The forced loss of land is probably the chief cause of the world’s most entrenched political and personal discord. In The West Wing, in a throwaway comment about Palestinian resettlement in the episode entitled Gaza, Admiral Fitzwallace remarks: “You know, after 50 years, one option might be to get over it”. The comment doesn’t recognise the enduring wounds of injustice which haunt people who have been forcibly removed from their land. I was reminded about this recently when speaking with some visitors from South Africa. Their families had been relocated during Apartheid under the Group Areas Act. Part of the rationale for this was the argument that they were a growing population and needed more space – which wasn’t available. However, revisiting their original home-town they had noted that many of the areas they were told could not be developed, now had housing. The forced relocation of people, accompanied by lies and coercion, leaves a stain of injustice that lasts much, much longer than 50 years.
The commodification of land is a widely accepted aspect of economic life in the West. However, this was an alien concept for many peoples around the world during colonisation. The protracted, trans-generational misery of exclusion from historic lands continues to blight the lives of indigenous communities around the world. Having land removed, or the rights to access land denied, can contribute to a disintegration of culture, customs and wellbeing that cannot be easily repaired or replaced.
“The current discussion concerning the environmental crisis emphasizes the need for a theology of land. One of the key observations of this thesis is that Indigenous communal identity includes the land, and that has underscored for me the general dislocation from the earth of modern Western people. A theology of creation must move even closer to the earth, emphasizing the symbiotic relationship between people and the earth. Indigenous people understand that the Creator put them in a specific place, and this forms a vital part of their identity”.
Aldred, Raymond Clifford. An Alternative Starting Place for an Indigenous Theology. Diss. 2020p. 251
A consideration of indigenous peoples, land and theology must include the religious dimensions and complex politics of a ‘promised land’. While some territories have been ‘virgin’ (from a human perspective), most people around the world are settled on land that was once occupied by someone else. When religious legitimacy is given to the removal of people from land it does nothing to diminish the sense of anger and injustice. The Radio 4 In Our Time series has an episode giving attention to the debates in Spain that following the conquest of indigenous people in South America. The assumed benefit of bringing Christianity to anyone was a key ideological factor in the approach that was taken to land acquisition. Around the world religious ideas, and the Bible in particular, were used selectively to underpin and implement egregious acts of violence and land acquisition.
Land that is understood to be promised is at the heart of many of the most politically complex situations in the world. In the Middle East the desire for peace is met with seemingly intractable complexities of religion; geopolitics and history. Despite the interventions and attempts by many world leaders the situation remains volatile and dangerous (and not only for the Middle East).
“For those who might have heard about what befell the Palestinian Arabs, it is possible that they felt sorry for us, but in the great master plan of God and God’s purposes for history, the Palestinians who were killed by the Zionists in the war and the hundreds of thousands who were dispossessed and became refugees were probably considered collateral damage and a small price to pay compared with what God was accomplishing through the return of the Jews to their ancestral homeland”.
Ateek, N. S. (Ed.). (2017). A Palestinian theology of liberation: The Bible, Justice, and the Palestine-Israel conflict. Orbis Books.
In material gathered before the end of Apartheid, RS Sugirtharajah’s work Voices from the Margin there is a case study from South Africa which includes the following comment by a participant:
“We want to live freely as we used to before the white man came. When I was a small boy, my grandfather had land, cattle, sheep, goats, plenty of land that they tilled and could reap good harvests and had cows to milk, And life was good. You felt you had what you wanted. But they took the land away from him; something to do with title deeds and white farmers, and that happened to other blacks as well, and the men had to work for the white farmers or come to town to work. So that’s how we came here”.Sugirtharajah, R. S. (1991). Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World.
Our ability, or capacity to restrain our intervention, seems to leave only tiny exceptions to the general rule of conquest and assimilation. A combination of economic exploitation, religious mission and academic curiosity has put an end to many distinctive cultures and civilisations. The people of the North Sentinel island might be one of the few remaining cultures almost entirely left alone. When an American missionary was killed on approaching the island even the US State Department decided not to pursue an investigation for murder. We have no idea what ‘murder’ would mean in the culture of the North Sentinelese, or what shared framework of human perception and understanding would enable a fair trial. In an earlier colonial era such acts would legitimate conquest and subjugation.
The legacy of colonialism undoubtedly leaves many indigenous people and communities bearing a burden of injustice. Today, in a different way, it is also these communities which are often those most affected by changes to our climate. A UN independent experts panel has called on the States attending COP27 to “allow for the full and effective participation of indigenous peoples and civil society… Indigenous peoples and civil society play an essential role in the advancement of climate action, and their voices must be heard”. When the voices of indigenous people are absent, or go unheard, humanity’s vision is diminished. This is especially true when such voices come from people often very close to the land, experiencing and lamenting the changes that make their way of live increasingly difficult. As we continue to debate and respond to a crisis from which none of us can escape, the relationship of human beings to land sites at the centre of any meaningful action. Altering our attitudes and perceptions about land, especially its commercial use, is essential for any meaningful sense of liberation.