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.

 

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.