of America. Ferguson, Eric Garner, failed Immigration Reform, the US Senate report on torture.  We watched hunger strikes on Capitol Hill, protests in NYC, shut down freeways in Northern California, and thousands of African Americans crying out in pain, desperately trying to remind our leaders and our nation that #BlackLivesMatter. Time and time again we were reminded that racism and dehumanization are integral parts of the fabric of our country.

Many people have been asking what can be done, and how can these issues be addressed. New policies, better education, and higher quality training are all ideas that have been floated. Unfortunately, while these ideas are well-intentioned, I fear they are woefully inadequate. I believe the problem facing our nation is rooted in our belief in our own exceptionalism.  

I have spent much of 2014 studying and speaking about the Doctrine of Discovery. This is a troubling doctrine that came out of the Catholic Church through a series of Papal Bulls written in the 15th Century.

In 1452, Pope Nicholas V wrote the following words in a Papal Bull:
“…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.”
Essentially, the Doctrine of Discovery was the Church in Europe saying to the Nations of Europe, whatever land you find that are not ruled by Christian Rulers, those people are less than human and the lands are yours for the taking.

It was the Doctrine of Discovery that allowed European nations to colonize Africa and enslave its people. It was also the Doctrine of Discovery that allowed Christopher Columbus to get lost at sea, land in a “New World” inhabited by millions, and claim to have "discovered" it. Because his doctrine informed him that the indigenous peoples of North America were less than human, and, therefore, the land was empty.

Throughout European history in North America, the Doctrine of Discovery has become embedded in the foundation of America. The Declaration of Independence dehumanizes Indians by referring to us as "merciless Indian savages." The US Constitution specifically excludes Indians and counts African Slaves as three-fifths of a person. And in 1823, the US Supreme Court set a legal precedent when it stated that based on the Doctrine of Discovery Indians only had the right of occupancy of the land while Europeans had the right of discovery and, therefore, the true ownership of this land.  This precedent was referenced by the Court as recently as 2005.

Over the years the centuries, the Protestant church also adopted the Doctrine of Discovery and began to use it for its own benefit.  In 1630, in the colony of Boston, John Winthrop preached a sermon in which he referred to the colony as a “City on a Hill” and reminded them that they must be obedient to God so that "the Lord our God may blesse us in the land whether wee goe to possesse it."  Through the lens of the Doctrine of Discovery, the colonies beginning to see their presence in North America as a God-blessed, even a God-ordained, event out of which comparisons to Old Testament Israel and their journey to a "Promised Land" could be drawn. Over the next hundred years or so this thinking matured into an understanding that not only was this new nation a "City on a Hill" but it also had a “Manifest Destiny” to discover, occupy, and rule this continent from "sea to shining sea."
American Exceptionalism - By Mark Charles

Today, our leaders and our institutions continue to ease our guilt and massage our egos by telling us, that as a people, as a nation, we are exceptional. Our educational systems may be failing, our infrastructure may be crumbling, our manufactured and genetically modified foods may be killing us, our technology and consumption may be altering the earth’s climate, our middle class may be disappearing, we may be torturing our enemies, we may be aborting our babies, and our minority populations may be forced to scream out that "their lives matter." But, we tell ourselves, "We are exceptional." "We are good." "We have a 'manifest destiny'." And "The United States of America is still a 'City on a Hill'."

As a nation we have to believe that we are exceptional, because if we aren't, if our history is truly this dark, then that means our nation is merely average. If our nation is not exceptional, then our unjust history of discovery, slavery, genocide, theft, torture, and dehumanizing the other is no longer justified. If we are merely average, and our nation has not been established and ordained by God, then we can be held accountable for our unjust actions, both past and present, just like everyone else.

Our nation is in agony, and our people are literally crying out in pain. Our history is dark and the path forward is difficult. As a country we need to give up the false notion of our exceptionalism and accept the fact that we are no better than any other nation around the world. We need to remember that this land was not empty and Europeans did not discover it. We need to acknowledge that Africans and African Americans are human, their labor is not free, and their lives do matter. We need to accept that many of our national holidays, like Columbus Day, are meant to be mourned, not celebrated. We need to own our history and accept responsibility for our actions.

It may be a new year, but the problems and challenges of the old one have not magically disappeared. Immigration reform still needs to be passed. Our leaders and our institutions still need to acknowledge that #BlackLivesMatter. We still need to deal with the revelation of the fact that the United States of America tortures its enemies. And we have yet to acknowledge that we are citizens of a nation that has been built on a foundation called the Doctrine of Discovery that dehumanizes the other and attempts to "God-ordain" our collective selfish desires in our so-called exceptionalism.

Perhaps rather than turning the page and celebrating the start of a New Year, we would be wise to better educate ourselves and lament the old year(s).

Lament is not hopeless. It is not merely wallowing in guilt. Lament is a godly weeping over our own sin and brokenness. It is an admission that a wrong was committed and justice is due. But there is also hope. For while God is a God of justice, He is also a God who loves mercy. He is a God who heals. And he is a God who will go as far as sending his only son to be born in a manager, tortured, and crucified on a Roman cross in order to be reconciled with his creation.

The United States of America does not have a covenant with God and the continent of North America is not our promised land. Our citizenship in this country does not provide us any additional hope or preference in the eyes of the Creator. But if we are able to repent of our American exceptionalism and instead find our identity solely in the blood of Jesus Christ, then there is hope. We can lament our sins, even the sins of our nation, and still trust that no matter what judgment comes, or what mercy is shown, God is good. Our relationship with him is still intact.

I invite you to read another article I recently published titled "The Doctrine of Discovery- A Buried Apology and an Empty Chair." This article gives an in-depth history of the Doctrine of Discovery and its influence on the United States of America. It also contains a proposal for a step towards healing and reconciliation.  


Unknown said...

You are misunderstanding the meaning of "American exceptionalism." You write of it as if it is a boast by Americans as to "how good they are." That wasn't and isn't the meaning. The meaning was and is that the US was the "exception" to the general then-existing rule as to how to do a country (government and society). The US was not like European countries: no monarch, no static societal classes, no government endorsed institutional church, no governmental control over the press and individual speech, etc etc etc.

Perhaps the US is less exceptional (unique from others) now than when it was begun, but that would be because so many other nations mimicked the US model, to some extent at least.

kcan said...

But it has come to mean, "We are the best country in the world." This "exceptionalism" has also developed into arrogance and American imperialism.