The “law of homogeneity” in the church

One of the (possibly the only) downsides of the high profile Desmond Tutu had in the 1980s and 1990s is that other eloquent, faithful, and prophetic African Anglican leaders were overshadowed.

I thought about that as I was preparing for my class on Sudanese church history last week. Bishop Francis Loyo of Rokon has been bishop of his diocese through the long years of civil war. He’s seen the Episcopal Church of Sudan in all its glory—and its pain.

In 1999, he wrote an article called “The Church Today As I See It.” A (rather long) excerpt is below, which I gave my students on Saturday. As the new nation of South Sudan continues to be confronted by tribalism (and churches in the U.S. increasingly mirror the partisan division of the country at large), I find his words to be important, more than a dozen years after they were first written:

Will the church languish in conformity and accommodation? Or will the Church bring the power and presence of Christ to bear on the Sudanese national crisis? The Church in Sudan must apply the test of practical Christianity. In the present situation both the Christian faith and freedom are being destroyed. Therefore, the Church in Sudan must do everything possible to overcome this false alternative. Christians can only overcome this when the Church becomes radical again and seriously considers who it is that they believe in and what the authentic experience of God actually is. To achieve this the Church in the Sudan must rediscover the long forgotten subversive traditions of freedom in the Bible. To believe in God means nothing less than to experience one’s own liberation. The name of the true God means freedom. Only be experience of the true God can the Church in Sudan know true freedom. The truth of human freedom is love. It leads to unrestricted, solid and open communities. Only this freedom in our communities can heal the wounds which oppression has caused and continues to cause in Sudan and in its Churches.

The Church in the Sudan is seen as the “Church of hope” despite the difficulties which the Church is undergoing. The Church in Sudan advocates a human community that is not only based on the similarity of its members—the same race and same language, the same class, the same views and the same morals. These are the things that always bind people together. We find people who are different from us disturbing. That is why we love our friends and hate our enemies and despise strangers. People have built up societies based on class, or caste or systems of apartheid according to the laws of homogeneity. The power which drives these societies is self-righteousness.

The Christian Church lives quite differently to this law of homogeneity. It lives in recongition of other people in their otherness, and that means reconciliation. “Here there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you are Christ’s, then, you are Abraham’s offspring and heirs according to the promise.” (Gal 3:28-29) This is the peace that the Church in the Sudan advocates—a peace in Christ who has broken down the dividing wall between us, taking the hostility through his flesh. (Eph. 2:14)

The driving force behind the Church in Sudan lies in the righteousness of faith which is founded on reconciliation through God. The Christian community in the Sudan begins at the very point where fences and walls are set up between human beings, where nations are divided, countries are separated, and families are split.

The Church in the Sudan must resist every kind of separation if it wants to remain the community of the Church and to minister to people. But even in the Christian Church the law of homogeneity prevails again and again. There are national Churches, Churches of particular races or ethnic groups, middle class Churches, Churches in different social classes. All these are heretical in their practical behaviour, for they spread enmity not reconciliation and their effect is to exclude and not to invite. It is only when congregations can be made up of Black and Arab, poor and rich, uneducated and educated, handicapped and non-handicapped, that there will be a witness to divine reconciliation in this hostile Sudan.

Congregations like this will have a difficult time. They will be despised and pushed aside. They will become congregations under the cross. But they are the sign of hope for the Church in the Sudan because what they do in their divided society is reconciling and healing. The Church in the Sudan must encourage policies of reconciliation always and everywhere. It is only through reconciliation to self and one another that the vicious circle of revenge is broken among Christians. It is only through reconciliation that the law of retaliation is abolished. It is only through reconciliation that hostility is overcome. But Christ teaches us that there can only be reconciliation on the foundation of the sacrifice of oneself and on the basis of righteousness and justice. It can never be at the expense of other people and on the ground of injustice.

The hatred seen in the divided Sudan has eaten its way deep into the Sudanese thinking in both North and South. It is always fear which teaches people to hate their opponents, and the person who preaches hate spreads fear. Politically, Christ is not against the Muslim in the Sudan. He died for them too. God reconciled “the world” to himself and that includes the other religious or political parties. That is why a Christian cannot become the enemy of his/her enemies. Christians in the Sudan need to see Christ in those who hate them.

But loving one’s enemies does not mean being subjected to the system of one’s enemies. Or saying nothing about their hostility. Love of one’s enemies presupposes immense assurance and liberty. It has to be intelligent so that it can understand the fear that makes the enemy hostile, and it has to become inventive in order to change the situation so that enmity becomes unnecessary.

I took this text from But God is Not Defeated! Celebrating the Centenary of the Episcopal Church of Sudan, 1899-1999 (Nairobi: Paulines, 1999), pp. 39-40.

The Cross in our Midst in Holy Week

There are many seemingly intractable situations in South Sudan but one that has gotten a fair bit of attention recently is the ongoing violence in Jonglei state. As we sit in this Holy Week, there is an update on the situation, in the form of a report from Daniel Deng Bul, Archbishop of the Episcopal Church of Sudan and a lead negotiator in Jonglei.

The Committee feels that there is a new momentum for peace in Jonglei State at all levels, from the grassroots right up the national government. We appeal to all stakeholders within Jonglei and South Sudan to put aside their differences and take this opportunity to work together for peace, reconciliation and tolerance. Enough is enough.

We appeal to all to speak the language of peace, reconciliation and tolerance, particularly our diaspora and intellectuals. We must all accept responsibility for what we say and what we do, to give peace a chance in Jonglei and the whole of South Sudan.

I highlight this for two reasons. First, it’s a reminder of the way our sisters and brothers in Christ around the world are on the frontlines of some difficult situations. It’s one thing, as I did last night, to sit and look at images of violence in the world and reflect on daily crucifixions in this world. It’s entirely another, as members of Archbishop Daniel’s commission will do tomorrow, to visit devastated villages on Good Friday and see the cross in our midst.

Second, it is always worth highlighting—since it seems it is so easily forgotten—that in many parts of the world, it is the church that is the active agent for peace and reconciliation in society, in part because that is the church’s calling but also because in some cases the church is the most well-established organization in society.

Daniel Deng Bul, incidentally, was recently nominated by a British think-tank for their person of the year award.