Read here the AW Book Forum Presentation on The Land Is Not Empty: Following Jesus in Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery by Sarah Augustine

Indigenous Old Testaments and Story – Response to Sarah Augustine by Randy S. Woodley

I begin responding to Sarah’s words at the end of chapter six, Reimagining Our Theology. 

The great unknown unfolds itself over millennia, across an ever-expanding universe. Those who seem mighty seem so only from a fleeting viewpoint—your presence, the truth that runs through your veins, through the ancient chain of your ancestors, bears testament to this truth. Do not be afraid. The ever- unfolding process of life, the Spirit of Life, the Creator, is a power with no end, and cannot be overcome.

I want these words to guide my perspective as I aspire to respond to this chapter from a place of humility. Given the ancient histories of our Indigenous peoples around the world, European theology, is but a faint glimmer in that history, whose hubris seems unmatched, except perhaps for its antecedent Empires; Britton, Rome and Greece. Long before the Spirit spoke through a Western theological interpretation of God’s relationship with Israel, and ages prior to the New Testament story of Jesus, Creator had already revealed much, for tens of thousands of years, to Indigenous people in North America and around the world. The Bible itself affirms these relationships with a God who is great enough to span the eons and have a world full of covenant relationships.

O people of Israel, are you any more to me than the Ethiopians are? Have not I, who brought you out of Egypt, done as much for other people too? I brought the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians out of Kir. Amos 9:7

Jesus himself, at his great reveal in Luke 4:25-27 actually taunts his friends and relatives for their exclusivist interpretation, that the God of Israel is limited to Israel. As a result, they become furious, why? Because that is what people who claim they have the sole favor of God do when told they are merely “special” in the same way that everyone else is special. Yet the words are clear, “God so loved the world” and “God is love.” How could love ever discriminate?

Each of our North American peoples have their own stories of their covenants with the Great Mystery. Each have our original instructions to live in harmony (shalom) with the community of creation including our human neighbors. And, each has fallen short, but those short-comings are included in our myths as well. My challenge to the Canaanite interpretation of that story held by Europeans, which fueled the Doctrine of Discovery and all sorts of subsequent evils, is not with the story itself, but with the purpose of story, itself.

A Western worldview, embedded with conquest and driven by empire, and plagued by such flaws as Platonic dualism, false hierarchies (i.e., White supremacy, heteropatriarchy), anthropocentrism, extreme categorization, binary thinking and the myth of redemptive violence just to name a few, has a way of interpreting story in a way it was never meant to be interpreted. The Western worldview first asks, “is the story true?” The Western system, which is built like a standing domino stack, logically one premise following the other, cannot be questions for fear that all the dominoes will fall. The problem with this Enlightenment-bound perspective is that all the writers of the Bible were pre-Enlightenment thinkers. And as such, they never expected anyone to hear their stories in the way the West now hears them.

Why is this point critical? Scripture is 90% story! Pre-Enlightenment, ancient, Indigenous people don’t interpret story from a Western worldview. The first question an Indigenous worldview asks is not, “is it true” but rather, “what is the truth found in the story.”

Yes, all peoples have stories or myths. Some really did happen. Some happened and have been embellished over time. Some may be pure fantasy but, in the end, what matters to Indigenous thinkers, and I could argue what mattered to the writers of the Bible, was not as much about whether or not events such as the Canaanite story really happened, but what can we learn from the story? 

Since Jesus taught everyone to love their enemies, not to kill them, which is also an ethic found in many parts of Scripture’s Shalom-Sabbath-Jubilee construct, within the Ten Commandments and echoed throughout portions of the prophets, one would have to say the earliest visitors to the Western hemisphere, including the Puritans and the majority of American Christians today, got it wrong. The implications of these dark European-based theologies is significant, as is the very meaning of the Gospel going forward.

The point of the Canaanite story is not that those who follow God get to conquer in God’s name but rather the opposite, namely, how far will nationalistic extremists go to pervert God’s ways in order to get what they want? The story of the Canaanites is not a story of a celebration, but a warning against nationalism, religious extremism and dogmatic certainty. I cannot picture Jesus celebrating genocide. But apparently others have, and may continue to do so. In the words of Blaise Pascal, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” 

For an alternative to the Joshua narrative, we need only look at Abraham. Norman C. Habel contends that the host people of the land have an inherent right to “own, share, sell, and negotiate the use of the land in the host country.” [1] He explains further:

The immigrant ideology of the Abraham narratives has a totally different perspective on land entitlement in relation to the Canaanites. The locus of political power lies with the Canaanite people who share their land with the immigrant family of Abraham. They are the host peoples, and Canaan is the host country. In none of Abraham’s dealings with these people is their right to possess the land in question. Nor are they, as a totally, regularly depicted as enemies or unbelievers who deserve to be expunged from the land. Abraham even tries to rescue the sinful Sodomites and pays a tithe to the priest-king of Salem. Abraham respects the Canaanites, their culture, their god, and their territories. Where land is in dispute, he negotiates peaceful settlements. When the land is attacked, he fights for the people of the land. When he needs a burial site for Sarah, he buys land in accordance with the local laws of land purchase. Abraham is a peaceful immigrant who willingly recognizes the entitlements of the peoples of the host country. Even the promise to Abraham about future possession of the land focuses on Abraham mediating blessings to other families of the land, rather than on the annihilation of his hosts. In these narratives the peoples of the land are blessed through contact with Abraham. Melchizedek, in turn, calls down the blessing of El Elyon, the god of Salem, upon Abraham. Thus Abraham, the head of the first ancestral household and family, becomes a model of responsible power in peaceful negotiations and legal acquisitions of land. [2]

I tend to think of the Abraham migration story as something akin to a meta-narrative for all host and immigrant peoples as it is consistent with the hospitality culture of the day and with a Christological hermeneutic to Jesus’ revitalization of shalom. The story shows that the authority of the land, without question, rests within the hands of the Host People of that particular land. The apostle Paul asserts the sovereignty of original host nation status concerning all nations, by stating that, God “determined their boundaries” (Acts 17:26). Abraham, acting in sync with his ancient near eastern customs, was simply respecting the national and spiritual boundaries of the Canaanites. How I wish the invaders to North America would have held emulated the Abrahamic story, not the conquest story.

And yet, perhaps, the greatest sin of the Europeans was not even the misinterpretation of story, as bad as the consequences of this was, but even deeper than that, as God points out to Job’s tormentors, it was the misrepresentation of God, and the corrupting of God’s character. Reflecting from the Lord of the Rings reference earlier in the chapter, I believe the age of European influenced theology is coming to an end, and a new age is beginning, the age of listening to and learning from each other’s stories. Mordor is waning.

Rev. Dr. Randy Woodley is an activist, scholar, author, teacher, wisdom-keeper, and Cherokee descendant, recognized by the Keetoowah Band, who speaks on justice, faith, the Earth, and Indigenous realities. He is the author of numerous books, including Shalom and the Community of Creation and Living in Color. He and his wife, Edith, co-sustain Eloheh Indigenous Center for Earth Justice and Eloheh Farm & Seeds outside Portland, Oregon.


[1] Norman C. Habel, The land is mine: Six biblical land ideologies (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), p.132.

[2] Habel, The land is mine, p.132-33.

AW Book Forum Presentation on The Land Is Not Empty: Following Jesus in Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery by Sarah Augustine


Response to Sarah Augustine by Wes Howard-Brook

Response to Sarah Augustine by T.J. Smith

Response to Sarah Augustine by by Kristina Schlabach

Concluding response by Sarah Augustine (May 30, 2022)