Nine Bible Verses About Indigenous People and Land Rights | Sojourners

Nine Bible Verses About Indigenous People and Land Rights

Señor Cautivo de Ayabaca peregrination in Ayabaca, Peru. Image credit Carlos Mora/Alamy via Reuters.

God is not distant from creation but moves in deep harmony with the land and Indigenous people. Today, many Indigenous people are protesting the actions of colonial governments who have carried out cultural genocide, displacing them from their lands and homes. To encourage solidarity with Indigenous people in the struggle for their lands, here are nine Bible passages that remind us that all creation is sacred and God has always cared about the stories and lived experiences of Indigenous people.

1. Genesis 2:7-15
“And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden …”

These verses introduce readers to the Creator as a divine gardener. God breathes life into the nostrils of creation and equips image-bearers to be gardeners. In this passage, we see God’s desire to create lands and abundant gardens where divine love is cultivated.

This should make modern readers ask: What are we doing to care for our lands and the people who inhabit them? Are we aware of our sacred calling to be good stewards of creation? Are we truly loving and compassionate gardeners like our Creator?

2. Psalm 24:1-2
“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it …”

There’s not a single speck of dirt or atom that is beyond God’s care.

If God tends to the lilies of the field, how much more will God protect the poor and oppressed (Matthew 6:25-34)? This is the correct definition of divine providence: God cares for, loves, and empathizes with the meek who will one day inherit the earth. This is the providence that theologian James H. Cone imagined in his seminal work God of the Oppressed: “God has not ever, no not ever, left the oppressed alone in struggle. He was with them in Pharaoh’s Egypt, is with them in America, Africa, and Latin America, and will come in the end of time to consummate fully their human freedom.”

This articulation of providence does not negate Indigenous identities or coerce them to operate from Western paradigms. It also rejects the narrative of the “doctrine of discovery.”

3. Genesis 4:10
“And the Lord said, ‘Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!’”

Growing up in the Philippines, my lola (grandmother) taught me that the land speaks to us. Just like humans, creation breathes the same breath of life that God placed in our lungs. For my lola, this is the harmony of creation.

In modernity, we have been formed by a colonial mindset that imagines land as static and lifeless. This has led to what ecologist Norman Wirzba describes as a kind of “war capitalism,” where land is conceived of as a mere commodity, with resources being extracted for the purposes of empire.

In keeping with the biblical understanding of land, my lola taught me that the land hears us and the land speaks to us. The land is not blind to the injustices wrought against it. The innocent blood of murdered Indigenous peoples cries out to God for liberation. Do we have ears to hear their voices?

4. Deuteronomy 6:10-12
“... take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

A few years after I moved to the United States, I asked Filipino theologian José M. de Mesa for help during a moment of crisis. I wrote to him in desperation: “Dr. de Mesa, I don’t want to lose my heritage and culture.”

He replied, “Remember where you came from … this is the important work that we need to do.”

Just as God encouraged the Israelites to remember their heritage, God calls Indigenous peoples today to remember their lands and ancestral homes. For Filipinos, this means remembering the wisdom of our ancestors and the stories of our tribes.

At the end of de Mesa’s emails, he has a Tagalog proverb that reads: Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa kanyang pinanggalingan ay hindi makararating sa kanyang paroroonan. In English, this translates to “A person who does not remember where they came from will never reach their destination.”

5. Deuteronomy 19:14
“You must not move your neighbor’s boundary marker …”

To displace Indigenous peoples from their lands is a grievous sin against them, their lands, their ancestors, and God (Proverbs 22:28; 23:10-11). God invites the Israelites to see the land as sacred and life-giving to all inhabitants. But many majority world contexts across the globe suffer from the heinous consequences of the colonial moment. Today, there are still imperial structures that displace Indigenous peoples from their homes and distort their unique relationship with their ancestral lands.

God commands the Israelites to not only love people within their community but to also extend the same compassion toward the foreigner among them. God’s covenant is not only for Abraham and his descendants but also for the nations (Genesis 12). As theologian Walter Brueggemann writes in his commentary on Deuteronomy, “The kingdom of God is not and will not be a place where powers overrun the entitlements of the vulnerable.” This is one of the major reasons why the Israelites are eventually exiled from the land — because they did not treat their “alien” neighbors ethically (Jeremiah 7:5-7).

6. Ruth 1:16
“Where you go, I will go … your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

Ruth was a Moabite who decided to follow her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi, back to the land of Judah. Ruth acknowledged that leaving the land of Moab signified a movement toward belonging to a new land and a new people. It must have been daunting for her to leave home and embrace the unfamiliar. But in courage and faith, she followed Naomi to the land of Judah where God welcomed her with open arms. God blessed Ruth, a stranger and foreigner to Israel, by appointing her to become one of Jesus’ ancestors. Indeed, through the story of Ruth, we see that God also invites those who are not Israelites to take up residency in the land and become part of Israel’s community.

7. John 1:14
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us …”

John imagines a Creator who sought to walk the same pastures, travel the same mountains, wade the same rivers, and touch the same dirt as the people of Israel. So God incarnated and lived as a child in Israel’s ancestral land. He was called Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew raised under Roman occupation. Jesus traveled the land of Israel to “bring good news to the poor … release the captives … [and] let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18). As theologian Willie James Jennings writes in The Christian Imagination, “This is the way of the Creator with the creation. The freedom of the Creator to love us engenders our freedom.”

8. Matthew 5:5
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

Looking upon Israel’s ancestral lands from a mountain, Jesus taught that his listeners, the Jews, would inherit the land that Rome occupied. Despite the Roman occupation, Jesus reminded his fellow Israelites of God’s covenant with their ancestors: that all things will be made right for the people of Israel. They will inherit the land that the Roman Empire stole.

At times, verses like this one have been used to justify Zionism. But supporting the state of Israel’s displacement of Palestinians is wrong not only because Palestinians share an ancestral claim to the land with Jews but also because God explicitly demands that the land be a safe haven for all people — especially widows, orphans, and immigrants (Leviticus 19:34).

9. Romans 8:22-23
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves …”

Many of my fellow Indigenous siblings call the lands of the Philippines our Inang Bayan, or “Mother Land.” Filipinos imagine Earth as a mother who loves those who depend upon her. Earth is groaning with labor pains as she cares for and nurtures her young.

Creation groans deeply because the Earth has been plundered for the sake of profit. Along with many tribes and Indigenous peoples across the world, my Filipino sisters and brothers cry out for help with Inang Bayan. The Bible reminds us to listen closely to the soil and unite our voices with the weeping of our Mother Land.

Let us join with Indigenous people who hold to the biblical hope that one day, all things will be made right again.

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