From talking about mass graves to silence about mass graves

Not many weeks ago, my various social media feeds were full of consternation and outrage about comments from the archbishop of Canterbury about mass graves and their putative connection to same-sex marriage. Truly, the ventilation of outrage was astonishing—and perhaps the debate about our interconnectedness was useful.

At the time, I had a glimmer of hope that the archbishop had managed to draw attention (however ineptly) to the serious suffering and mass murder that takes place in some parts of the world. Surely, I thought, if the Anglican world can muster this much outrage about mass graves, something must be changing.

My hopes were misplaced.

In the last ten days, the situation in South Sudan, never very good since mid-December, has turned decidedly worse—much, much worse. There are reports of mass graves in Bentiu (the survivors tell a grim story here)and the spread of violence in other places as well. Not only are there reports, there are pictures as well. I’m not going to post them here because I know some young people who read this blog but you can click through to some of them yourself here, herehere, and (extremely graphically) here. Do click through to these and meditate on what crucifixion looks like in the twenty-first century.

And what has been the response from Anglicans around the world who not three weeks ago was so deeply exercised about mass graves?

Silence.

Here is who is speaking: Christians in South Sudan. In these last weeks, they have been doing all manner of things to speak the truth about what is happening. The archbishop and several other church leaders have launched a very brave reconciliation process. The bishop of Bentiu wrote a lengthy report and appeal for assistance.

The situation in South Sudan can seem difficult and intractable. The rights and wrongs are certainly not as cut and dry as they are about other issues and it’s much harder to figure out at whom to direct our outrage.

But none of this should make us afraid to try. It shouldn’t make us afraid to listen patiently to our sisters and brothers. Christians are people who look at the world—in all its pain and suffering—and tell the truth about what we see. That is what Christians in South Sudan are doing. But their voices would be louder if they were joined by their sisters and brothers from around the world.

It is, of course, the privilege of those of us in the north Atlantic world to casually disregard what happens elsewhere in the world. We did it twenty years ago in Rwanda. But somehow—particularly after the outrage about mass graves just a few weeks ago—I had thought that Anglicans could be different, that Anglicans could muster just a little emotion and passion about what is right now going on.

Perhaps you will tell me that I am comparing apples and oranges, that there’s a difference between talking about mass graves in the abstract and having them in real life. But the contrast between the discourse then and the events now strikes me as so stark and leaves me with these questions:

Is there any way we can turn our outrage not on one another but on this instance of profound suffering and sorrow?

Is there any way we can credibly speak to the world, rather than simply speak (shout) at one another?

Instead—silence.

And that silence indicts us.

UPDATE: This post generated more than the usual amount of attention on Facebook and elsewhere. So I wrote a follow-up post to expand on this one. Continue reading it here.

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8 thoughts on “From talking about mass graves to silence about mass graves

  1. Sue Claydon

    Thank you, Jesse. I was in South Sudan when the fighting started in December. Following evacuation, I have not been able to return, but get regular updates. Why is the world turning its back? Recently, the Director of the British Red Cross asked this question. Fortunately, not all of South Sudan is in the midst of fighting, but all are trying to work for an end to the vengeance actions which have led to so many deaths and suffering. Have you seen the statement on the 9 April from all the Churches?

  2. elainet60

    My sentiments exactly, Jesse. We were so exercised about LGBT rights that we missed the tragedy in progress. Sobering contemplation for my pre-ordination retreat.

  3. Frankly, if anyone is responsible for what I’d call a “displacement effect” — shifting the focus of concern to the wrong area — it is the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is not that we in the West are unconcerned about violence in the Sudan or Nigeria (i.e., Boko Haram) but because the “blame” fell in the wrong place. Central to addressing any issue is some accurate assessment of causes and effects, and Welby got things off in the wrong direction by making an inept linkage. I have Nigerian and other West African members in my parish, and they are concerned about what is happening in their homelands. As am I. But I am also aware that condemnation from the West often exacerbates or adds fuel to the fire. It is rightly seen as neocolonialism, the White Man’s Burden to “fix” the problems of Africa.

  4. In February 2001 I met in Kampala with most bishops of the Sudan, as a member of a TEC’s Standing Commission on Anglican and International Peace and Justice Concern. When I was a member of Executive Council, I repeatedly brought to the Council the concerns of the Sudanese Christians. But the Sudanese do not want my voice, and repeatedly they have excoriated Queers like me. When they have visited the USA, they have spent much time condemning TEC for is support of queers, often shuddering those who want to be their advocates. Instead, the Sudanese Christians have made their major alliance with those who have left TEC.

    What they are undergoing is beyond horrible, especially as those in the liberated south now kill each other. I grieve. I wish I had a solution, but the only one that I know to work, they have rejected. Love one another.

    Louie Clay (né Louie Crew), Queer for Christ’s Sake
    Founder of Integrity, an organization of lgbtq Anglicans

    1. Jesse Zink

      Louie: thanks for the note. You also sent me these comments in a personal message but I thought I would post some of my response so others can see.

      I would want to challenge such sweeping statements as “the Sudanese do not want my voice” for a number of reasons. First, it is my experience that when you move past the level of bishops, you find a greater variety of voices than you might expect. This has been true for me in South Sudan, but also Nigeria, Uganda, and elsewhere. Apologies for the self-promotion but I write much more about this in my book, “Backpacking through the Anglican Communion.” The other reason I would want to challenge it is that it does not reflect the reality of the last several years. For instance, the Bishop of Indianapolis, for instance, has been working closely with the Bishop of Bor. Likewise the Bishop of Chicago and the Bishop of Renk. The American Friends of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan is a strong and vital organization. They had several Sudanese bishops address their conference last year.

      I am afraid I do not have any easy solutions for the problems of South Sudan. If I did, it would have been a different post. I can tell you all the obvious things: continue to pray, give money (I understand that ERD’s Sudan appeal is notably undersubscribed), advocate (what would it be like if EPPN organized a letter-writing campaign on behalf of South Sudan?). But ultimately none of these things satisfy me and my desire to “do” something to respond to this disaster.

      Ultimately, what I have come down to is this: we are all baptized Christians. That joins us in one body. When one part of the body suffers, all suffer. So I want to do what I can from my distance to walk beside my sisters and brothers as they suffer, be attentive to what is happening, and do my best to listen to their voices. That might look different for a lot of different people. But it is what I am left with at this moment of pain and horror, the hope that as all suffers when one suffers, we may all rejoice when South Sudanese reach a point of rejoicing.

      I take up some of these issues further in a follow-up post.

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