Bibles, Crosses, Songs, Guns and Oil: Sudanese "Readings" of the Bible in the Midst of Civil War
LeMarquand, Grant, Anglican and Episcopal History
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.
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.
In fact, aside from church lobby groups in Europe and North America, virtually the only organizations interested in Sudan have been oil companies (Chinese, American, Swedish, Austrian, French, Malaysian, and, tragically, Canada's Talisman) whose exploration and production supply the government of Sudan with approximately a million dollars a day, most of which was spent on the war effort against the South. The quest to get Sudanese oil out of a war zone has involved these companies in collaboration with a government which forcibly de-populates the regions around the oil fields in order to protect these economic interests.5
The Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army now controls the Equatorial region of the South and, although the rhetoric of the movements' leader, Col. John Garang, was that he was fighting for limited autonomy for the South within a united Sudan it has become clear that at least some within the rebels are hoping for succession and for the establishment of a "New Sudan" in the South. The SPLA has already produced a New Sudan flag and by the end of the war were attempting to establish some infrastructure and government services in rebel-held ("liberated") areas. Whether a liberated Southern Sudan will itself be free from war is an open question since rivalries between the more than one hundred language groups in the South has always been strong and many Equatorians, as well as fellow Nilotics, resent the leadership of the rebel movement taken by the Jieng people.
But in the midst of the last twenty years of war the church in Sudan has experienced remarkable growth. Although Protestant missionaries (mostly British Anglicans) have been in Sudan from the time of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, and Roman Catholic missions predate Protestant efforts, very few Sudanese responded to the work of the missions. Under the AngloEgyptian Condominium missions were forbidden in the Muslim North, and Africans in the South showed very little interest in the European missionaries who seemed indistinguishable to them from the "Turks" who had raided their lands for generations. Until recently most converts came from the ranks of the outcasts of Sudanese society. Speaking especially of Jieng society Isaiah Majok Dau writes,
Prior to the outbreak of the present civil war, most intellectuals in the Bor Dinka community stayed away from the church...the church and its message [was]...associated with a foreign culture. Rightly or wrongly, the traditional Dinka saw little distinction between a British District Commissioner and a missionary. They were both white and spoke the same language. Worse still, the early missionary's unqualifled rejection of their culture and religion increased their suspicion of the real motive or the agenda behind the message.6
The perception of Christianity among the Southern Sudanese began to change during the first civil war (1955-1972). Two factors, the expulsion of the missionaries in 1964 and the experience of exile for many Sudanese led to the expansion of the Sudanese church. When the missionaries were expelled by the government of General Aboud's Umma Party in 1964 very few expected that this action would actually help the fledgling Sudanese Christian community. Surprisingly, perhaps, the church grew as a result. Local Sudanese Christian leaders were pressed to exercise leadership.7 Without the presence of foreign missionary oversight, Sudanese found themselves compelled to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. Also during this period many southerners went into exile in neighbouring African countries like Uganda and Kenya, where they encountered a thriving African Christian community. Many Sudanese responded to the evangelical Protestant message of salvation presented by the East Africa Revival Movement.8 Some received theological education. Returning to the Sudan after the Addis Ababa treaty these African Christians were more successful in spreading the Christian message than the missionaries had been. In short, the Sudanese churches were forced to indigenize both their leadership and their theology.
Even more remarkable has been the growth of the church during the second period of civil war since 1983. Although missionaries returned to Sudan in the 70s and many remained during the early part of the recent conflict,9 the growth in the numbers of people entering the Christian churches cannot be explained by missionary presence. Although very few mission groups have been able to function in Southern Sudan at all during the last twenty years, the growth has been almost exponential. Speaking of select areas of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan (ECS) Marc Nikkel writes,
In 1993 Bishop Nathaniel Garang confirmed 10,000 at Kakuma Refugee Camp; in the Diocese of Bor 5,300 were confirmed, Dec. 1995. In the Diocese of Shuei Bet, Bishop Reuben Machir Makoi confirmed 16,000, Oct & Nov 1995. These are but a portion of newly baptized awaiting confirmation. In the Diocese of Bor, 8 churches in 1983 have increased to 280 [by 1996].10
In a similar vein, Dau reports that among the Jieng around Bor the church grew substantially as a result of the renewed conflict:
Paradoxically, the major breakthrough in the growth of the Dinka church came with the outbreak of the current civil war and the resulting suffering. In 1983, when the war resumed, the Bor Dinka took a direct hit. Their main town, Bor, was targeted because it was perceived to be a hotbed of resistance and rebellion to the authorities in Khartoum. Many Christians and townspeople fled and sought refuge in rural areas. But they "journeyed" with the message to the very doorsteps of the rural Dinka, known for their long resistance to foreign customs and cultures. But this time round, they heard the message in their own tongue and from the mouths of their own children. They embraced it on a scale never before witnessed. The result was a huge growth in the church, perhaps one of the fastest rates in Africa. The ECS, now under the bishopric of Nathaniel Garang Anyieth and with only a small number of churches before 1983, is perhaps the fastest growing church in the Anglican Community [sic?: Communion?] today. Also growing rapidly among the Bor Dinka people is a cluster of churches called the Sudan Pentecostal Churches (SPC). Having come into being under difficult circumstances in 1981, the SPC had only one congregation with several tiny branches in the outskirts of Bor town. Its total membership was less [sic: fewer] than a hundred people in 1983. Now, nineteen years later, the SPC lays claim to more than twenty churches and a membership of approximately seven thousand people. ...The Catholic Church, the Presbyterian Church, the African Inland Church, the Sudan Interior Church, the Sudan Church of Christ and others have all experienced considerable growth.11
Most source books estimate that Sudan is 70-75 percent Muslim, most of this population in the North, and that the remaining 25-30 percent of population in the South is mostly traditional12 (20-25 percent), and about 5 percent Christian.13 However, the recent survey of African church history published in 1994 by John Baur estimates that the Christians make up 10.3 percent of the population (about 3,300,000) and traditionalists 13.8 percent.14 More recently Andrew Wheeler has estimated that Christians probably number approximately 4,300,000.15
A unique combination of factors-the lack of missionary presence, rapid church growth, indigenous leadership, and limited educational resources, and all within a war zone, form the interpretative context in Southern Sudan.
BIBLICAL TEXTS AND MOTIFS
Before turning to Sudanese readings of particular biblical texts and motifs we must first address the issue of sources used for this study. Obviously there are few trained "professional" biblical scholars in the Sudan. Isaiah Majok Dau, a Jieng Christian, has recently published a doctoral dissertation in systematic theology written in South Africa.16 This volume contains some important reflections on biblical texts. In addition, Marc Nikkel, an American Episcopal missionary in Sudan for almost twenty years until his death from cancer in September of 2000,l7 has produced a number of studies of relevance to our topic, the most important of which is a published doctoral thesis concerning Christianity among the Jieng people.18 An important feature of Nikkel's studies is his collection and translation of Jieng Christian hymns, most of which contain biblical allusions. Janet Persson produced a brief study of the history of Sudanese Bible translation.19 Several anthropological works also contain important insights into biblical interpretation. A study of the Uduk of southeastern Sudan, for example, contains a section entitled "Re-writing the world: the Bible as authoritative text".20 E.E. Evans-Pritchard's classic text about the Nuer points out some interesting parallels between the Old Testament and Nuer religion, especially the two traditions' understanding of sacrifice. These anthropological works, of course, say little or nothing about the reaction of Christian Sudanese to the current civil war. In addition to these written sources, I will draw upon interviews with Sudanese Christians, most of which were conducted in Kenya between May and July of 2002.21 Most of those interviewed were involved in church leadership of some sort and had experience in interpreting the Bible and hearing the Bible interpreted in various parts of Southern Sudan.
TEXTS OF IDENTITY: SUDAN IN THE BIBLE
A feature of recent biblical interpretation in Africa is the interest in and interpretation of texts about Africa or Africans. A number of African biblical scholars have drawn attention to these texts and especially to the ways in which Africans are sometimes read out of the texts by European and North American scholarship. A key issue here is African Christian identity. Since the Christian message came to Africa in the modern period from outside of the continent it is sometimes suggested that Africans who adopt Christian faith are somehow diminished as Africans, that they must choose between being Christian or being African. The presence of Africans in the Bible provides an opportunity for African Christians to see themselves reflected in the biblical story.22 Various parts of the African continent have emphasized different texts. Ethiopia has drawn attention to the story of the visit of the Queen of Sheba (who they claim as their own) to Solomon (1 Kings 10; 2 Chron 9). The result of this visit, and of the sexual union not discussed in any biblical text,23 is a son, Menyelek, who as the son of Solomon is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the messianic king.24 Likewise, the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt puts great stock in the story of the escape of the Holy Family from Israel into Egypt (Mat 2:13-18). In addition to these, other texts involving Africans have drawn the attention of African bible readers across the continent. Simon of Gyrene in particular is a source of much speculation due to his proximity to the saving event of the cross. Some have speculated that in taking up the cross Simon somehow makes atonement for Africa as the representative black man.25 Several "African" biblical texts have become especially important for Sudanese living through civil war.
The prophetic oracle of Isaiah 18 is one of the most frequently discussed passages in the Sudanese churches. Isaiah Dau has written that he is frequently asked by "SPLA soldiers or ordinary Christians...[to] explain the meaning of this passage of Scripture."26
1 Ah, land of whirring wings that is beyond the rivers of Gush
2 which sends ambassadors by the sea, in vessels of papyrus on the waters! Go, you swift messengers, to a nation, tall and smooth, to a people feared near and far, a nation mighty and conquering, whose land the rivers divide.
3 All you inhabitants of the world,
you who dwell on the earth,
when a signal is raised on the mountains, look!
When a trumpet is blown, hear!
4 For thus the LORD said to me:
"I will quietly look from my dwelling
like clear heat in sunshine,
like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest."
5 For before the harvest, when the blossom is over,
and the flower becomes a ripening grape,
he cuts off the shoots with pruning hooks,
and the spreading branches he lops off and clears away.
6 They shall all of them be left
to the birds of prey of the mountains
and to the beasts of the earth.
And the birds of prey will summer on them,
and all the beasts of the earth will winter on them.
7 At that time tribute will be brought to the LORD of hosts from a
people tall and smooth,
from a people feared near and far,
a nation mighty and conquering,
whose land the rivers divide,
to Mount Zion, the place of the name of the LORD of hosts.27
Several features of this text have impressed Sudanese readers (and listeners-we need to keep in mind that many Sudanese Christians are non-literate).
First, this text appears to be about the Sudan. "War was prophesied by Isaiah; and so it has come among us" says one Sudanese hymn composed in 1989.28 Although it is sometimes argued29 that "Gush" (v.l) simply means "Africa" and should be translated as such everywhere it appears in the Hebrew Bible, it seems this text is more geographically specific. Sudanese point out three details that seem to indicate that Sudan is the object of the prophet's attention. The first detail is the repeated description of Gush as a land divided by rivers (vv. 2, 7). This detail appears to correspond to the geography of Sudan, which is dissected by the Blue and White Niles which meet at Khartoum and flow north into Egypt together from that point. A second detail is the mention of a people "tall and smooth" (vv.2, 7). Certainly this would fit as a description of the Nilotic peoples of Sudan such as the Jieng, the Nuer and the Shilluk who are among the tallest people on earth, regularly reaching seven feet in height.30 A third detail is the mention of "whirring wings" (v.l) which Dau, at least, suggests "may be taken as a reference to the tsetse fly, a troubling insect abounding in Western Equatoria region."31 Other Sudanese believe the reference to be to the bird life of the Nile region.
The popularization of this text to the modern context of civil war can be traced to the preaching of a Sudanese Christian prophet named Paul Ron Ajith. In 1986, this young man, a traditional Jieng pastoralist, began having visions. At the counsel of Bishop Nathaniel Garang he was baptized, and he destroyed his traditional clan fetishes related to an ancestor (jok, pi. jak) of his clan. He began a three-year ministry as a wandering preacher throughout the Jieng regions of Bahr el Ghazal and the Upper Nile. "Throughout this tour he wore only a waist belt and carried a cross, a bell, and a drum. His nakedness, in the tradition of rural Jieng, was an attribute later linked with the naked prophet of Isaiah, chapter 20."32 Paul frequently preached from Isaiah 18 announcing that the present war was a fulfillment of the prophet's oracle against Sudan. He insisted that repentance should include the destruction of all shrines to the jak and his dreams told him that a place of worship called "Zion" (18:7) was to be built in a cruciform shape in the heart of Bor territory which would be the place where the jak should be burned. Another possible source for the interpretation of Isaiah 18 as a judgement oracle against Sudan comes from an English version of the Bible popular in Sudan. The subtitle given to Isaiah 18 in the Good News Bible is "God will punish Sudan."33
Whether the chapter should in fact be considered a judgement oracle has been the subject of some discussion among western Old Testament scholars. John Watts, for example, believes that the "woe"34 of v. 1 is not directed to the Cushites, but to the people of Jerusalem who should cry in dismay that the Cushite army is approaching.35 According to Samuel Kayanga, some Sudanese read the text this way and see the message as a warning to the Muslims of the North that they should fear the liberation army of the South.
Some (some pastors for example) misunderstand Isaiah 18 by literally only taking the first part of the passage and seeing Sudanese as those who conquer. But the end of the passage says that it is only by raising hands in humility to God that one will be a true member of the people of God.36
Most Sudanese, however, read v. 6 of Isaiah 18 as an oracle of judgement against Sudan and, therefore, as a direct reflection of their own situation: "They shall all of them be left to the birds of prey of the mountains and to the beasts of the earth. And the birds of prey will summer on them, and all the beasts of the earth will winter on them." The corpses which have littered Southern Sudan have provided food for the vultures, the crows, the jackals, and the hyenas throughout this civil war. Isaiah 18 read as a warning of judgement and a call to repentance hits close to home. Marc Nikkel notes that "The prophecy against Rush in Isaiah 18 has frequently been interpreted in sermons as a prediction of post-independence civil war in Sudan."37 One of the most powerful uses of this text comes from a Jieng hymn, "Who Created Us?" composed in 1987 by Evangelist Stephen Col Daau:
We ask who have created us?
You have said you, O Creator who created us,
Who has created us?
Isn't it you who created us?
We call upon God of all peoples:
Who has created us?
You have said that the land of Sudan will be devoured by birds, flapping their wings.
Look upon us, O Creator who made us.
God of all peoples, we are yearning for our land,
That we may pray to you in freedom. Hear the prayer of our souls
In the wilderness
Hear the prayers of our bones in the wilderness.
Hear our prayer as we call out to you.
Hear the cry of our hearts in the wilderness.38
It is easy for Sudanese to see their own suffering in this and other texts.39
The Sudanese, however, are not left comfortless by Isaiah 18, since the chapter also contains the promise of salvation for Sudan.
Alison Dokolo says that Isaiah 18 is actually a comfort, because although it speaks of God's judgement,
it tells us that his judgement is not permanent. There will be freedom. Some [Sudanese] see war as a test to Christianity and that we should not give up on our faith.40
"At that time tribute will be brought to the LORD of hosts from a people tall and smooth, from a people feared near and far, a nation mighty and conquering, whose land the rivers divide, to Mount Zion, the place of the name of the LORD of hosts" (v.7). Most Sudanese consider this verse to be a prophecy of the current growth of the church in Sudan.
A further unique dimension to Paul Kon Ajith's reading of Isaiah 18 is his way of understanding "Zion." The pilgrimage to Zion motif found in a number of other places in the prophetic literature and the Psalms41 is here applied specifically to the people of Cush. For him Zion is not a place in a far-off country. Zion is to be built in Sudan, and for him, it is to be built specifically in the heart of Jieng territory, in the town of Bor. Paul Ron Ajith, of course, interpreted "Zion" in Sudanese terms-Zion must be built in the town of Bor. And indeed it was.
Only the cattle raids of 1991 seemed to confirm unequivocally something that had been gnawing at the system since the 1970s. Evangelists, most converted in Khartoum during the 1960s had returned home to challenge the jak and their cults. Bishop Nathaniel Garang has traversed the land on foot, like a threadbare prophet behind the battle lines, proclaiming the Gospel, denouncing the jak, baptizing and confirming...Doubts arose [about the jak] but responses were cautious...As the invasion drew near the diviners of the great powers-Bar and Lirpiou-frantically slaughtered dozens of bulls, invoking the powers to protect people and land. Yet the aggressors broke in upon the most sacred shrines, cutting the throats of the diviners amidst their sacrifices. The jak betrayed their masters...Stripped of their cattle, dying of shock, survivors began to believe the Christian Gospel they had heard might be genuine.
Many fervent young evangelists had called for the destruction of the shrines of jak; none more assertively than the prophet figure Paul Kon Ajith. Through dreams and visions this humble pastoralist had received two mandates: first, all sacred posts and symbols of the jak were to be uprooted and gathered in one place. secondly, an enormous cruciform church was to be constructed at the old cattle camp of Pakeo, a shrine for the meeting of all peoples, to be named after the biblical Zion...Paul received little hearing. Until the raids of 1991. Suddenly his visions assumed prophetic authority, and thousands joined forces to create Zion, probably the largest building of local construction ever erected in Sudan. Though Paul was savagely killed by government soldiers in Februrary,1992, and his body dismembered, the enterprise he began persevered. Zion was completed and the sacred objects were amassed until in February 1994, ECS leaders, foremost being Archdeacon John Kelei, called the population to assemble. Literally thousands of sacred objects-carved posts, stools, drums and spears-were burnt at Zion before an estimated crowd of some 30.000.42
The Sudanese, especially the Jieng, who read Isaiah 1843 see a warning about God's judgement, but they also find in this text a way out: turning to the God of the Bible and bringing gifts to that God and renouncing their traditional^^, the gods who had betrayed them and left them to suffer at the hands of their enemies.
In the midst of large gatherings of Sudanese Christians one will often find hand painted signs with messages of welcome to visitors and other messages. Among those messages there will often be a poster which reads simply, "Psalm 68:31." The verse, in part reads, "Let Ethiopia hasten to stretch out its hands to God" (NRSV) or as the Good News version states it, "the Sudanese will raise their hands in prayer to God."
The significance of the verse for Sudanese is the announcement that their own coming to faith is a fulfillment of this text. Just as Isaiah 18:7 declares that the mighty warriors of Gush (interpreted as the Sudanese) will bring tribute to Zion, so Psalm 68 looks forward to a time when those who had previously sought war against Israel (v.30), Egypt and Cush (again read: Sudan), will turn to God. Sudanese see their own Christian faith as the fulfillment of this prophetic text from the Psalms.
Like Psalm 68, Zephaniah 3 speaks of the eschatological pilgrimage of the nations to Jerusalem. Many Sudanese see a self-reference in some of the details of Zephaniah's prophecy.
9 For at that time I will change the speech of the people
to a pure speech,
that all of them may call upon the name of the LORD
and serve him with one accord.
10 From beyond the rivers of Cush
my worshipers, the daughter of my dispersed ones,
shall bring my offering. (ESV)
The mention of the "rivers of Cush" attract the attention of Sudanese readers, indicating to them that Sudan, the land of the two Niles, is the subject of this text. But the description of those who will come to "call on the name of the Lord" as "dispersed" is the detail which draws the most attention. On 14 November 2001, Joseph Marona, the archbishop of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan, preached at the Church of England General Synod. He chose Zephaniah 3 as his text and interpreted the prophecy as a reference to the current Sudanese refugee crisis:
One of the great sufferings we have experienced has been the dispersal of the Sudanese people. Over six million have been internally displaced and millions more have fled the country. Perhaps the Prophet Zephaniah was describing the dispersed Sudanese people in the verses we heard in our Old Testament reading. Our people are scattered throughout different parts of the world: in the United States, in Canada, in this country, in Australia, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Scandinavian countries, Kenya, Uganda, Central African Republic, and Ethiopia. In exile, they are acknowledging God's mercy in blessing them through the gift of His Holy Spirit. They learn to trust in the name of the Lord for forgiveness for their past sins. They are encouraged to no longer be ashamed when they discover God's grace as love for us in Jesus.
I have been travelling without rest to encourage the dispersed Sudanese people. My message to Christians in the Sudan, to those who are displaced and to refugees in the diaspora is threefold:
1 They should be repentant not combative;
2 They should unite, not divide;
3 They should love and not hate.
We urgently need the war in Sudan to come to an end. Our people cry out to be able to return to their own homes, to be able to cultivate the land, to rebuild their schools.44
Marona sees Zephaniah 3 primarily as a text of dispersion. A future return from exile is foreseen, but this fulfillment is not yet realized in the Sudanese reality. They are now refugees, scattered throughout the earth, waiting to rebuild.
The eighth chapter of the book of Acts recounts the story of the encounter of Philip with a man usually referred to in most English translations as the "Ethiopian" eunuch. According to 8:27 this pilgrim returning home from Jerusalem is "Aithiops...dunastes Kandakes basilisses Aithiopon." The Candace (or Kandake) was the mother of the king (The Queen-Mother) of the ancient empire of Meroe. The Meroitic Empire was in power in what is now northern Sudan from roughly 700 BCE to 300 CE. The culture of this kingdom was a combination of Egyptian and sub-Saharan African traditions. Inscriptions show that belief in Egyptian gods like Isis and Osiris had apparently traveled south along the Nile and mixed with indigenous lion and elephant gods. Pyramids and temples from this period are still visible today. This Cushite kingdom had two capitals during its history: Napata, close to the modern town of Karima and (later) Meroe, a town northeast of Khartoum. Roland Werner reports that the Queen-Mother of Meroe "is mentioned in a number of inscriptions and seems to have occupied a place of pre-eminence in the kingdom."45
The eunuch, perhaps a god-fearer,46 is evidently not an "Ethiopian" in the modern sense. Rather, the word Aithiops47 likely refers more generally to African peoples rather than to a particular group of African people or place on the continent. This particular Aithiops is from what we would now call Sudan. He was an official of the kingdom of Meroe, later to be called Nubia.
It has become common knowledge among Sudanese Christians that the eunuch was himself a compatriot. This realization may have become widespread (once again) through the popularity of the Good News Bible which, in one of its editions, calls the eunuch Sudanese.48 I have been told by several Sudanese that the Ethiopian government did not take kindly to the "Sudanization" of the translation and promptly banned the Good News Bible from Ethiopia.
The idea most frequently drawn from this passage by Sudanese readers is that Christianity came to Sudan early. This point can be made with a rather polemical edge in the midst of ChristianMuslim tensions. Many Christian Sudanese point out that the baptized Sudanese eunuch came home from Jerusalem as a Christian centuries before the prophet Muhammad was born and, therefore, centuries before Islam came to Sudan. Christianity, therefore, has more right to call itself an African religion than does Islam and has more of a claim on Sudan than Islam does. In fact, several Sudanese with whom I have spoken assume that the ancient Nubian Church which existed in Northern Sudan until the fifteenth century was actually founded by this Meroite official.49 Many Sudanese take comfort in the fact that they did not have to wait for western missionaries; the gospel already made inroads into Sudan in the New Testament period.
Some Sudanese Christians see a lesson for the National Islamic Front regime in this story. Samuel Kayanga reported to me that Acts 8 is a "very familiar passage" to most Sudanese Christians. "Some [preachers] see him as a rich government minister-since this Sudanese government minister was reading the Bible-so should the ministers of the present Sudanese government."50
Marc Nikkel sums up the primary significance of this set of texts for the southern Sudanese whose traditions and way of life have been annihilated and whose very existence was threatened in a war which reached genocidal proportions. "For many Sudanese Christians these passages are a source of affirmation in a context where ancestral religion has been denigrated together with their present Christian faith. Through invoking biblical accounts their identity is confirmed in the broadest historical, social and theological context."51 Engelbert Mveng, a Roman Catholic theologian from the Cameroon, described the African situation as "pauvreté anthropologique," anthropological poverty.52 African peoples, he argued, have been robbed of their identity. If this is in any way true of "Africa" as a whole, how much more is it true of the Sudan. As opposed to the government of the National Islamic Front which has repeatedly expressed its wish to either Islamize or exterminate the Southern Sudanese, these biblical texts, even texts which may be about judgement and exile, acknowledge that Sudanese exist, that they have a place in history, a place in God's book, a place in the world.
TEXTS OF GOD'S PRESENCE IN SUFFERING AND DELIVERANCE
A second set of texts and themes which are prominent in Sudanese biblical discourse are those which deal directly with the theme of suffering. Although a plethora of texts could be discussed here,53 Sudanese frequently return to three texts or themes and so we will limit ourselves to these.
In the small town of Mundri in the Equatorial region of Southern Sudan there is a small Anglican theological college, Bishop Gwynne College. The school has been abandoned since 1987 when the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army took control of the compound kidnapping four expatriate members of the college staff and holding them as hostages in a vain attempt to gain the attention of the world to the plight of Southern Sudan.54 The chapel of that college, which is still intact,55 is octagonal in shape. On three-quarters of the wall space is a mural. The subject of the painting is a biblical scene which is widely considered to be the one of the most frequently mentioned Bible stories in Sudan: Daniel 3, the story of the three men in the fiery furnace. In conversation with Sudanese, Daniel 3 was often referred to as a key text. According to Samuel Kayanga, there are several Sudanese songs about this story. "Many people in Sudan live their life in a fire situation. It is only by looking back that they can see the hand of God delivering them."56 In fact stories of miraculous deliverance are fairly common in Sudanese conversation. Bishop Nathaniel Garang, for example, as a way of explaining the story of the three in the furnace, tells a story of bullets tearing up the ground on both his right side and his left side, but leaving him unharmed. The same miraculous deliverance that the Hebrews experienced is also believed to be experienced in Sudan.57 Similarly Joseph Acuil of Wau Diocese reported to me that in Sudan, "Someone is bitten by a snake, people pray, Jesus heals them. Many songs are composed about that story. They were put in fire, but because they trust in God, God was able to deliver them."58
Some Sudanese point out that God does not always deliver. For them, an important part of the story in Daniel is when Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are asked if God is able to deliver them. Their answer: "God is able...but if not" (Daniel 3: 17-18) has particular significance for Sudanese. They have seen God deliver, but they have also seen suffering and death and know that deliverance does not always come. But they believe that God is with them in the fire nonetheless.
As with so many other non-Western interpreters, the story of the Exodus of Israel from slavery in Egypt has great significance in Sudan. In particular the story of the wilderness wanderings is most important.
Samuel Kayanga says, "Egypt is so close to us. We are suffering under another Pharaoh that God has raised to oppress us. Some see the Khartoum government as a terror and see themselves as Israel trying to get out of the hands of the enemy."59 James Baak of Wau Diocese agrees, "In the Exodus story people identify with Israel."60
In 1996 I traveled to the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya, close to the Sudan border. Kakuma is home to as many as 70,000 refugees, most of them Southern Sudanese. During my time there I met a young man who was one of the so-called lost boys, unaccompanied minors that had made their way to the camp. This young man, whose name I have forgotten, was an artist of some ability. He had found some paper and had drawn a series of pictures depicting the journey that he and thousands of others had made from their burned out homes in the war zone where their fathers had been killed, cattle raided or slaughtered and their sisters and mothers taken as slaves. They journeyed through Sudan to a camp in Ethiopia. When the Ethiopian government changed hands, they were forced back to Sudan and finally made their way on foot to Kenya. This journey took years and thousands of these boys were killed by Sudanese and Ethiopian troops, hunted by lions and crocodiles, or died of starvation or exposure on the road. All through our conversation about his drawings he compared their journey to wanderings of the people of Israel in the wilderness. Somehow, these boys found hope in the story of the Israelites journey to a land promised to them by God and somehow trusted that they too would be delivered. The words of Marc Nikkel about the Jieng ring true for most Southern Sudanese:
[T]hey have not, to date, evolved a coherent form of liberation theology comparable to that in LaUn America and South Africa. [But] Increasingly the songs and sermons of ECS Christians draw upon Old Testament imagery of liberation. As God led his "Chosen People" in battle and liberated them from slavery, returning them to their homeland, so he will do for the Dinka.61
By far the most pervasive biblical symbol in Southern Sudan is the cross.62 We have already seen that Paul Ron's vision of "Zion" took the form of a cruciform church. Crosses are carried in worship, not, as in the Western churches, by a lone crucifer, but by each member of the congregation who carry their six to seven foot long crosses into worship where they are used to mark the pulsating rhythms of Sudanese singing, much in the same way as spears functioned in traditional singing. Crosses are found on the tops of most Jieng huts in Sudan now, replacing the traditional forked stick which had marked the presence of the jok, the family ancestor, in the family compound. The story of the cross of Jesus is often seen to be the only story which can make sense of the suffering of the people of Sudan. Rather than the fickle and unpredictable ancestors who appear to have forgotten Sudan, the cross speaks of a God who suffers with the people. There are connections to be seen here between the traditional religions of Southern Sudan with their sacrificial rituals and biblical concepts of sacrifice.63
ISSUES FOR FURTHER RESEARCH
Having surveyed some of biblical texts which Sudanese themselves appear to consider important in their context, several issues seem to require more research.
The first is orality. Because of the lack of a modern educational infrastructure, much of Southern Sudan is non-literate. For this reason, biblical "literacy" is usually achieved by the oral transmission of biblical stories. The process by which this transmission is said to take place is through the composition of songs inspired by sermons based on biblical texts.
A second issue concerns translation. The lack of western missionary involvement (interference?) in the recent growth of the Christian churches in Sudan can in part be attributed to the availability of the Bible or at least parts of the Bible, in indigenous languages. Literate indigenous leaders, equipped with the Bible in their own language have found themselves spiritually empowered to spread the Christian message. When the missionaries were expelled from Uduk territory in southeastern Sudan in 1964 there were only five hundred Uduk Christians. But the missionaries' removal coincided with the arrival of a shipment of newly printed New Testaments.64 Freed from missionary control the message of the Bible took root in Uduk culture. Today 80 percent of the Uduk people consider themselves Christians.
A third issue which requires further reflection is the practical, almost utilitarian approach to biblical stories and texts. During an interview with Archdeacon John Kelei of Bor Diocese in Kabare, Kenya, in June 2002,1 was struck by his comment that Psalm 91 was "very useful." Psalm 91 reads, in part,
Did the archdeacon mean merely that this Psalm is "comforting" or "encouraging"-or did he mean that it has "power", that it is "effective." At another point in the conversation he said, "The people know that Jesus is real because they see Jesus in action in the church." A line from a Jieng hymn expresses this well, "The Bible is the gun for jok: we will shoot it."65 The Bible is as effective against troubling ancestral spirits as is a gun against enemies.
The Bible has become a tool of resistance against oppression in the Southern Sudan. In the midst of a devastating war that has killed over two million Southern Sudanese the Bible is a sign which says that we may be destroyed, "but God is not defeated."66
1 This essay was first written for a Festschrift for Professor John S. Mbiti, soon to be published by Cluster Publications in South Africa. It is printed here with the permission of the editor of that volume, Professor Justin Ukpong of Nigeria.
2 "'Cattle Are Born With Ears, Their Horns Grow Later': Towards an Appreciation of African Oral Theology" Africa Theological Review 8/1 (1979): 24-25.
5 Randolph Martin, "Sudan's Perfect War," Foreign Affairs 81/2 (2002): 111.
4 These raids on villages, mostly against the Jieng (commonly called "Dinka") people, have produced a particular kind of refugee. Since the men are generally killed and the women and girls desired as slaves, many boys from these raided villages were able to escape into the bush. Thousands of these boys made their way to refugee camps in Ethiopia. After the defeat of the Marxist regime in that country they were forced back to Sudan (across a crocodile infested river where many drowned or were eaten). As many as 20,000 survived the walk across Sudan into Kenya to the refugee camp in Kakuma. Over the last few years approximately 4,000 of these so-called "lost boys" (many now young men) have been given refugee status in the United States.
5 see Martin, 119-20; for a vivid description of the situation along the route of the pipeline see Paul Salopek, "Shattered Sudan: Drilling for oil, Hoping for Peace" National Geographic 203/2 (2003): 30-59.
6 Suffering and God: A Theological Reflection on the War in Sudan (Faith in Sudan, 13; Nairobi 2002), 60. Some groups, especially in Equatoria, responded more favourably to early missionary work than the semi-nomadic groups like the Jieng and the Nuer. On the Moru people, for example, see the Eileen Fraser, The Doctor comes to Lui: A story of beginnings in the Sudan (Cape Town, 2000 ); Roger Sharland, "Kenneth Grant Fraser: Mission, Evangelism and Development among the Moru" pp. 146-60 in F. Pierli, M.T. Ratti and A.C. Wheeler, eds., Gateway to the Heart of Africa: Missionary Pioneers in Sudan (Faith in Sudan, 6; Nairobi 1998); Samuel Kayanga and Andrew Wheeler, eds, "But God a not Defeated.'": Celebrating the Centenary of The Episcopal Church of the Sudan 1899-1999 (Nairobi, 1999).
7 see Abe Enosa, "The Expulsion of the Missionaries from Southern Sudan1964," 94-96 in Kayanga and Wheeler.
8 There is a large literature on the East Africa Revival. see especially, J.E. Church, Quest for the Highest (Exeter, 1981); Kevin Ward, "Tukutendereza Jesu: The Balokole Revival in Uganda," 113-44 in Zablon Nthamburi, ed., From Mission to Church: A Handbook of Christianity in East Africa (Nairobi, 1995).
9 For an account of some missionaries who stayed until their kidnapping by the SPLA see, Marc R. Nikkel, "'Hostages of the Situation in Sudan,' 1987: Christian Missionaries in Wartime" in Anglican and Episcopal History 71/2 (2002): 187-222; and see now Marc Nikkel; Grant LeMarquand, éd., Why Haven't You Left: Letters from the Sudan (New York, 2006).
10 Marc R. Nikkel, "A Sudan Facts Sheet" (unpublished leaflet; June, 1996).
11 Dau, Suffering and God, 58-59. The similarity between the story in Bor and the persecution and subsequent growth of the early Christian community after the stoning of Stephen in Acts 8 does not escape Dau's attention.
12 "African Traditional Religion" is the term now accepted by most Africanists to describe the wide variety African religions. The old term "animist" is often still seen in statistics and popular articles, but is rejected as an inaccurate designation.
13 This kind of percentage is still found in the otherwise helpful article by Salopek, "Shattered Sudan" in National Geographic (38).
14 2000 Yean of Christianity in Africa: An African History 62-1992 (Nairobi 1994), see 524-27.
15 "Church Growth in Southern Sudan 1983-1996" p. 14 in Andrew Wheeler, ed., Land of Promise: Church Growth in a Sudan at War (Faith in Sudan, 1; Nairobi 1997).
16 see footnote 6 above.
17 see Grant LeMarquand, "A Tribute to Marc Nikkel, Missionary to the Sudan (1950-2000)" Anglican and Episcopal History 71/2 (2002): 241-46.
18 Dinka Christianity: The Origins and Development of Christianity among the Dinlia of Sudan, with Special Reference to the Songs ofDinka Christian, (Faith in Sudan, 11 ; Nairobi 2001).
19 In Our Own Languages: The Story of Bible Translation in Sudan (Faith in Sudan, 3; Nairobi 1997).
20 Wendy James, The Listening Ebony: Moral Knowledge, Religion, and Power among the Uduk of Sudan (Oxford 1988), especially 226-41.
21 Information from these interviews is certainly not statistically significant, but rather anecdotal. I am grateful for a Travel Grant from the Seminaries Consultation on Mission which enabled me to do this research.
22 On this whole topic see David Tuesday Adamo, Africa and Africans in the Old Testament (San Francisco 1998) and the relevant articles in Knut Holter, Yahweh m Africa: Essays on Africa and the Old Testament (New York 2000) and in Mary Getui, Knut Holter & Victor Zinkuratire, eds., Interpreting the Old Testament in Africa: Papers from the International Symposium on Africa and the Old Testament in Nairobi, October 1999 (New York 2001). For a more complete list see section 3 ("Africa and Africans in the Bible") of Grant LeMarquand, "A Bibliography of the Bible in Africa", 633-800 [662-67] in Gerald O. West and Musa Dube, eds., The Bible in Africa: Transactions, Trajectories and Trends (Leiden 2000).
23 Unless the Song of Songs, traditionally ascribed to Solomon and involving a woman who is "black and beautiful" (1:5), is a description of this sexual encounter.
24 See E.A. Wallis Budge, ed. & trans. The Queen of Sheba and Her Only Son Menyelek oka The Kebra Nagast (Oxford 1932); cf. Edward Ullendorf, Ethiopia and the Bible: The Schweich Lectures of the British Academy 1967 (Oxford 1968).
25 At least one Sudanese song alludes to Simon as a representative disciple: "We call and cry before so that you would hear/ embrace us intimately (lit.: 'cuddle us') for we are your children/ Let us carry the cross and follow you/ Let us be like Simon, the man of Gyrene,/ who followed you to the place of the skull." The song was written by John Chol Ater and is quoted in Dau, Suffering and God, 225.
26 Dau, Suffering and God, 62.
27 English Standard Version.
28 The song, "The Pipeline" was written by a young woman at Wangelai Church. see Nikkel, Dinka Christianity, 335.
29 Adamo seems to be of this opinion.
30 John Malou Ater in his unpublished Masters thesis asked if the writer might not have been talking about the Dinka in particular (The Dinka Priesthood, Near Eastern School of Theology, Beirut, 1976). This work was unavailable to me but is cited in Nikkel, Dinka Christianity, 45. Malou, one time ECS Bishop of Rumbek, was killed in 1986 when the helicopter in which he was traveling was shot down.
31 Dau, Suffering and God, 62.
32 Marc R. Nikkel, "'Children of or Fathers' Divinities' or "Children of Red Foreigners?': Themes in Missionary History and the Rise of an Indigenous Church among the Jieng Bor of Southern Sudan" pp. 61-85 in Wheeler, Land of Promise, 71.
33 This is noted by Dau, Suffering and God, who argues that the tide is "misleading", 62.
34 The English Standard Version cited above has "Ah".
35 John Watts, Isaiah 1-33 (Dallas 1985), 245. On Nubians as warriors see, Daniel Hays, "Black Soldiers in the Ancient Near East: Ebedmelech Reconsidered," Abstracts: American Academy of Religion I Society of Biblical Literature 1996 (Atlanta 1996): 317; Daniel Hays, "The Cushites: A Black Nation in Ancient History," Bibliotheca Sacra 153/ 611 (1996): 270-80; Daniel Hays, "The Cushites: A Black Nation in the Bible," Bibliotheca Sacra 153/612: 396-409; Daniel Hays, "From the Land of the Bow: Black Soldiers in the Ancient Near East," Bible Review 14/4 (1998): 28-33, 50-51.
56 Interview in Kenya, June 2002. Kayanga, an ECS priest, was involved in producing the final draft of the Moru OT and is presently on the staff of the Summer Institute of Linguistics in Nairobi. Notice that he has interpreted Isaiah 18 in the light of Psalm 68:31.
37 Nikkel, Dinka Christianity, 44-45.
38 Found in Nikkel, Dmka Christianity, 323.
39 In 1996, Marc Nikkel mentioned to me a conversation which he had had with one of the 'lost boys' in Kakuma refugee camp. As they were talking about the Bible Marc asked him his favourite passage. He answered "the book of Lamentations." How many teenagers in the western world are comforted by the words of destruction and devastation contained in that text?
40 Interview in Kenya, June 2002. Dokolo is a former tutor at Bishop Gwynne College, Mundri, Sudan. He is now involved in theological training for the ECS dioceses of Mundri and Lui.
41 See, for example, Isaiah 2:2-4; Isaiah 11:10; Isaiah 60-62; Micah 4:1-5; Zephaniah 3: 14-17; Ps 36:8-9; Ps 50:2.
42 Marc Nikkel, "'Look Back Upon Us': The dynamism of Faith among the Jieng" 148-58 in Kayanga and Wheeler, "But God is Not Defeated", 152-53. A sketch of the enormous cruciform shaped 'Zion' church is found on page 150. I met Archdeacon John Kelei in Kenya in June 2002, and he both confirmed the details of this story and noted that although Zion, which is a huge thatched hut, has several times been damaged by government forces, the local people simply rebuild and continue to use the structure for worship.
43 It should be noted that even those Jieng who can read would not be able to read Isaiah 18 in their own language. Although missionary work began among the Jieng almost 150 years ago, there is still no translation of the Old Testament in any Jieng dialect. (see the comments of Marc R. Nikkel in "The Cross as a Symbol of Regeneration in Jieng Bor Society" 86-114 in Wheeler, Land of Promise, 105, note 12.) A translation project is underway. In the year 2000 six Old Testament books (Ruth, Hosea, Amos, Jonah, Micah and Malachi) were published in 'Dinka Cam', "a multi-dialect version including Dinka Bor and Dinka Agaar." see "Dinka plead for Old Testament" in Bible Translation Update [a pamphlet produced by Wycliffe Bible Translators] 15/3 (2001).
45 Werner is responsible for the writing of Part 1 of the Sudanese church history entitled Day of Devastation, Day of Contentment: The History of the Sudanese Church across 2000 Years (Faith in Sudan, 10; Nairobi 2000). Werner's section of the book is endued "'The Cross Has Won. It Always Wins!' The Early Nubian Church and Its Faith." The other authors, William Anderson and Andrew Wheeler were responsible for the section of the history from the nineteenth century until the present. I am dependent on Werner for most of the information on Meroe here.
46 Ernest Haenchen doubts that the eunuch was a gentile god- fearer because this would apparently not fit into what he takes to be Luke's account of the progress of the gospel from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria, and then to the gentiles. He believes Luke was "free to believe" that Deuteronomy 23:1 (which bars eunuchs from the assembly of Israel) would have been superceded by Isaiah 56:3-5 which appears to look forward to a time when eunuchs will be allowed access to the covenant and the temple. Haenchen may have allowed Acts 1:8 to take pre-eminence over the movement of the Spirit in the book of Acts. Is it possible that Luke presents us with a picture of the progress of the gospel which is not as neat as Haenchen imagines?
47 Literally "Burnt-face", Cf. Frank M. Snowden, Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience. (Cambridge 1970).
48 The 1976 edition of the Good News Bible (Today's English Version) has "Ethiopian" as does the 1992 edition. At the time of writing I have not yet located the edition which reads "Sudanese."
49 On the intriguing story of the founding of Nubian Christianity (which took place in 543 CE with the arrival of the non-Chalcedonian missionary Julian under the patronage of Empress Theodora, followed closely by missionaries sponsored by Theodora's Chalcedonian husband Justinian) see Bengt Sundkler & Christopher Steed, A History of the Church in Africa (Cambridge, U.K. 2000), 30-34.
50 Interview in Kenya, June 2002.
51 Nikkel, Dinka Christianity, 45.
52 Mveng, LAfrioue dans l'Eglise: Parole d'un Croyant (Paris 1985), 120. The phrase refers to the loss of selfhood experienced by African peoples due to the loss of a cultural framework during the colonial period. Born in 1930, Mveng was educated in Belgium and France and was Professor at l'Université de Yaoudé from 1965 until his death. He was murdered, apparently by agents of the government of Cameroon, in 1995. see "Mveng, Engelbert, 1930-1995," Ministerial Formation 70 (1995): 43; Alfred Vanneste, "Mveng, Engelbert, 1930-1995," Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 71/4 (1995): 520-21; Marlene Perera, "Engelbert Mveng Africanus," Voices from the Third World 19 (1996): 228-41.
53 Sudanese have often mentioned the following verses to me: Psalm 23:4; Habakkuk 3:17-18; 2 Chronicles 7:14; Romans 8: 31-39. Recently a Sudanese student of mine, Michael Baba Yemba, wrote an interesting paper for me on the subject of 'groaning' in Romans 8.
54 For an account see Mark R. Nikkel. "'Hostages of the Situation in Sudan,' 1987: Christian Missionaries in Wartime" Anglican and Episcopal History 71/2 (2002): 187-222.
55 According to Canon Baringwa of the ECS Dioceses of Lui and Mundri, in Nairobi, June 2002.
56 Interview in Nairobi, June, 2002.
57 Interview in Nairobi, May 2002.
58 Interview in Kabare, Kenya, June 2002.
59 Interview in Nairobi, June 2002.
60 Interview in Kabare, Kenya, June 2002.
61 Dinka Christianity, 259-60.
62see now Grant LeMarquand, "Appropriations of the Cross among the Jieng People of Southern Sudan "Journal of lnculturation Theology 5/2 (2003): 176-98.
63 See E.E. Evans-Pritchard's classical study Nuer Religion (Oxford 1956). EvansPritchard comments in the Preface to that work that if "I sometimes draw comparisons between Nuer and Hebrew conceptions, it is no mere whim but is because I myself find it helpful...in trying to understand Nuer ideas to note this likeness with which we are ourselves familiar." (vii).
64 see Andrew Wheeler in Day of Devastation, Day of Contentment, 416-17.
65 A line from "The Pipeline"; see Marc Nikkel Dinka Christianity, 336.
66 This slogan is attributed to Canon Ezra Baya Lawiri, translator of the Bible in Moro, who was killed in a crossfire between government troops and rebels at Rokon in 1990. see Samuel Kayanga & Andrew Wheeler, eds. "But God is Not Defeated", 5. A picture of Canon Ezra is found on 108.
Grant Le Marquand is associate professor of Biblical Studies and Mission, Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge, Pennsylvania and international editor of Anglican and Episcopal History.…
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Publication information: Article title: Bibles, Crosses, Songs, Guns and Oil: Sudanese "Readings" of the Bible in the Midst of Civil War. Contributors: LeMarquand, Grant - Author. Journal title: Anglican and Episcopal History. Volume: 75. Issue: 4 Publication date: December 2006. Page number: 553+. © Historical Society of the Episcopal Church Mar 2009. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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