Christopher Tounsel is Catherine Shultz Rein Early Career Professor in the College of the Liberal Arts and Assistant Professor of History and African Studies at Pennsylvania State University. In his new book book Chosen Peoples: Christianity and Political Imagination in South Sudan he investigates the centrality of Christian worldviews to the ideological construction of South Sudan from the early twentieth century to the present.
On July 9th, the East African nation of South Sudan will celebrate its tenth anniversary of independence. One may expect that customary nationalist symbols will be on full display in the capital city of Juba and throughout the country. The red, green and black-striped national flag adorned with its shining yellow star will wave; public officials will make commemorative speeches; and the following lyrics from the national anthem will fill the air:
We praise and glorify You
For Your grace on South Sudan,
Land of great abundance
Uphold us united in peace and harmony…
Oh God, bless South Sudan!”
The first stanza of ‘South Sudan Oyee’ is indicative of another foundational element of South Sudanese nationalism: Christian theology. This became apparent to me when I was in the capital city of Juba in July 2012, when raucous festivities marked the first anniversary of independence. In a speech made in the shadows of the city’s All Saints’ Cathedral, one speaker shared that after liberation hero John Garang’s death ‘God in his mercy [gave] us a Joshua with unique talent and wisdom who took us through the days of difficulty’. Joshua, in this paradigm, was President Salva Kiir. Another speaker alluded to the Hebrew captivity in Egypt by thanking God for giving them independence, leading His children across the river, and ending their slavery. In these ways and more, it was evident that independence was more than a political occasion; it was a religious moment as well.
In Chosen Peoples: Christianity and Political Imagination in South Sudan, I explore how Southern Sudanese intellectuals used Judeo-Christian Scriptures to frame their struggle for political self-determination. Included in the “Religious Cultures of African and African Diaspora Peoples” series, the book examines how clerics, soldiers, refugees and others laid the ideological foundations of the South Sudanese nation-state. During Sudan’s lengthy postcolonial civil wars, Southern Sudanese envisioned themselves as a “chosen people” destined for liberation while Arabs and Muslims were likened to oppressors in the Biblical tradition of Babylon, Egypt, and the Philistines. South Sudan presents a unique case in African Christianity whereby ideologues aimed liberatory, nationalist Christian thought against non-white and non-Christian co-citizens.
Even after the country crossed the proverbial Jordan to entered the Promised Land of nationhood, various clerics, politicians and bloggers continued to employ Biblical framings to issues of social and political concern. These individuals, ranging from recently-deceased Archbishop Paulino Loro to President Kiir himself, articulated political theology despite the absence of Northern Sudanese Arab Muslim ‘oppressors.’ Such discursive behavior showed that South Sudanese religious nationalism is—and never was—based exclusively in anti-Islamization.
Independence, however, has been far from ‘milk and honey.’ The national anthem’s plea for God to uphold the nation in harmonious peace struck with particular irony when the young nation became embroiled in an ethnically divisive civil war in December 2013. Tens of thousands lost their lives, and hundreds of thousands were forced from their homes. What became of the liberation theology that was supposed to reach its poetic conclusion with political sovereignty? While the conflict debunked any notion that Southerners felt a sense of pan-Christian solidarity strong enough to subsume ethnicity or prevent ethnic tension, it also produced a dynamic crucible of religious thought. Religious thought still functioned as a political technology despite the changed scope of who and what constituted us and them, good and evil, heroes and villains. Despite the trials that have characterized freedom’s first decade, South Sudanese have not forsaken the idea that the spiritual is intimately connected with the material, or that Scripture is a useful political resource with a pertinent word for every situation.
As South Sudan prepares for its decennial next month, the prospects for the country’s second decade are filled with uncertainties. Though the civil war is officially over, will relations between the Dinka and the Nuer—the two primary ethnic groups engaged in the conflict—improve or decline? How long will it take for the country to healthily emerge from the COVID-19 crisis? How will South Sudan relate to its former enemy Sudan now that its longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir is no longer in power? Though the answers to these questions remain to be seen, history suggests this South Sudanese will continue to inject theology into public, political discourse. While the United States has displayed how destructive and divisive Christian nationalism can be, South Sudan may offer a more constructive interplay of religion, state, faith and politics.