Bibles, Crosses, Songs, Guns and Oil: Sudanese "Readings" of the Bible in the Midst of Civil War

Article excerpt

In a seminal article published in 1979 John Mbiti1 sent out a call to African Christians, theologians and churches,

African oral theology is a living reality. We must come to terms with it. We must acknowledge its role in the total life of the Church. It is the most articulate expression of theological creativity in Africa. ...Since it is the living Church which produces its own theology, oral theology takes us to the fields where the Christians who make up the living Church are to be found. The bulk of written African theology must germinate and grow in these open fields while only very little of it will come from the library shelves. By arising from the fields, it will keep closer to the Church than have some of the speculative theologies which have little or no contact with the grassroots of the Church. ...I make an appeal...for the recording and collection of oral theological material in African Churches. This appeal is only possible through the cooperation of Churches, organizations, seminaries, and other bodies.2

Very little biblical interpretation done in the Southern Sudan is written. Most is produced through sermons, songs, prayers and art work which reflect the reality of the suffering of that country. The aim of this paper is to examine how the people of Southern Sudan interpret biblical texts in the context of the suffering of the world's longest civil war and how they interpret their own experience of suffering through biblical texts, stories and themes.

CONTEXT

Africa's largest country with almost one million square miles, until recently Sudan has been in a state of civil war for all but eleven of its forty-six year post-colonial history. The conflict between the North and the South has multiple dimensions including race (the Northern population is Arab, the Southern is African) and religion (the North is predominantly Muslim, the South has been predominantly traditionalist, but is now largely Christian). And of course economic issues are also crucial to the present stage of the conflict. Due to its larger population the North has always controlled the political power, but oil is found in the South. In addition, the water of the Nile which is so important to the North and to the most powerful political player in the region, Egypt, must flow through the South first. The latest phase of this protracted conflict began in 1983, after then President Ja'far Muhammad Numayri revoked the limited autonomy granted to the South in the Addis Ababa Agreement which had ended the first civil war. He subsequently imposed Shari'a (Islamic law) on the entire country, including the South, which largely consists of African traditionalists and Christians.

Since 1983 military action, famine (much of it "man-made" through the burning and looting of crops and the slaughter of cattle), the bombing of civilian targets such as schools, hospitals, churches and refugee camps, have devastated the Southern population.

With two million fatalities so far, this war has produced more casualties than those in Angola, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo, Liberia, the Persian Gulf, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Rwanda put together. An astounding four million Sudanese-out of a population of around 29 million-have been made homeless.3

This was a war in which slaves and cattle are used as a form of currency for murahaleen proxies who fight the war on behalf of the government by burning villages, slaughtering the men and taking the women and children north to be sold or used as chattel slaves. This was a war in which children of Southern refugees were kidnapped off the streets of the capital, Khartoum, and sent to "peace camps" to be forcibly Islamized and sent back to the South to fight against their own families.4 Needless to say the decimated South has been left with almost no infrastructure. With few schools, literacy is rare. With almost no medical care and little food, disease is rampant. The outside world showed little interest in helping to end this carnage. …