South Sudan, four years on

It is July 9. Four years ago on this day, I was in Juba, South Sudan as the newest nation in the world was inaugurated. After decades of civil war, South Sudan at last had achieved its independence. It was a day that was palpably full of hope, expectation, and wonder.IMG_3318.JPGIMG_3322.JPG

Now, those memories seem like a terrible joke. In the intervening four years, South Sudan has fought brief battles with the north. Most cataclysmically, since December 2013, parts of the country have been consumed by civil war.

I am in the process of writing finishing a dissertation about South Sudan during its earlier civil war, the one between 1983 and 2005. What has struck me most powerfully in these last 18 months is the sheer number of parallels between the conditions on the ground now and what was reported two or three decades ago. You would have thought we could have moved past this but, no, unfortunately, it seems we cannot.

When this latest round of violence began, I had a lengthy series of posts reporting what I had heard in phone calls and e-mails from friends across South Sudan. In time, I ended that series not because I stopped caring but because it didn’t seem as if many people cared. I have continued to stay in touch with friends and church colleagues in South Sudan and abroad, continued to attend conferences related to the matter, and continued to keep the country and its churches in my prayers. Meanwhile, South Sudan’s spectacularly inadequate leaders participate in periodic “peace negotiations” in some of Africa’s finest hotels, make all the right noises—and then fail to effect any improvement in the suffering of their people.

So where does that leave us now, “us” here meaning people who don’t live in South Sudan but feel a great attachment to its people and its churches and so desperately want to see them succeed? On the fourth anniversary of independence, three thoughts come to mind:

  • First, while it is true that the effects of the violence in South Sudan are horrific, it’s not the case that these effects are equally spread across the entire country. The entire country is not equally consumed by civil war. This is important, if for no other reason than that we should not write off the entire place as beyond our help.
  • Second, the causes of this violence are deeply, profoundly complex. It has to do with the prevalence of small arms in the country, existing patterns of religious leadership, opportunities for young men, the lack of infrastructure in the country, and a whole lot else. One part of this is the division between two major ethnic groups, Dinka and Nuer, a division we should note that is largely due to policies pursued by the British colonial government. It is this division, however, that tends to get all the attention.
  • Finally, at one conference I attended, there was much despair about the present situation. But one person who has been involved in South Sudan for a very long time said at the end of his presentation that his grounds for hope came from the possibilities of working with and through small-scale, local institutions. He had largely given up on the existing national leadership and national institutions, but he did think there was lots of potential for working at a more grassroots level in various places of the country. He didn’t say this at the time but I immediately thought, “Oh, the churches.”

Speaking of the churches, many Christian leaders—under the leadership of the Anglican archbishop, Daniel Deng Bul—have come together to launch a National Platform for Peace and Reconciliation. One focus of this work has been training people for reconciliation work at a grassroots level. There are two short videos about this work.

It is very easy to lose hope when thinking about South Sudan. Christians, however, believe that new life follows moments of death and despair. The reconciling work of the church—however limited, local, and small-scale—remains the grounds of whatever hope I continue to have.

Stuck in the middle in South Sudan: on reconciliation and peace

IMG_3295Daniel Deng Bul, the Archbishop of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan, and leader of South Sudan’s National Platform for Peace and Reconciliation, has written an important letter outlining the efforts of so many to bring about peace in South Sudan.

I have uploaded the letter here so that you can read it in its full, but here are a few excerpts that struck me.

Why is it so important at this point to raise an independent voice for peace and reconciliation? The war is dividing and polarising the people and communities of our country. The middle ground is eroded. When you listen to one side you are criticized as biased towards one or the other. Each side wants you to be with them. And if you are not with them you are against them. Tribal allegiance is expected and people labeled accordingly. This makes it very difficult for people and leaders to stand in the middle and reach out to both sides equally. Motives are questioned, actions are doubted and words are twisted. Reaching out to both sides requires courage and commitment to the ideal of a healed nation. This is why being independent and united is so important. Standing in the middle is necessary to reach both sides and to bridge the divide between people and political leaders, between divided communities. We serve the people and we serve our leaders. We are inspired by the courage of our people and guided by our belief in the Word of God. Independence does not mean you are against the government or the Opposition, against one or the other community. Independence for the [Reconciliation] Platform means we can listen to everyone equally, openly and inclusively to bring the voices of all the people together to advance peace and reconciliation.

To be a reconciler is to be stuck in the middle of deeply conflicted situations. I am reminded of the Latin word for priest, “pontifex,” which means bridge-builder. The trouble with being a bridge, however, is that you get walked all over. It is that holy work of bridge-building to which Archbishop Daniel and others are dedicated.

Reconciliation is not just about a cessation of hostilities between warring parties but involves actors from across society.

To start the journey for our healing, we have to come together and speak with one voice against this war that is tearing our nation and our people apart. The Platform is reaching out to all constituencies and groups. The role of women, youth, religious communities, traditional leaders, government and opposition and many more are recognized as equally essential if we want to build a broad coalition of people to stand up against the war and urge our leaders to find and implement solutions that stop the war and begin the healing and development we all need. The Scriptures have countless calls for us to be of the same mind and consider others better than ourselves.

Be of the same mind toward one another… And let us consider one another to provoke to love and to good works (Romans 12.16; Hebrews 10.24, NKJV)

In all that is happening in the world—you can read about the work of an Anglican priest in Iraq here—it is easy to lose sight of South Sudan, particularly as the onset of the wet season leads to a necessary diminution of violence (though not of suffering). But the need for reconciliation remains acute and we can continue to pray and support the work of Christians there.