Sarah Augustine is the guest this week of Simon Doong and the Rev. Lee Catoe
by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — A few days ahead of the launch of a PC(USA) study on Sarah Augustine’s 2021 book, “The Land is Not Empty: Following Jesus in Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery,” the author appeared on “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” to discuss the harms that the 15th century doctrine brought about and repair work in which people of faith can engage today.
Listen to the most recent edition of the podcast, hosted each week by Simon Doong and the Rev. Lee Catoe, here. Augustine is introduced at the 25:13 mark.
Beginning at 7 p.m. Eastern Time on Sept. 12 and continuing for the next four Tuesdays through Oct. 10, the Presbyterian Hunger Program and its Global Solidarity Network will be leading an online book study of “The Land is not Empty.” Staff members of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, including PHP, the Joining Hands Initiative and World Mission, are combining to put on the study. Sign up here.
The Doctrine of Discovery is a series of 15th-century papal edicts that gave Christian European governments the religious and legal justification to claim lands occupied by Indigenous peoples and to convert, enslave or kill them. It laid the groundwork for the genocide of Indigenous peoples around the world; the colonization of Africa, Asia, Australia, the Pacific Islands, and the Americas; and the transatlantic trafficking in persons used as slave labor. In 2016, the 222nd General Assembly repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery and asked for recommendations on how PC(USA) congregations could support Native Americans in their ongoing efforts for sovereignty and fundamental human rights.
Augustine, a Pueblo (Tewa) descendant, is also executive director of the Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery, which calls on Christian churches “to address the extinction, enslavement and extraction done in the name of Christ on Indigenous lands.”
The United States “has had 200 years of laws and policies making the Doctrine of Discovery the basis of reality for Indigenous peoples,” Augustine said. “If we’re talking about dismantling it, we’re talking about dismantling those laws and policies.”
Undoing slavery required a constitutional amendment and participation by the states, Augustine noted. “Segregation is also a legal doctrine affirmed in the law. It took a change to the law at the highest level by the Supreme Court to countermand all the laws based on segregation … The Doctrine of Discovery is exactly like that.”
And if segregation defined reality for African Americans in this country, “it also defined reality for white folks,” Augustine told Catoe and Doong. “We have to evaluate whether something is just. If it’s unjust, how do we dismantle oppressive laws and policies that create the context of inequity for Indigenous people in the U.S. and in the world?”
“If you look at measures of well-being, Indigenous peoples are impacted by the Doctrine of Discovery in every measurable way,” Augustine said. “These laws and policies,” including the forced removal of children into boarding schools and barriers many Indigenous people experience in access to health care, “impact every part of our lives, and they have to be dismantled.”
Christians are called to do many difficult things, according to Augustine, “and being engaged in the world and standing up for the oppressed” are “tangible ways to do that.” One way is to “follow Indigenous people in Indigenous people’s movements as they seek justice for themselves. How can you be part of that?”
“When you talk about decolonizing our practices as church, I think that’s so powerful, because as we go through that practice of decolonizing, our eyes are opened to some of the oppression our theology has really enforced,” Augustine said in response to a question by Catoe. “It’s why we have language today about the divine mandate, that God has ordained that the United States as chosen people have divine rights.”
Beginning in the 18th century, the U.S. government used the concept of manifest destiny “to colonize the entire continent in the name of God,” Augustine said. “They were bringing the good news to Indigenous peoples and to Latinx people who inhabited much of the continent. There is a sort of entitlement and triumphalism in our theology … It’s a founding part of Christian nationalism and American exceptionalism,” that the U.S. model “ought to be exported around the world because we are chosen by God to bring the light of liberty to the world. All this is oppressive to Indigenous people.”
“By reflecting in our worship materials and in the way that we pray and hold space together — by decolonizing those things — what we’re doing is entering more deeply into transformation toward justice,” Augustine said.
Augustine noted that Jesus is tested by the devil in Luke 4, after which he goes to the synagogue in Nazareth and reads from Isaiah, engages and enrages the people there, and then passes through them when they try to hurl him off a cliff.
“It’s a different message than I had been taught,” said Augustine, who was raised in an evangelical environment before becoming a Mennonite. “I had not heard of a Jesus who came to free the oppressed.” As people of faith, “we also have the opportunity to undo the Doctrine of Discovery in the name of Christ.”
When Catoe asked what that looks like, Augustine said she’s often asked, “How is this work going to impact the most vulnerable?”
“If the answer is it’s probably not going to have much impact, I’m going to divert our energy to the thing that’s probably going to have the greatest impact on the most vulnerable people on the ground,” Augustine said. “Our organizing strategy is to work at the congregational level.”
“We ask congregations to consider how they will engage in concrete advocacy — locally, where that’s applicable, and national campaigns, where that’s applicable — and how they will build repair into their church budget,” Augustine said. “How might the congregation participate in land return? We take time off the table. We say we’re going to do this as we have the capacity and support to do it.”
“It’s something that creates community in the doing of the activity,” Doong said, “which I think stands in contrast to what many people think of with advocacy.”
During the pandemic, coalition members would meet frequently via Zoom to “make soup together and sing hymns,” Augustine said. “We live in the church, but we go out to the world.” Like a person who’s pregnant, “we wait with expectancy for a different world. We’re creating that world and we’re waiting for that world.”
New editions of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” drop each Thursday. Go here to listen to previous podcasts.
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