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Christianity and Catastrophe in South Sudan, by Jesse A. Zink

30 August 2019

Andrew Wheeler on South Sudan and its distinctive Church

JESSE ZINK is well-known as an insightful and empathetic commentator on the Anglican Communion (Comment, 15 March). Now, in Christianity and Catastrophe in South Sudan, growing out of his prizewinning doctoral thesis, he offers a dramatic, illuminating, and, at times, harrowing account of a transforming church-growth movement among the Dinka people of South Sudan. This movement has its modest origins in earlier Church Missionary Society labours, but has exploded since the late 1980s into one of the most remarkable Christian movements of modern times.

Zink’s book concerns the Anglican Church (now the Episcopal Church of South Sudan) among the Dinka, a numerous pastoral people in the grasslands and swamps of South Sudan. As well as the Dinka, many of the peoples of South Sudan have experienced similar religious change during recent decades.

Zink re-examines the story for a new generation, and builds on earlier research, most importantly, the work of Marc Nikkel, an US Episcopalian mission partner in South Sudan, who died in 2000. Nikkel’s thesis on Dinka Christianity, particularly its hymns and spiritual songs, brought this story, previously hidden in the remote grasslands and swamps of the Upper Nile, into the awareness of Africanist scholars and the World Church.

Zink’s work, based on a wide diversity of field interviews, as well as written and printed sources, deepens this earlier work and updates it, making it available for all students of the World Church. The story is multi-faceted, and has resonance with many other parts of the world. The Anglican Church grew rapidly in the crucible of an appallingly destructive civil war that scarred several generations of South Sudanese. The context for this conversion and church growth was death, destruction, impoverishment, displacement, and cultural damage on a huge scale. Hundreds of thousands have become refugees all over the world.

Zink teases this story apart. The God who is now so powerfully present though the war, and who speaks through the prophets, preachers, and hymn-writers of the present is Nhialic, the High Creator God whom the Dinka have failed to honour in traditional times and during the stumbling witness of the missionaries. Now Nhialic comes among them again in the desolation of war, summoning them to faith and obedience.

Zink highlights the distinctive features of this movement. Women have been central — as travelling evangelists, church-builders, prophets, and hymn-writers. In white and blue, the Mothers’ Union are evident in every gathering. Their long wooden crosses rise and fall, punching the air with the rhythm of the hymns.

Young people, especially men, were the evangelistic shock-troops. They were trained in the night schools of the towns, especially Omdurman and Khartoum, and in the refugee camps of Ethiopia. Here they became literate specifically to read and to teach the Bible in Dinka. They served in the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army, or they organised churches in refugee camps. They led Bible studies in the Army, and founded churches and schools in remote areas of the South.

This war was an assault on African culture and identity. Anglican Christianity, with is emphasis on the language of the people, renewed both culture and faith through vernacular scriptures, preaching and prayer, and hymns. Christian faith was the means of renewing and strengthening African culture and life.

Zink’s work is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of what Anglican Christianity looks like around the world at the local level. Here, a Christianity that is both local and global, liturgical and biblical, and that does its theology orally through sermon, prayer, and hymn enables people and communities in conflict, fear, and uncertainty to find a place to stand, a future to anticipate, a God to trust.

Canon Andrew Wheeler was a CMS theological teacher with the Episcopal Church of the Sudan for 23 years. He was editor of the Faith in Sudan series on the history of the Sudanese Church.


Christianity and Catastrophe in South Sudan: Civil war, migration, and the rise of Dinka Anglicanism
Jesse A. Zink
Baylor University Press £47.99
Church Times Bookshop £43.20

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