Response to Sarah Augustine by Wes Howard-Brook
Sarah Augustine is a prophet. Like those of ancient Israel, she interweaves in her life and writing a passionate love of God, a passionate love of her people, a passionate love of earth, and a fearless compulsion to speak truth no matter what the consequences. She and this book are truly gifts from the Creator to the people.
I have walked alongside Sarah’s and Dan’s ministry and work for many years, occasionally up close but more often, from across the Cascades on the other side from the Yakama land on which they dwell. I have witnessed her unflappable commitment to do what she can to undo the damage of centuries of “Christian” colonialism across the north and south continents that we allow to be named by the first Europeans commissioned by the Doctrine of Discovery, “the Americas.” In churches, both locally and across the earth, through talks, videos, writings and any other means available, she has ceaselessly made her case for undermining this toxic legacy.
Now, in The Land is Not Empty, she pulls together all these threads into one volume. It is a dense book, not in the sense of difficult to read, but in the sense of packing in so much life, history and reflection into a couple of hundred pages. It is an honor to be included in this engagement with her marvelous work.
While I, too, draw attention in the classroom to the Doctrine and its legacy in US law and beyond, my primary lens for engaging this forum is Scripture. I can feel throughout the book Sarah’s agonizing effort to claim Jesus, claim a “Christian” identity, and yet, to name without flinching the Scriptures that go against the Way Jesus proclaimed and embodied. One of her focal points, rightly so, is Deuteronomy. I’d like to use this focal point as a means to invite consideration of the wider pattern in the Bible and beyond of which Deuteronomy is one example.
Sarah writes beautifully about her work in unpacking various histories: her own, that of indigenous peoples in “the Americas,” that of Christian colonialism. I suggest that one more level of unpacking is called for: that of the Scriptures themselves. That is, Sarah names herself in various ways, including such labels as “bad Indian” (i.e., as one who has now rejected the assimilationist narrative she had been given as a youth). Similarly, we must ask, “What led the authors of Deuteronomy to, in one chapter, provide the ‘great commandment’ that Jesus names as one of the two keys to Scripture, and then, in the next, to demand in the name of YHWH genocidal holy war against the peoples of Canaan?”
Undertaking this exercise can be as shocking and revelatory for interpreting the Bible as Sarah’s work is for understanding Christian colonial history. Briefly, most scholars see Deuteronomy as a function of the late Jerusalem monarchy under Josiah, written in at least rudimentary form around the 620s BCE. Josiah’s goal, as laid out in 2 Kings 22-23, was to consolidate worship, and hence, the community of YHWH, around the Jerusalem temple, so as to strengthen social bonds in the face of both the previous century’s Assyrian conquest of Israel to the north of Jerusalem and Babylon’s growing strength as the Mesopotamian successor empire to Assyria. Then, as now, some people obeyed the religious institutional command to worship only in the “officially sanctioned” place, i.e., the Temple. But at the same time, others continued to worship as their ancestors had on “the high places,” i.e., local, earth-based shrines that had become sacred over time (2 King 23.5-20). Josiah’s “reform” (as some Bibles present it in their supplied heading) consisted of a campaign of violence against these sacred places and the priests who conducted worship at them. In other words, Josiah’s actions mirror very closely those of the Roman Catholic Church in repressing indigenous, local expressions of worship that could threaten the hegemony (and legitimacy) of the religious officials and their collaboration with empire.
But Deuteronomy’s call for “holy” violence is only one message from among the people of YHWH during this time period. Within the next century or so, we find the development of radical counter-texts, such as Genesis, which begins by proclaiming that all humans bear the image and likeness of the Creator, not just “us.” Genesis goes on to make cities, with their patriarchal structure and violent actions, the paradigm of sin, beginning with the city built by the first murderer, Cain (Gen 4.16-17). Similarly, Leviticus calls for loving both neighbors and immigrants/refugees as “oneself” as an expression of worship and fidelity to the covenant between YHWH and the people (Lev 19.18, 34).
If we were to continue to do this work (as I tried to do in my book, “Come Out, My People!:” God’s Call Out of Empire In the Bible and Beyond [Orbis 2010]), we would find that the Bible contains texts that one can array on a spectrum between two poles. I call the pole at which Sarah takes her stand the “religion of creation” and the one she rightly resists the “religion of empire.” Those who collected what we know as the Hebrew Scriptures included both sides of the ancient argument over what way of life YHWH intended for YHWH’s people.
Jesus, having inherited this range of traditions, clearly and explicitly sides repeatedly with the religion of creation. As we know, he calls for love of enemies, inclusion of the outcast, care for the marginalized. But at least as important, Jesus, like the prophets before him, makes the fate of humanity match how people treat nonhuman creation as well as fellow humans. For example, Luke 4 shows Jesus making his mission the fulfillment of Jubilee (from Isaiah 61, itself implying Lev 25-26): that, once-in-fifty-years reset that promises true sabbath for earth and her creatures. The purpose, of course, was to assure long-term flourishing that depends on acknowledging the cycles of growth and rest that are the conditions of life as the Creator has made it.
Sadly, however, the earthy, compassionate, radical Way of Jesus, as an expression of religion of creation, was quickly lost in the colonialist, imperial appropriation of the Hebrew Scriptures by a new group: the “Christians.” Let me be clear: Jesus, like Saul/Paul, was not only always a “Jew,” but had nothing to do with the development of a new “religion” called “Christianity.” In fact (as I attempt to show in the sequel to COMP, Empire Baptized: How the Church Embraced What Jesus Rejected, 2nd-5th Centuries [Orbis 2016]), Christianity was invented by elite, Platonically-oriented people in Roman society to not be “Judaism.” Further, the new religion quickly broke down into two, seemingly paradoxical aspects. On the one hand, Platonic contemplatives like Origen called for a radical rejection of “passion” and embodiment so that the “soul” (a concept Jesus would have known nothing about) can be “freed” from both body and earthly concerns so as to be united spiritually with God. On the other hand, Christianity soon after became a vehicle for legitimizing both the Roman Empire itself and its wars of conquest and exploitation. No wonder imperial Christian writers like Eusebius were so uncomfortable with the radical, apocalyptic vision of Jesus’ Jewish disciple, John the Revelator, with his harsh, prophetic condemnation of empire! Of course, it is this bifurcation of “faithfulness” into either disembodied and/or socially disinterested piety on the one hand and imperial claims to divine authority that is at the root of Sarah’s critique of Christianity’s role in the injustice faced by Indigenous peoples and the earth.
In other words, it’s long past time to expand the necessary and powerful work that Sarah has done, both in the book and in her life. We must recognize one clear, but very “inconvenient” truth: the Bible is not a “Christian” book except by imperial appropriation. It is the work of the people variously known as “Israelites,” “Judahites,” or “Judeans,” all ancestors of today’s Jews. Can one imagine Puritans like John Winthrop claiming the Pequot stories as their own, and claiming, as Christianity has done, that God has taken those stories away from their original creators and keepers and given them to their colonizers? But that’s exactly what Christians have done with the Hebrew Scriptures. From this perspective, we can see the texts about Jesus collected in what we have come to call the “New Testament” not as founding a new religion, but as seeking, as Sarah does, to call religious companions back to the Way of the Creator.
If we were to engage in this perhaps scary but necessary act of decolonization, we could, as Jesus did, reject altogether texts such as Deuteronomy 7 while wholeheartedly claiming texts such as Genesis and Leviticus as “inspired” stories. I hope that this forum will open up questions like this, so that the work Sarah has done can grow and bear fruit for the Beloved Community of all creation that is the dream of Jesus, the embodiment of the Creator.
Wes Howard-Brook has been teaching the Bible in churches, academies and homes since 1988. He is recently retired from teaching at Seattle University. He is author or co-author of seven books on the Bible. He and his wife, Sue Ferguson Johnson, share in the ministry, “Abide in Me,” which interweaves mystical and prophetic traditions. They live in the Issaquah Creek Watershed in the foothills of the Cascades on unceded land of the Issaquah Band of the ‘Snoqualmie People.
Response to Sarah Augustine by T.J. Smith (May 9, 2022)
Response to Sarah Augustine by Kristina Schlabach (May 16, 2022)
Response to Sarah Augustine by Randy S. Woodley (May 23, 2022)
Concluding response by Sarah Augustine (May 30, 2022)