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Jason Byassee

Surprises in Sudan

Reading the Bible with Southern Sudanese Christians.

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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.

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