Sharing suffering and moving towards rejoicing—or, mass graves, cont.

For the last several months, many people who care deeply about South Sudan have watched as the country has descended into chaos. I am among those people. In the last several years, I have made several lengthy trips to South Sudan and am now writing a doctoral dissertation about the role of the church there during the civil war in the 1980s and 1990s.

Here is what it is like to watch the metastasising disaster in South Sudan. My social media feeds now feature news of a friend’s wedding, the birth of a baby—and photos of a mass grave in South Sudan. I receive e-mails from friends in South Sudan asking for help, asking me to help tell their story. (I’ve done some of that in posts like this one, but not nearly enough.) I read news stories and see photos of communities I was in just a few months that are now flattened. I’ve spoken with non-Sudanese friends who also care deeply (and in many cases for much longer than me) about South Sudan and know that they have similar experiences of being connected to the situation but only being able to watch from afar. There are weekly calls and lots of information-sharing to help coordinate a response and be of assistance to our sisters and brothers in Christ. There are fundraising appeals. There are prayer vigils. I do my best to stay in touch with what is going on.

And yet it hardly seems like enough. None of it answers my deep-seated desire to be able to snap my fingers and figure out what to do that can stop all the pain and the horror. I am a person who is strongly oriented around doing.

A few weeks ago, something new entered my social media thread: outrage about comments the archbishop of Canterbury had made about mass graves. I saw those posts and comments alongside pictures of actual mass graves. My desire to do something only intensified but this time it had a new ally, hope: if other people are talking about this, then maybe something can get done!

The hope was misplaced, of course, because there is nothing of the snap-the-fingers type of action that can be done to reverse what has unfolded in South Sudan.

But the contrast between all the Anglican chatter about mass graves and the reality on the ground stayed with me. As we have continued to learn more about recent events in Bentiu—and the horror of the pictures there imprinted itself on my mind—my hope turned to frustration. And that frustration led to a recent post, which articulated this frustration and pointed out this contrast. I don’t think my frustration was very well disguised in how I wrote the post.

That post generated a lot more attention than posts on this tiny little blog usually do. Lots of people asked me what they could do to help. Others told me I didn’t understand how communications worked or that I needed to be in touch with people who know about South Sudan. Still others pointed me to people who are talking about South Sudan. Perhaps all those things are true. Still, I am grateful for all of the comments and especially the genuineness and sincerity which underlay so many of them.

But at the end of the day, I still don’t have an answer. I can tell you to pray. I can tell you to donate money (to ERD, to Christian Aid, to a diocese with a companion relationship in South Sudan, to a diocese directly in South Sudan). I can tell you to advocate to encourage politicians in your country to pay attention to South Sudan. But none of that seems enough. It certainly doesn’t resolve the frustration I continue to feel.

Ultimately, what I have come down to is this: as baptized Christians, we (you, me, South Sudanese, whomever) are all joined 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. I know I can’t walk alongside all the pain in the world. But I can do this in South Sudan while I pray that others do the same in northern Nigeria, Syria, the Central African Republic, wherever, and that I may learn from them.

What I am left with at this moment of pain and horror is the hope that as all suffers when one suffers, so may we all rejoice when South Sudanese reach that point of rejoicing.


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