South Sudan

June 2, 2017

A New Look at Narratives on South Sudan

I had the pleasure of accompanying IRD’s Faith McDonnell to a meeting with South Sudanese Ambassadors Akuong and Buay.  As we entered the embassy, I did not know what to expect. I was vaguely familiar with Sudanese history, had gotten some background from Faith, and had followed, albeit somewhat irregularly, the current state of the country. I was totally unprepared for what ensued. While I have a lot more research to do before I can formulate any definitive conclusions, here are three initial thoughts as well as some broader reflections.

1) Information is overwhelming.

The earliest instruction I received about the South Sudanese conflict was in the framework of a civil war between the Dinka and the Nuer. President Kiir’s primarily Dinka government was supposedly battling ex-Vice President Machar’s primarily Nuer rebels for control of the nation. When I searched for American perspectives on this conflict, I got some variation of, “It’s complicated, because both sides are evil.” I found it curious that an apparently “complicated” answer received such a simplistic response.

Listening to the ambassadors, I discovered that “complicated” is a great way to answer questions without actually answering them. Granted, these men are representatives of their South Sudanese government, but even hearing their views on their country was a radical departure from the “both sides are evil so we don’t really talk about what’s happening” rhetoric. This moral equivalency is inconsistent with the perspectives I experienced. They described in great detail Machar’s cooperation with North Sudan, the genocide and the famine that is wreaking havoc on the South Sudanese, and immense financial strains highlighted by a near worthless currency. Hearing about Nuer mothers in America selling their food stamps to raise money for the rebel army and Nuer churches in the US that are praying for the destruction of their government was shocking. Further, I learned that this is not tribalism; there are Dinka and Nuer on both sides. This does not even cover the varying and often contradictory stances different arms of the US government have adopted in response to South Sudan’s civil war.

I further realized that words are losing their meaning. Casual distortions of community, rebels, ethnic violence, advocate, tribalism, humanitarian, civil war, and so many other terms, exacerbate existing misconceptions. Acronyms such as SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army), GONU (Transitional Government of National Unity), and POC (UN Protection of Civilians), exponentially amplify this disarray. Language has become a protective armor around the geopolitical challenges very few confront.

2) Truth is scary.

The problem with truth is that it necessitates an active response. Today, it is frequently retweeting, reposting, or identifying with something on social media. This virtual medium, one step removed from tangible reality, is a great cop-out from confronting hard stuff and provides a superficial satisfaction from doing one’s duty to be the ever-desirable “global citizen”. Honestly, I find myself doing this regularly.

Much has been written about our desensitization to international calamity and even about our desensitization to this desensitization. As much as we may want to resist it, technology has made these inevitable. However, the danger of desensitization is that it enables apathy. Frankly, between opposing the social justice warriors of academia, tracking the chaos in the Middle East, and even just living life as a college student, my temptation to just not care about South Sudan is all too real. Every inch of the world seems to be covered in some sort of catastrophe, and technology has made it unbelievably easy to consume a never-ending stream of horrific news. Now more than ever, the opportunity cost of quantity is often quality. Unfortunately, much of the human consequences of these tragedies tend to go over our heads but not through our hearts. Part of this is a healthy coping mechanism in processing the infinite amount of grief that is always on display. But part of this is also a conscious decision to remove ourselves from reality.

I am in no way suggesting that South Sudan must be everyone’s passion; as of today, it is certainly not mine. We all have different gifts and priorities, and the diversification of our callings is productive and enriching. However, the necessity to remain aware of global genocide and calamity is at a crucial prime. Americans have the luxuries of a materially flourishing society, where the absence of immediacy is a nuisance and a minute wasted is no big deal.

But time keeps ticking in South Sudan. A third of the country is displaced, and Sudan is now the third most-fled nation in the world. Sixty percent of refugees are children; 100,000 live in famine, 5 million face extreme hunger, and more than one million kids under age 5 are malnourished. Meanwhile, common discussions seem to involve various entities preoccupied with determining the causes of the crisis but not willing to discuss the solutions to its devastating effects. ­

3) God is sovereign.

As Christians, we believe that the greatest wars are spiritual, and not physical. We know that our most effective weapon in any struggle is prayer. We ground ourselves in the word of God and cling to His promises. We believe that Jesus Christ, through His cross, is our great reconciler. And through the Holy Spirit, we become vessels of Heaven’s justice, reconciliation, and forgiveness. So while I walked out of the embassy with more sadness, I also come away with a deep sense of hope. Hope that God can redeem terror through peace. Hope that the same grace afforded to me is extended to murderers and terrorists. These basic theological tenets provide the sweetest comfort and sustenance when staring at the face of great evil.

I am still processing, reflecting, and questioning lots of my preconceptions and considering what my personal response will be to what I have learned and am still learning. Even though I have not even scratched the surface of understanding the intricacies of South Sudan, this experience was a powerful encouragement to merge the responsibility of engaging as citizens of Earth with the trust in an eternal future as citizens of Heaven.

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