Tracing a traumatic history, laying bare the roots of the Doctrine of Discovery

By Frank Ramirez

This article draws upon an interview with Mark Charles as well as the keynote address he gave at the Church of the Brethren National Older Adult Conference (NOAC) on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023.

One of the reasons Mark Charles believes that the United States needs a Truth and Conciliation Commission instead of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission conducted by South Africa, is that we cannot be reconciled if we have never experienced conciliation in the first place.

Our nation and our churches “have resisted creating common memory,” he said. The country has resisted disclaiming the influence of the Doctrine of Discovery from its foundations to the present day.

Charles, who is the son of an American woman of Dutch heritage and a Navajo man, is an authority on the Doctrine of Discovery, which dates to the 15th century. A papal declaration divided the North and South American continents among the European powers. It also encouraged the enslavement of the inhabitants, and the plundering of their resources.

Mark Charles presenting a keynote address to NOAC 2023. Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford

For the NOAC audience, he laid out an analysis of how the Doctrine of Discovery came to be, with roots in the early church and the start of Christendom—and even the gospel stories—and then how it has affected and continues to affect Christianity, including the Church of the Brethren, and the United States today.

The Doctrine of Discovery has been used to carry out and justify persecution and prejudice, driven by the mistaken belief that God wanted heretics, infidels, and indigenous and Black populations to be eliminated. In the United States today, white Christian nationalism hearkens back to this history, and continues to be bipartisan, he said. Leaders of both major political parties continue to behave and speak as if divinely ordained to carry out God’s will through the use of military violence.

Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford

History and trauma

A key to dealing with this history, and working at conciliation, is to understand the trauma that is part of the story. “The reason we don’t understand history,” he said in an interview, “is we don’t handle trauma.”

He explained what is called complex trauma, which is similar to but not the same as PTSD. Charles said that PTSD “comes from a single event and is an individual diagnosis.” Complex trauma, however, is not limited to a single event, but is a series of events. Instead of an instance of abuse, one suffers an abusive relationship. Instead of being caught up in a battle, one experiences constant warfare. Complex trauma can “appear in children and grandchildren of the traumatized,” he said, although no one is sure how it is passed on.

Another key to understanding America’s troubled history, Charles said, is to understand historical trauma, or HTR. This is not an individual diagnosis, but applies to an entire community. “You see it after an Indian school, Jim Crow, internment camps, and the Holocaust.”

Charles’ thesis is that one sees HTR in its most destructive form not among people of color, but among white people. He cited researcher Rachel McNair’s description of Perpetration-Induced Trauma (PIT) Syndrome, which is based on the psychology of killing.

“If society gives you the right to take a life, what does that do to your psychology?” he asked. “You cannot build a history of 500 years of oppression without traumatizing yourself.”

Just as family members may recognize someone’s trauma before that person does, it is the oppressed in society who have to recognize and name what is happening in white society. A culture traumatized by PIT can’t recognize the triggers that set off violence or even recognize that there is something troubling them.

Charles asked in his keynote address, “Why, 2,000 years after the resurrection of Christ, does not only the world but the church struggle with accepting our common humanity?” PIT may be part of the answer.

Mark Charles resides in Washington, D.C. He has co-authored with Soong-Chan Rah the book Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery. His keynote address was received with a standing ovation from the NOAC audience.

— Frank Ramirez is a writer and pastor of Union Center Church of the Brethren in Nappanee, Ind., serving on the press team for National Older Adult Conference (NOAC) 2023.

[gt-link lang="en" label="English" widget_look="flags_name"]