Augustine’s ‘The Land is Not Empty’ prompts a thoughtful discussion on how to change systems, structures and culture
by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — After spending a month discussing Sarah Augustine’s book, “The Land is not Empty: Following Jesus in Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery,” an online group was treated earlier this month to more than an hour with the author herself.
Augustine is co-founder and co-chair of the Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery, which, according to its website, “calls on the Christian church to address the extinction, enslavement and extraction done in the name of Christ on Indigenous lands.”
Noting that the Day of Prayer for Oak Flat is set for Nov. 4, an event sponsored by Apache Stronghold to protest a copper mine being proposed in Arizona on land sacred to the San Carlos Apache, Augustine said she and others in the coalition “are living and praying for transformation in this world.”
The coalition seeks to do that in two ways: by changing laws and policies and by changing the culture.
“We work hard to do both things at once,” she said. “It’s a tall order. We follow Indigenous people as they create campaigns, and we also acknowledge that as Christians — we are a Christian-centered coalition — there is work Christians have to do.”
“What you need is a willingness to collaborate,” Augustine said. “Follow the Spirit of life prayerfully to co-discern, and that’s about it.”
Cindy Corell, a mission co-worker who has served in Haiti, said she and the Rev. Jed Koball, a mission co-worker in Peru, have worked with people in those nations through the PHP’s Joining Hands initiative. “Recognizing the harms done by more traditional church missions, we listen to and do our best to accompany partners to create more full lives in the face of great injustices. We continue to learn from our partners,” Corell said, before asking Augustine, “What are ways to encourage churches to engage with Indigenous and vulnerable populations internationally?”
“My first response is, ‘Let’s be friends. Let’s together discern how we can do that better,’” Augustine said. “What we’re setting out to do is imagine a different world and then live into that, the kin-dom of God.” Augustine said she returns again and again to Luke 4, where Jesus is tempted in the wilderness and then reads from Isaiah in the synagogue.
“He says what his mandate is. He is very clear about what the good news is,” Augustine said. “It includes release for the prisoner — not just the worthy ones —freedom for the oppressed and sight for the blind. Who’s blind here? So much of Jesus’ message is for the church, the religious tradition of his time and place. … He announces the year of God’s favor. It’s jubilee, where human systems are restructured and all the land that has been mortgaged goes back to the people. His mandate is concrete and tangible, and I don’t think he was kidding around. … I notice that Jesus did not mince words. He was clear about what the expectation was.”
“I feel like I got my marching orders,” Corell said following that statement. “I think I fall into the trap of mincing words, and I appreciate that encouragement to do as our Savior has asked us to do.”
Koball mentioned that a new book Augustine co-wrote with Sheri Hostetler, “So We & Our Children May Live: Following Jesus in Confronting the Climate Crisis,” is coming out on Tuesday. “One thing we hear in Peru is, ‘If you want to solve the climate crisis, listen to Indigenous people’” Koball said, adding that about half of the critical minerals needed to transition to renewable energy are found on or near Indigenous lands.
“In some Christian circles, people say, ‘You know, Sarah, we’re just going to have to mine these minerals on Indigenous people’s lands to save the planet, and you are just going to have to take one for the team.’ I hear those words and I say, ‘You know what? I think we’ve taken plenty for the team.’ … If we don’t live within planetary boundaries, there are catastrophic outcomes. I believe we have it within us as people of faith — as human beings — to say, ‘We are living within the logic of Creation.’ That’s why we called our book, ‘So We & Our Children May Live.’”
“Learning about the church’s role creating the Doctrine of Discovery can make one angry and confused,” said the Presbyterian Hunger Program’s Valéry Nodem. Then Nodem asked Augustine: “How do you remain a faithful Christian?”
“I spend time each morning praying with my feet on the ground, seeking the direction of the Spirit of life,” Augustine said. “It’s real and alive, not old and antiquated. Creation is going on right now. We can see the Spirit moving.” In addition, “we have the witness of Jesus Christ,” who “was not one saying, ‘You need to make the right contacts’” or “‘Make sure you have a safe retirement fund.’ That was not the message of Jesus, and that is real to me. Will we work together with the systems of life, or will we choose death? That’s it.”
The Rev. Rebecca Barnes, PHP coordinator, prayed to close the 71-minute session. She gave God thanks “for the integrity, authenticity, wisdom and challenge of our sibling Sarah as she has pushed the church to be better and do better. … May we echo her challenge in our own congregations and throughout our denomination, finding pathways to stand in true solidarity, giving up power and financial resources unjustly gained, and freeing us all from ongoing colonialism.”
“May we look around and see that the land is not and never has been empty. You are everywhere, your sacredness embodied in all creatures. … You still speak to us as in biblical times. May we listen and may we hear. May we be transformed as we struggle for justice for Indigenous kin and for all. In Christ we pray, amen.”
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