Christianity and Political Imagination in South Sudan
- ISBN: 9781478010630
- Published By: Duke University
- Published: May 2021
Christopher Tounsel’s Chosen Peoples: Christianity and Political Imagination in South Sudan is a historical interpretation of a journey characterized by the struggle for liberation. At the same time, it shows how elusive this quest for liberation might be. The story, which spans over a century (ca. 1898–ca. 2018), is enacted in what used to be Sudan but which today has been broken up into Sudan and South Sudan. It is an intricately woven chronicle of how the South Sudanese people came to see their destiny as separate from those in the north and how, as a new country, they are struggling to see themselves as a united people.
At the heart of the story lies the Christian doctrine of providence, connected to the idea that a people are created by God and that God somehow guides their destiny. The story is rooted in the colonial moment, the moment that brought Sudan into being and in which the machinations that created the condition of possibility of South Sudan were enacted. In telling this story, Chosen Peoples brings together some of the explosive categories in the sociology and politics of belonging—religion, ethnicity, identity, race, gender, class, and nation-state. The focus of the book, though, is what religion, specifically Christianity in the context of the colony and the postcolony, does with these different categories of belonging.
The story begins with the British and their colonization of Sudan. To halt the spread of Islam throughout Sudan, the British sent Church Missionary Society missionaries to evangelize the southern part of the colony. In this process, the missionaries set up a school, the Nugent School, that in turn created the ruling elite of South Sudan. There the South Sudanese elite came under the banner of Christianity. Important dynamics in the creation of this new ruling elite are that they came from different ethnic groups (especially the Dinka and the Nuer), were given martial training, and were mostly men.
At the Nugent School, something occurred that has come to be hailed as critical to the spread of Christianity in Africa—the translation of the gospel into indigenous languages. While this has often been acclaimed by scholars of world Christianity, Chosen Peoples raises an important issue that has often not been acknowledged in the study of African Christianity—that translation might have accentuated ethnic difference. Thus, while translation was enabling some South Sudanese to appropriate the gospel, it was also entrenching them in their ethnic identities. At the Nugent School, this sometimes led to violent clashes between those who belonged to the different ethnic groups. The clashes that began at the Nugent School foreshadowed ethnic conflicts that later bedeviled South Sudan.
Central to the story of Chosen Peoples is that the Sudan from which South Sudan later emerged was a colonial creation. But this was also a Sudan that was divided by the virulent mix of race and slavery. While Tounsel is careful to note that there is not a clear divide between Arabs and Blacks in Sudan, he also shows how South Sudanese were typed as Black and enslaved by those in the north and in Egypt who saw themselves as Arabs. The enslavement of South Sudanese created memories of animosity between the north and the south that shaped later developments. Central to this later development was another colonial creation, a military unit called the Equatorial Corps located in Torit, South Sudan. Tounsel writes that the “Torit Mutiny of August 18, 1955, is the kairotic moment of South Sudanese nationalism” (45). The mutiny began when the soldiers of this unit refused to be sent to the north of the country, thus initiating the process of war that eventually led to the creation of South Sudan, in 2011.
The central thesis of the book is that in fighting for liberation, which in this case was the creation of the new country of South Sudan, some leading figures, both lay and clergy, appropriated Black theology’s liberation discourse to caste South Sudanese first as a chosen people and then as chosen peoples. As chosen people, they were putting themselves in the place of biblical Israel in Egyptian bondage. The north was Egypt and their oppressor. After independence in 2011, however, the issue of ethnicity that had apparently been attenuated during the struggle for independence reemerged, leading to violent conflict that pitted one ethnic group against another, including hundreds of thousands of deaths and displacements.
Ethnicity continues to raise tensions in the country. The rise of ethnicity as a locus of conflict has led to calls for the people to see themselves as chosen peoples, that is, as a people made up of different peoples (ethnic groups). The recognition of ethnicity as a locus of belonging raises the question of whether Christianity can serve as a source of unity. Theologians and church leaders often speak and write as if Christianity could or should serve as source of unity; however, Chosen Peoples suggests that the matter may be more complex.
This is an important text that touches on a new moment in the development of African Christian political thought—a moment when Black Africans drew from discourses of liberation theology to fight for liberation from other Black Africans. It also shows the limits of such liberation theology through the narrative of the fragmentation of an apparently united people along ethnic lines. The book also raises the question of the relation between providence and history. In this case, the question is whether the concept of chosen peoples, beyond the fact that it has had unfortunate outcomes in history, valorizes the colonial creation of a people (South Sudanese). In other words, was God working through the British Empire to create the state of South Sudan? This question is perhaps beyond the scope of Chosen Peoples.
David Ngong is professor and chair of the Department of Religion and Theology at Stillman College, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.David NgongDate Of Review:December 23, 2021