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Jason Byassee

Surprises in Sudan

Reading the Bible with Southern Sudanese Christians.

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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?"

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