Dinka Christianity: an exilic faith

It was not planned this way but the Christian Century this week publishes an article of mine about Christianity among the Dinka people of South Sudan, from the stuttering and failed efforts of Anglican missionaries in the first half of the twentieth century through two civil wars (and more recent violence) and into the vibrant faith it is today:

The Dinka church is a church of exile. When the civil war began there were only five Dinka congregations stretched along 150 miles of the Nile’s east bank. They were all that remained of the British Anglican missionary presence among the Dinka in the early and mid-1900s. Today that same 150-mile stretch is home to more than 300 Anglican congregations (and a handful of others in other denominations), not to mention innumerable preaching centers in cattle camps along the Nile. There are two dioceses in the area and plans to create more. Virtually every one of the villages on the roads leading out of Bor has a church—often a mud-and-thatch building.

The Christianity of today’s Dinka emerged out of the sorrow and deprivation of refugee life, a time of despair that led many refugees to turn to the church for support, nurture and growth. It’s no accident that the wooden church pews came back with the refugees. Today the cathedral in Bor is a center of South Sudanese life. On Sunday mornings the building pulses and shakes with the energy of up to 1,500 worshipers. The same is true in the churches scattered throughout the region.

Many of the people in Bor are now displaced, of course, by the violence of the last few weeks. I find myself wondering what role this faith plays in their displacement.

The article tells, in part, the story of Mary Alueel Garang Nongdit, who as a young, uneducated convert to Christianity began composing hymns of great theological depth and profundity.

The Dinka hymnal is a rich repository of theological reflection on many subjects, including the relationship between war and faith. Over a third of the hymns were composed by women, a remarkable achievement in a culture that traditionally has not valued women’s musical contributions. One of them, Mary Alueel Nongdit, began composing hymns shortly after her baptism in 1984. Her hymns are among the longest, most complex and most popular. They have a richness of expression and theological complexity that is unique.

In one hymn Alueel Nongdit writes that “the death that has come is revealing the faith”—an appropriate sentiment for a people who converted to Christianity during a war. She says that the hymn encourages the people to look to God. “When you are crying, instead of crying just divert that crying to prayers. Turn back to God and cry to him. He will see you. He will rescue you. You are not alone.”

Alueel Nongdit also wrote about the love of God and the ways that love can be expressed. In the book of Hosea, she says, God’s love is shown in ways that might not at first seem loving. The Dinka had a similar experience: it was only in the destruction of war that God’s love was revealed to her people. The Dinka were “a stiff-necked people,” she says, but “God cannot get tired. If there is somebody whom he likes, even if the darkness buries you, if God loves you, he can dig you out!”

Although I met Mary Nongdit after I had finished drafting my new book, Backpacking through the Anglican Communion, this article gives you a taste of the kind of stories that are at the heart of that book. Anglicans around the world live some incredible lives of faith. It’s time to learn more about them.

South Sudan church leaders respond to recent violence

Readers of this blog will know I have more than a passing interest in the goings-on in South Sudan. So it is with some alarm that I have been hearing of the violence in Juba and elsewhere this week.

Church leaders in South Sudan have issued two statements recently in response to the violence—both models of Christ-like reconciliation at a deeply uncertain and precarious time.

The first is from several senior clerics:



So the king said, ‘Bring me a sword’, and they brought a sword before the king. The king said, ‘Divide the living boy in two; then give half to one, and half to the other.’ But the woman whose son was alive said to the king—because compassion for her son burned within her—‘Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him!’ The other said, ‘It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it.’Then the king responded: ‘Give the first woman the living boy; do not kill him. She is his mother.’All Israel heard of the judgement that the king had rendered; and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute justice. (1 Kings 3:24-28)

Whatever has happened in Juba over the last few days, we are concerned about the consequences.

There is a political problem between leaders within the SPLM. This should not be turned into an ethnic problem. Sadly, on the ground it is developing into tribalism. This must be defused urgently before it spreads.

Reconciliation is needed between the political leaders. Violence is not an acceptable way of resolving disputes. This must be done in a peaceful and civilised manner. Reconciliation is at the heart of the Church’s ministry, a key Gospel value, and so we offer ourselves as mediators.

The way this incident is handled will have an effect on the future of our nation, whether positive or negative, both internally and in terms of international relations.

We are concerned about ongoing insecurity. Today was supposed to be a normal business day, but that was not the case. Fighting, killing and looting continued. The army must be controlled. We appeal to the security forces, who are our brothers, our sons and our parishioners, to exercise restraint and responsibility and to respect civilians.

We urge the civilians to remain calm and to stay somewhere safe. The government should give information to civilians when there are security operations and direct them where to go for safety.

We wish to see assurances for the safety of our international friends, including those from neighbouring countries, who are here to help us.

We urge the government, UN and NGOs to provide humanitarian assistance to the displaced civilians in Juba, and to ensure that water and food are available for the population.

We are in the season leading up to Christmas. This year’s Christmas may not be what we expected, but it is what we have been given and we must accept it as it is. As we celebrate the birth of the Christ-child, let us remember that God is with us, and pray for the strength and courage to bring peace, reconciliation and healing to our new nation.

Text of message given to TV and radio media on 17th December 2013 by Archbishop Paulino Lukudu Loro on behalf of the following Church leaders:

Archbishop Paulino Lukudu Loro, Catholic Church
Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul, ECSSS
Bishop Arkangelo Wani Lemi, AIC
Moderator Rev Tut Kony Nyang, SSPEC
Rev John Yor Nyiker, Secretary General PCOSS
Bishop Emeritus Paride Taban, Catholic Church
Bishop Michael Taban Toro, Chair SSCC
Rev Mark Akec Cien, Acting Secretary General SSCC

As these leaders make clear, the violence is first and foremost the result of a political conflict—though media representations tend to highlight the ethnic elements.

In response to that, Dinka and Nuer church leaders have issued this statement, showing that reconciliation is not only possible, but happening even now.

December 18, 2013

We, the Archbishop, Moderators, Overseer, and clergy from various denominations of the churches in South Sudan, and native members from the Dinka and Nuer Communities:

Identify ourselves not as representatives of tribes or denominations but as leaders and representatives of one church and one body of Christ.

We are gathered, united and speaking in one voice that peace and reconciliation must prevail in our country.

We are saddened of the conflict which has happened in Juba and ongoing in other areas like Bor in Jonglei State. We are concerned about the consequences. It is unfortunate many lives have been lost, many more wounded while many others displaced in their own country. We condole with the families who have lost their loved ones and those separated from their families by the conflict in Juba, Bor and other areas

We condemn the clash and acts of violence which have happened within the barracks of the Republic of South Sudan.

We condemn and correct the media statements and reports that refer to the violence as conflict between the Dinka and Nuer tribes. Whatever has happened should not be referred to as ethnic conflict and not between the Dinka and Nuer communities. These are political differences among the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) Party, political leaders of the Republic of South Sudan.

Therefore, we appeal to the two communities of Dinka and Nuer not to accept that the conflict is between the two tribes.

We appeal to the army and security organs of our Government of South Sudan to take control of the situation and protect its citizens. Our citizens are running for refuge in UN Compounds because they do not feel safe from their own security forces.

We are concerned about the reports of abuse, harassment and killing of individual citizens based on their ethnic affiliation. These are happening and witnessed for the last three days. Soldiers are asking civilians to identify themselves by tribes and we cannot accept to be identified by our tribes as we are all South Sudanese. We condemn such acts of abuse and hope that no more human lives should be lost.

We appeal to our Government to ensure safety of leaders under arrest and ensure speedy justice for any criminal act but most importantly reconciliation for political differences.

We appeal to our political leaders to refrain from hate speeches that may incite and escalate the violence. We urge to initiate dialogues and resolve issues amicably.

We appeal to the international community to respond fast and positively to the humanitarian crisis which has developed in the last three days particularly in Juba and Bor.

We appeal to our President of the Republic of South Sudan, His Excellency Salva Kiir Mayardit to continue to calm and ensure safety for our nation.

Most Reverend Daniel Deng Bul, Archbishop of Episcopal Church of South
Sudan and Sudan (ECSS)
Rev. Tut Kony Nyang, Moderator of the South Sudan Presbyterian
Evangelical Church
Bishop Dr. Isaiah Majok Dau, Overseer, Sudan Pentecostal Church
Rt. Rev. David Akau Kuol, Bishop of Diocese of Awerial, ECSS
Bishop Michael Taban, Chairperson of South Sudan Council of Churches
Rev. Mark Akech Cien, Acting General Secretary of South Sudan Council
of Churches
Rev. James Yout Chuol, ECSS, Diocese of Akobo
Rev. Daniel Deng Anhiany, ECSS, Diocese of Malakal
Rev. Samuel Galuak Marial, ECSS Diocese of Twich East
Rev. Peter Adum Deng, ECSS, Diocese of Twich East
Rev. William Mou Deng, ECSS, Diocese of Wau and Aweil
Rev. Philip Aduong Thiong, ECSS Diocese of Juba
Rev. John Chol Daau, ECSS Diocese of Bor
Rev. Yat Michael Ruot, South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church
Rev. Gatkuoth Chuol Bul, South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church

The list of signers includes Samuel Marial, principal of Bishop Gwynne College.

For me, the key unknown at this point is the situation in Jonglei, one of South Sudan’s states and a key site of inter-ethnic violence during the civil war. I hope to hear more from there soon.

With prayers for peace in South Sudan!