Making political sense of Easter

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(L- R) Paulo Kwajakwan, Paul Aleu Dau and Nathaniel Atem

(L- R) Paulo Kwajakwan, Paul Aleu Dau and Nathaniel Atem



















By Paul Aleu Dau
Nathaniel Akoi Atem
Paulo Kwajakwan
(in consultation with Randall Prior)

The crisis in South Sudan

In the Australian context, the celebration of Easter has become increasingly dominated by retail and consumer interests. The January(!) arrival into our shops of hot cross buns and ‘Easter’ chocolates gives some hint of that.  It is also a hint of the increasing disconnection between the meaning of Easter and its cultural experience.

Throughout Australian churches however, the celebration of Easter continues to be an event of focal importance, even if year by year those who gather for the celebration become fewer in number and greater in age.

Even so, for most of us in the church, the significance of Easter probably remains seasonal (once a year) and personal. There may be little sense that Easter is the one event which defines the church’s existence and which lies at the heart of its every worship service and of its mission in the world.

There may be little awareness too that the Easter event is dangerously political, and speaks into the contexts of national conflict and tribal warfare. That is how it is in some parts of the Christian church in the world today; Easter declares a challenging and hopeful social and political message.

This paper is put together in consultation with three South Sudanese men. All are currently candidates for Ministry at the Uniting Church Theological College. Their Christian vocation has grown out of the political struggles and sufferings of their own people. Their biographies are themselves ‘Easter’ stories.

Paul Aleu Dau is a South Sudanese born Australian. In 1987, at the age of 10, together with some 30,000 children, Paul was forced by the civil war to leave his family and country. The children, almost all of them boys, trekked for three months more than 2400km with little food or water, in scorching sun and subject to military attack.

Losing close to half their number en route, they finally settled at a refugee camp in Panyido, Ethiopia. The children remained for more than three years until, with the outbreak of war in Ethiopia in 1991, they were forced to return to South Sudan. In 1992, they crossed into Kenya and settled at Kakuma refugee camp. Paul waited for 11 years at that camp before he became one of ‘the lucky few’ to be resettled in Australia. He arrived in 2003.

Paul’s call into ministry came out of his desire to explore and find hope where hope and the meaning of life had been diminished or lost. The civil unrest and suffering which has been going on for decades in his homeland is popularly attributed to God. It is understood to have been prophesied in Isaiah 18, the text quoted most often to justify God’s plan to punish Sudan (the biblical name ‘Cush’ is the current day ‘Sudan’ – for the Sudanese, the two mean the same thing).

Since Paul became a Christian he has questioned the popular understanding of Isaiah’s prophecy, and asked how God is involved in the suffering of the people.

Nathaniel Atem was born in South Sudan in 1969. He grew up in the rural town of Bor, where he had to assist his parents in sustaining a living for the family. He was a shepherd boy, helping to look after his father’s sheep. It was later when he started going to boarding school that he converted to Christianity.

Because of the growing intensity of the war in his home region, in 1984 he moved to the capital of Sudan, Khartoum. There, in relative safety, he was able to continue his studies.

But with further escalation of the fighting and increasing restrictions on Christians living in the Muslim-majority capital, he decided to move with his wife to Cairo, and to look for opportunities to migrate. “Thank God I accepted the opportunity to come to Australia, for this has become like a promised land for me,” Nathaniel said.

With the support of the Sudanese community in Melbourne, in 2011 Nathaniel became a candidate for Ministry.

Paulo Kwajakwan was brought up in the small rural village of Nyigir, near the town of Kodhok, North Malakal. Despite his father being Roman Catholic, the absence of a worship centre near his village meant that he was not baptized until the age of eight years – on Christmas Day 1970. Twelve months later to the day – Christmas Day 1971 – he was confirmed.  His primary and secondary schooling took place between 1970 and 1980, after which time he moved to Khartoum where he attended the Bahry Senior Secondary School 1981- 1984 obtaining the Sudan Certificate.

During the 1980s, he worked in hospitality and in 1989 he was accepted at the Faculty of Commerce at Cairo University Khartoum Branch. Throughout this era, the civil war was escalating; had it not been for the illness and death of his father in 1986, Paulo would have joined the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army; he supported the movement of liberation towards the independence of the South Sudanese people on the grounds that ‘God created us for freedom’.

Through the Catholic Church, Paulo was sent to Cairo from 1992-1996, and secured a Bachelor of Theology. It was during this time that he began to sense a call to ministry. Upon his return to his home region of Malakal, he discovered that he was under constant military secret security  surveillance and that it was not safe for him to remain. With his Bishop’s blessing, he returned to Cairo from where he applied for refugee status. After an initial rejection of his application, he arrived in Australia in 2001.

Paulo founded Chollo Community Christian Fellowship which later developed ties with the Noble Park Uniting Church, out of which he has candidated for Ministry.

Recently these three men led a ‘theological reflection’ in the community of the Theological College. The presentation began by describing the history and origin of the present crisis in South Sudan with its distressingly heavy human costs. It concluded with an invitation to address three questions, which are not so much questions as they are the cries of the South Sudanese people.

They are the sort of cries which erupt in the heart and soul of anyone whose life is overwhelmed by suffering, whatever the cause:
For how long will this kind of suffering keep on? Where is God in this crisis? How can hope be restored?

The rest of this article offers a response to these questions through the experience of Christian communities in South Sudan.
South Sudan became an independent state on 9 July, 2011, free at last from the decades-long tyranny of warfare which saw the loss of more than two million lives.

The first elected government of South Sudan included many committed Christians from both Roman Catholic and Protestant Church traditions. In the period immediately after July 2011 there was a sense of political and social peace, and elected leaders were united in their commitment to the people.

But as time has progressed in this infant independent nation, the situation has changed rapidly to the point where a political crisis erupted. The crisis has engulfed South Sudan since 15 December, 2013.

On that day, at around 10pm local time, fighting broke out among the presidential guard. That fight later spread to army barracks within Juba and quickly spilled to other parts of the country especially those states in the Upper Nile region.

It is estimated that nearly 10,000 people, especially women, children and the elderly, have been killed since the recent war started. About 700,000 people have been displaced and nearly 150,000 people have taken refuge in neighbouring countries. Many major towns in the upper region have been reduced to rubble; villages have been burned to ashes. The humanitarian situation in South Sudan has been raised by the United Nations to ‘level three’ emergency status; this is the highest level under the UN charter.

The recent renewed outbreak of fighting which has given rise to the current crisis in South Sudan has brought a sharp reminder for Paul, Nathaniel and Paulo of their own past experiences of suffering, starvation, displacement, conflict, destruction and death. In addition, it has for many Sudanese people quenched the hope and aspiration which accompanied the declaration in 2011 of SouthSudan as an independent nation.

The root cause of the problem does not arise from tribal rivalries; it is not a tribal war. It is more political; it is a struggle for power within the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). Those who are familiar with South Sudanese politics would be aware that the SPLM (with its accompanying SPLA – Sudan People’s Liberation Army) has a long history of such crisis.

At the time of inception in 1983, there was a major disagreement within the rank and file on the mission and vision of the movement. Also, in 1991 there was a split within the SPLM/SPLA due to issues of governance and democracy. The same tension recurred in 1992 when a second-in-command defected due to his dissatisfaction with the movement.

More recently, in 2004, the current president attacked Dr John Garang, the then-leader, over how Garang was running the movement. Later that year, they were reconciled in a ceremony in Rumbek.

With a litany of conflicts in the last three decades, the most recent conflict has proven to be the most deadly and the most dismaying. Some people on both sides of the conflict have taken the law into their own hands and carried out lootings and killings based along tribal lines.

Both the government and the rebel group have come under severe pressure from the regional, continental and international communities to seek a peaceful solution. On 23 January, 2014 a ceasefire spearheaded by the IGAD (the regional governing block) was signed by the government and the rebel groups in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. That ceasefire has not been honoured by either side and the war is still going on now. The peace talks are continuing in Ethiopia, even if there are conflicts about how they are to proceed and who will be at the table.

No one is sure of what these peace talks will produce but it is important that they are taking place.

Easter and the politics of South Sudan

For how long will this kind of suffering keep on? Where is God in this crisis? How can hope be restored in such a crisis? These three questions represent the cries of the people of South Sudan. What then can we say in response?

The recent crisis and its huge humanitarian toll have come because the leaders have turned away from their united concern for the people to a concern for their own power and wealth.

On 8 March, Paulo preached on the Genesis text ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ – the question asked by Cain in his own defence before God, after Cain had slaughtered his brother Abel. Paulo’s sermon was prompted by the death of a young Sudanese man who was 19 years old and was killed by a police officer for no apparent reason: “When the officer was asked why he did it, he told his friends that he disliked the boy! The main drive was jealousy and hatred. The killer has no heart. The heart is totally lost across the whole South Sudan.”

The Roman Catholic Bishops of Sudan and South Sudan, at a special gathering held in Juba in the last week of January this year, compared the recent events in South Sudan with what happened to the people of Israel after their liberation from Egyptian captivity.

Their ‘Pastoral Declaration’ begins with the words of God to Moses (Exodus 32:7-8): “You people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them.”

In South Sudan, politicians treasure their political power; there is no place for God in their hearts, and they have forgotten what God did with them when they were desperate for their country to be independent from North Sudan slavery. They have gone from human slavery to the ‘devil-slavery’, leaving God behind and seeking their own interests.

Recognising the seriousness of the situation, the Catholic Bishops’ statement declares: “We meet at a time of crisis, perhaps one of the gravest situations we have ever faced. Our vision of a liberated nation in which all people will be equal and live in peace appears to be shattered. The blood of the innocent, in their thousands, cries from the ground … Now is the time for our nation to rise from the ashes …We are convinced that we stand at a decisive moment in the history of South Sudan.”

The Easter event remains at the centre of the people’s hope. They know that the God who suffered in Jesus is a God who shares their sufferings. And they know that the God who raised Jesus from the dead determines that suffering will not last forever – it will come to an end.

This is the hope for the people of South Sudan. It is the responsibility of the Church in South Sudan to walk with the people in their suffering and to uphold the message of God’s victory over suffering and death. A South Sudanese theologian Rev Dr Isaiah Majok Dau reflected on the war in Sudan by saying that:

Because the church is present among the people in their suffering, its significance as a community of the suffering has increased. The growth of the church in the Sudan at this time of war and suffering has added to that significance. The church has become a new community capable of absorbing that suffering. It is trying to provide encouragement, protection, refuge, healing and hope for the victims of the war. In the difficult realities of war and its extensive destruction, the church with its meagre resources, tries to feed the hungry, nurse the wounded, clothe the naked, educate the illiterate, defend the defenceless and speak for the voiceless and the marginalised.  

Restoring hope and harmony among the South Sudanese people is going to be a real test and challenge in the next phase of our country. But we hope where there is a will there is a way. In our opinion, the politicians should start listening to the people so that a durable healing, reconciliation and lasting peace can be achieved.

Mostly, we need to cry out to the Easter God as the source of this hope for peace.

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