Published by Herald Press on June 22, 2021
Genres: Non-Fiction, Christian Life
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White settlers saw land for the taking. They failed to consider the perspective of the people already here.
In The Land Is Not Empty, author Sarah Augustine unpacks the harm of the Doctrine of Discovery—a set of laws rooted in the fifteenth century that gave Christian governments the moral and legal right to seize lands they “discovered” despite those lands already being populated by indigenous peoples. Legitimized by the church and justified by a misreading of Scripture, the Doctrine of Discovery says a land can be considered “empty” and therefore free for the taking if inhabited by “heathens, pagans, and infidels.”
In this prophetic book, Augustine, a Pueblo woman, reframes the colonization of North America as she investigates ways that the Doctrine of Discovery continues to devastate indigenous cultures, and even the planet itself, as it justifies exploitation of both natural resources and people. This is a powerful call to reckon with the root causes of a legacy that continues to have devastating effects on indigenous peoples around the globe and a call to recognize how all of our lives and our choices are interwoven. What was done in the name of Christ must be undone in the name of Christ, the author claims. The good news of Jesus means there is still hope for the righting of wrongs. Right relationship with God, others, and the earth requires no less.
This was a heavy read. It’s a needed weight. Galatians says to carry each other’s burdens and for far too long, the weight of a stolen land has been around the necks of indigenous peoples who have seen their lands taken, their rights removed, their cultures disintegrated, and their way of life destroyed. In The Land is Not Empty, Sarah Augustine shares the burden of it all with her readers in the form of awareness and a call to action.
That burden, in and of itself, is not justice. Simply making others—particularly the descendants of those who took the land—aware of historic injustice does no make wrong things right. Even calling others to action and suggesting the beginnings of healing and reparation and stopping the places where these injustices are current and ongoing is not enough for justice. But it is a beginning. The Land is Not Empty is a powerful and prophetic book that has the power to break down the strongholds of oppression and turn the trickle of justice into a roaring stream.
It begins with the Doctrine of Discovery: a set of laws from the fifteenth century that gave Christian governments the legal and moral right to seize “discovered” lands even though those lands were already populated. From the first sentence of the introduction: The United States was founded on ill-gotten gains. And it has prospered. Augustine weaves her own personal narrative as a Native American along with her experience advocating for indigenous people groups in Suriname. She does so through the lenses of religion, economics, politics, and history providing readers with a damning look at how the very humanity of indigenous peoples has been overlooked and denied in the name of money and power.
Sarah’s connection to this story begins in Suriname. The national government claims that the rainforests that comprise most of the country are uninhabited. But actually walk through the rainforest and you’ll find pockets of civilization where Indigenous Peoples attempt to carry on their ancient traditions and way of life. In the 1980s, Christian missionaries began consolidating the twelve distinct tribes into village clusters, moving the people out of the rainforest and into villages. This made them easier to proselytize (and control) and allowed the government to declare the rainforests to be empty and open for resource exploration and extraction. It was forced relocation to a reservation under a different name. The land was stolen.
Sarah arrived in Suriname as a sociologist, part of a research team investigating mercury toxicity in the Indigenous People. Mercury is used in alluvial gold mining and eventually makes its way into the rivers and streams—the primary food source for the local people. She was there as a nonpartisan observer but a single sentence from a Wayani woman changed everything “This is what I want to know…Are you going to fight with me?”
In the years since, Sarah Augustine has been fighting relentlessly. From personal life choices to activism in Suriname and beyond to working with (and against) government organizations. The Land is Not Empty is part-memoir, part-expose showcasing what most white Western Christian are ignorant of. I don’t know how Augustine’s message will be taken. For years (or centuries), those in power have knowingly and unknowingly looked the other way. The Land is Not Empty stands in defiance to any claim of ignorance. She paints the horror (and the hope) with broad and bold brush strokes that make the story plain. She unweaves the lies and half-truths and sings the unsung song of the oppressed. She calls the powerful and privileged to action through whatever power or privilege they hold. Together we are stronger than the systems of death, she writes. And so we can be.