The Land is Not Empty by Sarah Augustine (Book Review)

*I received a complimentary ecopy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Title: The Land is Not Empty: Following Jesus in Dismantling the Doctrine Of Discovery

Author: Sarah Augustine

Publisher: Herald Press (on sale June 22nd)

Synopsis: Augustine explores the ways in which the roots of colonialism continue to bear fruit, through the lenses of Christianity and social justice. Augustine offers tangible ways for Christians to combat systemic injustice against Indigenous peoples.

Verdict: Highly Recommend (see Reservations below)

Personal Connection

Prior to college, I thought that racism was (essentially) a thing of the past in the United States. Racism appalled me, but I didn’t realize just how pervasive it continues to be, until I enrolled in a Race and Ethnicity in American Literature class. Through this course, I learned so much more about the exploitation of people groups in the United States. That year, I also attended the university’s SCORR Conference, which is dedicated to racial reconciliation. The same semester, a hate crime occurred on campus. For me, these experiences served to strengthen my desire for racial reconciliation. At the time, I thought I was a white girl learning to interact with people of other races.

Fastforward to September of 2019. On September 11th, my mom and I learned that her biological father was a first-generation Mexican American. My grandmother had lied to my mom her entire life, explicitly because she didn’t want my mom to know she was Mexican. It turns out, I too, had been directly affected by racism and have Indigenous roots. My mom advocates with our people and I believe that social justice is very important. For these reasons, I was intrigued by this book.

Audience

As a new book reviewer, this is exactly the kind of book I wanted to review. A major part of my calling, as a librarian and someone who really, really enjoys reading, is to be an “agent”— not necessarily in the traditional literary sense of the word, but in the sense of pointing to what the Lord is saying, through the people He is raising up. It is such a privilege to serve as an (unofficial) agent for my mom, Kimberly Vargas Agnese, who writes powerful, prophetic advocacy poetry.

With that said, having read Sarah Augustine’s “The Land is Not Empty,” I believe that this is SUCH an important text for Christians to read. As someone who resonates with certain aspects of Conservative Christianity (biblical sexuality and the sanctity of life), I recognize that there is so much room for growth when it comes to restoration and racial reconciliation.

Although the Bible demonstrates God’s heart for social justice, Conservative Christianity all-too-frequently scorns the notion of modern day racism. The Land is Not Empty is a call to action, not only for Conservative Christians, but for the body of Christ throughout the Western world, particularly in the United States.

The Creator is evident in creation, which surrounds me. I can see it and experience it with my senses. I am part of it. Humility is acknowledging that I am not separate from creation; I am part of a web of life.

Sarah Augustine

Themes

The doctrine of discovery, which originated in the fifteenth century, created a legal precedent for “conquering” people groups around the world. According to the doctrine, if people were not Christians, they weren’t really people, so of course they could be wiped out.

This is such an ugly moment in church history, but we can’t turn away from it and ignore it, especially because our society remains entrenched in its philosophy, to this day. Through case studies and personal narrative, Augustine demonstrates that the doctrine of discovery is not an ugly thing of the past, but a present and violent violation of human rights. Augustine cites multiple examples of the oppression of indigenous peoples, who are having their land stripped away by partnerships between businesses and governments— partnerships in which the original occupants have no say.

I use the term “original occupants” intentionally. While my first inclination was to refer to the “rightful owners” of the land, Augustine strongly asserts that the land is not something that can be owned. “When Christians behave as though we can own creation,” Augustine writes, “we are degrading all ecosystems that support life.” Indeed, Augustine placed strong emphasis on our role, as humans, within Creation. According to Augustine, we are not separate from Creation, but part of it. As created beings, we have two choices: “cooperate, co-create with the systems of Life, which is [our] only choice, or [we]can pass away and waste [our lives] following the hollow logic that leads to death.” While this is not a traditional Western perspective, it does align with the original Garden of Eden call for us to steward nature. For us to willingly destroy, or permit the destruction of the earth, is truly to cooperate with a system of death. But, the God of Life is sovereign! “How fabulously foolish,” Augustine writes, “to believe any system invested in the destruction of creation, the Ancient of Days, will stand.”

In addition to depicting the land as something that is not owned, Augustine explores the significance of land within Indigenous cultures, noting that land plays an integral role in every aspect of life. Within the transversal Winti worldview, there is no frame of reference for individuality. Rather, all members of a community, past and present, inhabiting the space are members of Creation, along with the land. Also central to Winti belief is the idea that the strife of past generations affects those living in the present. For this reason, redemption is key to the Winti religion. Augustine adds that “the good news of Winti is dismissed” because of its emphasis on community-wide restoration, rather than on a specific historical moment of salvation. I certainly agree that the Winti belief system offers greater insight into the faith that we, as Christians, profess. I also resonated with Augustine’s emphasis on communal transgression (systemic injustice), as opposed to an individualistic approach to sin and piety. While I am accustomed to the individualist approach, I definitely see Scriptural precedent for Augustine’s assertions.

In emphasizing a community approach, Augustine’s end is not to make the reader feel guilty (yet powerless) as an individual. Although she shares multiple instances in which her efforts have borne little fruit, her goal in writing the book is to catalyze change at the community level— and she describes practical ways of doing so. For example, stockholders who are investing in mining companies can contribute the profits they are gleaming directly to Indigenous peoples. Whole churches that are profiting from extractive industries, can open negotiations with these companies. Most importantly, “the God revealed in Scripture…is a God who is struggling with us and within us to bring about God’s shalom.”

Reservations

• The first few sentences of the foreword, which is not written by the author, references working on “LGBTQ and other justice issues.” To clarify, LGBTQ issues are not addressed anywhere else in the book. I feel that this opening line could definitely affect the book’s credibility with certain audiences and that the social justice issue invoked by the author of the foreword is not at all analogous with the suffering of Indigenous peoples.

• The foreword also noted that, at certain points, the reader may be tempted to “tone down” Augustine’s message. Overall, I strongly resonated with the arguments presented. There were a few moments that gave me pause, mostly in discussions of the insights provided by Indigenous religion. Personally, I believe that elements of their worldview are extremely important to Christianity, elements that have been replaced with worldly western ones. My disclaimer is that the transversal world view is a HUGELY important lens for looking at the world, but that Jesus Christ, as a historical and living person, is central. This is not to say that Augustine’s writing conflicts with Christ’s centrality. However, I wanted to make a clear statement, because of how unfamiliar transversal thought is within the colonized Western world.

  • I also cannot uphold the Indigenous belief that God cannot exist without the land. Augustine references this belief when discussing Indigenous cosmology— not citing it as her own. Again, my point is that many of the central tenets of Indigenous belief are extremely relevant and insightful for us as Christians, but do not hold complete truth. (Nor do I!)

In Summation

All too often, Christians are known, not for their pursuit of social justice, but for their denial that inequity exists. As Christians, we mustn’t turn a blind eye to the systems on which our country was founded and continues to operate. This is such an important book for Christians to read! Highly recommended.

Published by Stephanie Agnes-Crockett

Hi, there! My name is Stephanie and I’m a Fresno, CA native. After studying at Biola University, I received my MLIS (Masters in Library Science) from San Jose State University. I live with my mom, poet Kimberly Vargas Agnese, and serve as her unofficial agent. We reside at MeadowArc, a food forest in its infancy. I am called to, and passionate about, purity. In fact, the name Agnes means “pure.” Before I was born, my mom felt led to include the name Agnes in her name, and in the names of her children. My full, hyphenated name includes 26 letters (but not the whole alphabet).

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