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Jason Byassee

Surprises in Sudan

Reading the Bible with Southern Sudanese Christians.

Earlier this week, President Barack Obama announced that the United States would renew economic sanctions against Sudan for another year. In part, the decision stems from Sudan's support for Islamist terrorists, but it also reflects the crisis in Darfur, wracked by genocide. In the perception of most Americans, wherever they are located on the political spectrum, the situation in Sudan is nothing but an ongoing disaster. But this is not the perception of Southern Sudanese Christians, as I discovered when I visited their country this summer. We Americans are rarely accused of modesty in our claims about God's action in our affairs of state. Yet after my visit to Southern Sudan, American civil religion now seems to me almost reticent. Consider this praise chorus:

For I'm building a people of power
and I'm making a people of praise,
That will move through Sudan by my Spirit,
and will glorify my precious name.

I've sung many similar songs here in the United States, but not one has mentioned America by name.

Southern Sudanese might be forgiven for thinking God is up to something new in their midst. The semi-autonomous country of some eight and a half million souls emerged from a savage half-century on-again, off-again civil war having experienced remarkable growth in the church. Western missionaries were expelled in 1964 and left disappointed. They should have waited for a few more decades. The most recent bout of war, from 1983-2005, left some two million dead, and five million in membership of the Episcopal Church of Sudan (ECS). Package that in your next "how to grow your church" bestseller: 1) resist the imperial claims of your own Shar'ia-imposing government, 2) endure genocidal bombings of villages, 3) have millions of refugees suffer thousand-mile walks (including the famous lost boys), and 4) emerge with a church twice the size of the Episcopal Church in the United States. That's not even counting millions of Catholics. "Khartoum tried to swallow the South," Bishop Hilary Garang Deng of the ECS told me. "But Christianity was like a bone, stuck in the throat, causing it to vomit."

I came to Sudan for a leadership and bible conference of bishops and heads of theological colleges, led by Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis of Duke Divinity School. I had never been in a country that was trying to get born. The air was electric. And I could hardly escape a conversation without the January 9, 2011 referendum coming up. A country of some 8.6 million feels like a giant delivery room. Bright-eyed people speak in hushed, eager voices, anticipating their freedom. Southerners are not naïve to the fact that the child could be still-born. They knew Omar al-Bashir was a genocidaire long before the International Criminal Court indicted the president for crimes in Darfur. They know he covets the oil under the south's sand as much as they do. Yet the Southerners I spoke with have a "bring it on" bravado about them, exemplified in Bishop Hilary's comment. They know there could be war again, but they beat Bashir before without tanks and missiles, and without international attention and personnel.

The area around the South's capital of Juba, where I was this summer, didn't feel like a place preparing for war. Busy backhoes and road-paving equipment suggested that this is a time of relative peace, funded by the oil revenue coming in from the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in 2005. Southern Sudan is a place preparing for freedom. I heard an entire sermon in All Saints' Cathedral on the theological significance of the upcoming referendum. "On January 9, we will be like the Israelites marching to freedom," the preacher promised, perhaps innocently enough. What oppressed people informed by the bible have not drawn on the Exodus? Even the banners flying near the grave of the martyred (by their definition) leader of Southern Sudan, John Garang, proclaim "Let my people go!" It's inspiring in one way; in another, it's pretty thin theology. All anyone would have to do to draw on this theme is rent a certain Disney movie. When I mentioned this Exodus theme to friends in Kenya later, they sighed in memory of a simpler time. Kenyans used similar rhetoric during their fight for independence from Britain in the 1960s.

But the preacher went on: "God put into motion his plan to free Southern Sudan from the North …. [A]s we walk into freedom in January 2011, we recall that the plan for freedom is God's; yours is to be obedient." A visiting bishop provided the benediction: "Lord, as we look forward to that great day" (you know where he's headed by now: not toward Jesus' return and the eschaton), "bless us all as we prepare to vote." I lost count of the ingenious acts of biblical interpretation that found this upcoming vote in the Scriptures: Abraham and Lot wisely separated after their conflict. Moses grew up in Pharaoh's house and then departed with his people. An ECS priest named Joseph Taban Lasuba pointed out to me how often in Scripture Israel's enemies appear from one direction. You guessed it: the North.

This may all seem pretty extraneous to the Scriptures themselves, on par with American fundamentalists reading Isaiah 18 as prophesy of the United States suffering and returning to God (those whirring locusts must be helicopters). The Sudanese I met, in fact, interpret Isaiah 18 to be about themselves. Who else are the people "tall and smooth," who live "in the land the rivers divide" (that is, the two branches o the Nile), of whom Isaiah speaks? Ellen Davis, with whom I traveled, agrees that this passage is probably a reference to the Dinka people of Southern Sudan, likely the farthest away tribe of whom the Israelites knew. Even the people at the edge of the earth would suffer and bring their gifts to Zion's God. And the raised "signal" referred to in verse 3? What could it be but the flag of independence the South will raise sometime after (you guessed it) January 9, 2011. What could be clearer? "That's an impressive piece of Sudanese political exegesis!" Davis said, with an enthusiasm that belies the scholarly, objective distance of her actual words. The Sudanese see themselves in the Scriptures, and unlike, say, Americans who see Apache helicopters there, they have a shot at actually telling the truth.

Sudanese Christians taught me to be more pugilistic in my faith. It took what was for me a harrowing experience to see this. There was a parade celebrating "Martyrs' Day" while I was there, commemorating the mysterious plane crash that killed Garang and his companions a month after the signing of the CPA. The Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), once a freedom-fighting bush militia and now more a state army, marched in the streets, interrupting our worship. So we went to watch, and I, being the tourist, pulled out my camera to snap pictures. A tall (they don't have short people) commander marched over to me, stuck his hand through the iron bars of the cathedral compound, and barked at me, demanding my camera. I slunk behind my tall (what else?) friends of the ECS in their collars and purple shirts and watched with some astonishment as they barked right back at the soldier, waving their arms exaggeratedly, commanding the commander to be gone. I learned later that in Arab militaries, in which some SPLA trained, those who take photos are assumed to be spies, and dealt with accordingly. What amazed me was the chest-thumping insolence with which the pastors treated the soldiers, as though to say, "Can't you see he's with us? Now buzz off!"

Later, I participated in an interview with the Archbishop of Sudan, with the impossibly wonderful title of the Most Rev. Dr. Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul Yak. He told us of his response to ethnic fighting in Jonglei state earlier this year. He and his entourage loaded into three vehicles and headed that way. In Jonglei they came upon a bush fighter waiting in ambush, who saw only the first and third car and readied to shoot. Then the second car jumped over the hill and startled him, leaving him dazed—a semi-miraculous deliverance. The archbishop later learned that those soldiers meant to kill anyone who came down that road. So Archbishop Daniel arrived and met the Dinka and Nuer, "And I cursed them. If you don't leave this fighting God will curse you, you will die, your selves and your clan and your family." As I said, pugilistic. And perhaps the perfect tonic not only for Southern Sudanese inter-tribal fighting, but for the sickly sweet versions of faith we drink so deeply here in North America.

Yet the ECS leaders whom I met are against their people only in order to be for them. Their church has a certain statesmanlike posture about it. When the Rev. Joseph Taban Lasuba, who teaches at New Bishop Gwynne Theological College, got over his incredulity that I had indeed photographed the parading soldiers ("You did what?" he asked, with a look that said, 'Silly American'), he used it as a teaching opportunity on the future of what Southerners often call "The New Sudan." "It will take education. These same guys are in church Sundays. But the church hasn't really shaped their imagination yet." Then he paused. "They can do their thing for now. But we'll get them on Sundays." Archbishop Daniel's pugnacity against the warring tribes comes from awareness that inter-tribal violence could scuttle an independent Southern Sudan before it's weaned. Not a few of those two million "martyrs" died from such internecine warfare; Bashir could use chaos as a pretext for invasion. The ECS is as much a state church as there can still be in the world anymore, and that has both strengths and weaknesses. Taban told me when his bishop heard that Garang died, "he collapsed, and could not speak for four hours." Taban himself, then dean of the cathedral in Khartoum, took to the pulpit and read the book of Joshua. The cathedral in Juba erected a marble stand on its grounds for Garang to lie in state. When the fledgling government of Southern Sudan recently decided not to pray before its parliamentary meetings, the church erupted. The archbishop's arguments led the way, reported to me by Taban: "We advocated for you in war, raised awareness internationally, now there's peace and you don't need the church?"

The danger of such a posture, of course, is that it can tip into fawning over the government. As soon as the church has access to the plush carpets and whispering huddles of power, it tends to do whatever it takes to stay there and to forget about a certain crucified Jew who is its reason for existence. One hedge against this danger in the ECS is its vision of reconciliation. "Everyone else here in Southern Sudan is peddling revenge," according to Robin Denney, a missionary from the Episcopal Church (USA) teaching sustainable agriculture in the country. "Only the church can tie people together after independence."

This posture of conciliation is clearest in the church's talk about Islam. There is every reason to disdain the sons of Ishmael in a place where the imposition of Shar'ia law was the ostensible purpose for Khartoum's violent hand. Bishop Hilary Garang Deng of Malakal said from the pulpit of Juba's cathedral that he was often tempted to hate Muslims. After all, he'd been chased with his family to a refugee camp where the heat was never abated by the brackish water they had to drink to survive. "Yet I learned that Muslims and Christians are like Jacob and Esau, descended from the same family." "It's not all Muslims that are the problem," another priest told me. "Just their politicians." Again, imagine the competing rhetorics about Islam in a place where the dead number seven figures. Perhaps the best comment on religious reconciliation came, again, from Taban. "I feel I am a missionary of peace among Muslims," he said. "Both Muslims and Christians suffered under the North's brutality. But only Christians have a mandate to forgive. All Muslims can do is get angry." Taban sees his role now as one of evangelism, and perhaps even beyond Sudan. For he speaks Arabic, as do many educated southerners. What would it mean if God were preparing to use Southern Sudanese to evangelize the very people whose faith once brutalized them?

Finally, Sudanese Christians taught me how to see politics anew. I've already mentioned the theological readings of the upcoming election. If the vote is held as scheduled and conducted fairly (big if's: no one should trust an indicted genocidaire like Bashir, and no one in Sudan does), the vote will go overwhelmingly for independence. But is this a good thing? Bishop Hilary is not so sure. "Perhaps God will unite Sudan in a miraculous way we can't imagine. The gospel is moving now in the Nuba Mountains, the Blue Nile, Darfur, and even among extremists where it wasn't before." What will happen to the 2 to 3 million southern refugees now living in the North if the South is independent? (The ECS itself plans to stay united, whatever happens politically.) Bishop Hilary speaks in the eschatological tones, and with the impish and mischievous smile, of a man who has seen miracles before. Who would have thought there would be peace after 50 years of war? (Or, from an American vantage, that it would have been the administration of George W. Bush that brought it about? Or that the administration of an African-descended president might be letting it slip away?) Could God unite Sudan finally under evangelical rule where Shar'ia failed before? Whether the bishop is right or not, shouldn't a bishop's job be that of reminding Christians that God could work in a way that both astounds and, upon reflection, matches the mightiest ways God has worked in the past?

A future of miraculous evangelism can't be brought about by human force, of course. The church in Sudan knows that in its bones. Pugilism does not mean violence. It does mean statesmanship, and acting on behalf of all the people, not just one tribe or religion. And it means offering a vision of reconciliation, and a reading of history and current events as part of the unfolding of God's intentionality.

All that said, who's to say the bishop's wrong?

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School (faithandleadership.com).

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