Christianity has been described, expressed, and practiced in many different ways throughout the world. Even though the efforts of Western missionaries in spreading Christianity have been critical, the shaping of Christianity has been done by local agencies. In Christianity and Catastrophe in South Sudan, Jesse Zink discusses the religious changes of the Dinka in the context of the Sudanese civil war during the last two decades of the twentieth century. He examines the growth of Christianity among the Dinka in South Sudan and unveils how the Dinka negotiated their religious beliefs and practices with Christianity. The book unveils the religious implications of the Sudanese civil war, which have been largely overlooked.
The book begins with the mission work of Church Missionary Society (CMS) missionaries who came to Sudan in the beginning of the twentieth century. Unsurprisingly, the missionaries demanded that the Dinka to completely repudiate the beliefs and practices of their religion. The hesitation and refusal of the Dinka to cut themselves off completely from the religion of the jak, local divinities, limited the number of Dinka converts to Christianity. Furthermore, the CMS missionaries’ focus on education in urban areas hindered the expansion of Christianity to agropastoral communities.
Zink argues that the critical event that changed the picture of Christianity in South Sudan was the Sudanese civil war. The war caused the migration of the Dinka and relocated them from urban to rural areas. This unexpected displacement enabled Christianity to spread among a greater number of the Dinka. The Dinka believed that while the religion of the jak did not respond to the Dinka during the conflict and crisis, Christianity did, through the provision of education and health. This led Christianity to replace the religion of the jak among the Dinka. Also, the Dinka’s disconnection from the hierarchy of the Anglican church caused by the war resulted in the creation of a space for local Christian leaders to develop and adopt local religious beliefs and practices.
The civil war forced the transnational migration of the Dinka for survival. They moved to refugee camps in neighboring countries, including Ethiopia and Kenya. Displacement accelerated the religious shift among the Dinka, especially among those who were young and did not restrict their religious identity to the religion of the jak. Education and music in particular were the tools that led to conversion of the Dinka. Zink highlights Dinka women as a group in need of attention. They contributed to making Christianity their religion by taking on leadership roles in the Christian communities and composed vernacular hymns that made Christianity accessible to uneducated Dinka.
Christianity brought changes to Dinka communities and spread throughout the Dinka. The Dinka’s oral tradition also helped Christianity to become their religion. They believed that Isaiah 18 indicated that the conversion of the Dinka would be followed by suffering, which they understood as the civil war. This convinced them to leave their traditional religion and become Christians.
Through his extensive archival research and fieldwork, Zink carefully examines the religious change of the Dinka and the growth of Christianity among the Dinka in South Sudan. His rigorous engagement with multiple issues surrounding the Dinka, the Sudanese civil war, and Christianity, including migration, the religion of the jak, music, woman, and oral tradition, has been critical in analyzing the formation of Dinka Anglican Christianity. He brought these themes into the conversation and explored in depth to illuminate the religious evolution of the Dinka.
Furthermore, Zink’s engagement with the discourse of rupture and continuity in describing the Dinka's Christianity helps readers understand how Christianity replaced the religion of the jak, and this work contributes to discourse that is critical in the study of world Christianity. Zink helps readers see the history of Christianity in South Sudan and its growth during the civil war, offering a fresh picture of Sudanese Christianity. Those who are interested in African Christianity and World Christianity will benefit from this book.
Younghwa Kim is a doctoral student at Emory University.
Date Of Review:
February 25, 2021
Jesse A. Zink is an Anglican priest and principal of Montreal Diocesan Theological College in Montreal, Quebec. Previously, he was director of the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide in Cambridge, UK. He is the author of three previous books about Anglicanism and the world church, including Backpacking through the Anglican Communion.
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