Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Almost at Home in South Sudan: International Christian Humanitarians and the Theopolitics of Recognition

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Almost at Home in South Sudan: International Christian Humanitarians and the Theopolitics of Recognition

Article excerpt


We examine the experience of international humanitarian aid workers who identify as Christian and work in South Sudan. From interviews with thirty people, we derive a relationship between Christianity as our participants understand it, and modalities of encountering "the other"--people who are very different from the self, who are strange and unfamiliar, yet who must be met as part of an ethical life. In the unfamiliar terrain of South Sudan, working and living with people who are very different, we argue that our participants enact a theopolitics of recognition, in which their affective connections to the other are triangulated through God, specifically through recognizing strange and unfamiliar others as fellow children of God. (1) Our participants' relations to the Sudanese people they encounter in their work are mediated by the assumption of a shared relationship to God. This recognition is different from other ways of encountering the other that have been documented in literature ranging from feminist theory to international development.

Literature is often critical of humanitarian enterprises, seeing them as a form of neocolonialism or an extension of market-based neoliberalism (e.g. Chouliaraki 2010; Mostafanezhad 2013; l'Anson 2013; Bex and Craps 2016; see also Ticktin 2014 for a broad overview of scholarship on transnational humanitarianism). Critically minded scholars frequently unmask global discourses and institutions to reveal manifestations of racism, cultural superiority and "white savior syndrome" which drive people from the global north to intervene, often badly, in the global south. For example, invoking the language of 'compassion economies' Pedwell identifies an "international aid apparatus where empathic self-transformation can become commodified in ways that fix unequal subjects and objects of empathy" (2012, 165). Similarly, Halvorson (2012, 126), in an article about Lutheran humanitarian aid and the production of bandages, treats Lutheran theologies as

striving to establish an egalitarian "walk" between Lutherans in 
different world regions--in contrast to broad inequalities of religious 
and institutional authority seen to characterize Lutheran foreign 
missions--the notion of "accompaniment" ideologically masks the 
economic and political dimensions of newer American Lutheran 
initiatives such as faith-based humanitarianism as well as their 
continuities with previous foreign mission work.

Such studies explore what Ticktin, in her review of the field, calls

the complexities and aporias of humanitarian principles in practice, 
teasing out the often contradictory and unstable meanings of key 
concepts and practices such as neutrality, crisis, engagement, and 
witnessing (2014, 279).

We believe that this critical enterprise does not exhaust all that can be said about emergency relief and development, whether faith-based or not. Our participants keenly partake in the enterprise of "helping" or "uplifting" the global south, and "white savior syndrome" has an almost literal meaning when applied to people who come bearing food aid in hunger prone regions of South Sudan. These aid workers, however, are far from the stereotype of the well-meaning but blundering northerner who assumes cultural superiority over the people of the south through a series of colonial encounters. Recognizing this diversity of experience with north-south encounters, we draw attention to the complex subjectivities and worldviews that are activated in humanitarian enterprises.

One of the few scholars to approach evangelical humanitarianism in South Sudan is Jonathan Agensky, whose 2013 article calls for scholars to attend to the "granularities" of evangelical endeavours in the global south, rather than returning repeatedly to narratives of cultural imperialism and repurposed missionary impulses. Agensky provides a strong argument that Christian humanitarian work in South Sudan is situated within complex historical and political entanglements that are not reducible to ideological discourses of global neo-liberalism or the superiority of the global north. …

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