"I'm what the world considers to be a phenomenally successful man. And I've failed much more than I've succeeded. And each time I fail, I get my people together, and I say, "Where are we going?" And it starts to get better." - Calvin Trager
One of the first things I saw when I got off the plane and stepped onto the Mundri airstrip and into the oppressive heat was a shell casing lying on the ground.
It was a reminder ... along with the SPLA passes I carried in my backpack ... not just of what was in the immediate past, but what was still in many ways part of the present life of Southern Sudan: War.
Southern Sudan is officially at peace. That's a sentence no one could say for the past 21 years. The groups who journeyed to Lui in the two years before us did so under a cloud of fear and uncertainty. They were literally going into a war zone, and the risks were evident. They came home with many of the same stories of wonder and grace that we did ... but also stories of military checkpoints, of moments when they held their breath ... and when they let it out not really being able to breathe easy.
Southern Sudan is officially at peace. The peace agreement signed in January officially ended hostilities between the predominantly Arab Muslim north and the predominantly African Christian south. And the signs of peace ... the signs of an exhale that leads to easy breathing ... are springing up everywhere.
Peggy ... the lone one among us who had been there in times of war ... continually gushed about how different things were, about a feeling of openness, about the incredible growth of Lui as a community. She talked about a palpable difference that was just in the air.
Peace made all the difference. It's hard to live when you're always looking over your shoulder for the next bomb to drop. It's impossible to grow an economy when the only road is full of mines. Where is the incentive to build when all you are creating is new targets for the next airstrike? Where is the stability upon which to construct a society when armed teenagers on your own side in this conflict can storm into the Cathedral on Sunday morning, threaten to kill everyone there and then desecrate graves in the courtyard because they were upset over a new policy halting burials on the Cathderal grounds (something that happened just last fall!).
The signs of the previous war are everywhere. You can't miss them. Driving along the main road, we would see patterns of potholes -- always the same pattern -- and it was Susan Naylor who figured out first that these were were the mines had been taken out of the road.
And then occasionally, we would pass the wreckage of an unfortunate vehicle that had met one of the mines before it had been removed.
Reynolds went hiking with a friend who took him to a place where there was an unexploded bomb lodged in a tree. The diocesan synod that we were supposed to attend was postponed because the roads were not yet open. The signs of war are still everywhere. Even at the hospital, where there is a literal sign of an armed society.
We tend to romanticize war even as we rail against it. We romanticize it because adverse conditions often bring out the best and most amazing aspects of people ... like the chaplain from the hospital who stood up at the Cathedral that morning and urged the teens in soldiers clothing to take him if they would only leave the others. But while those things which adversity draws out of human beings are laudable, there is nothing ... nothing... laudable about war. War is evil. War destroys ... and it destroys on so many, many levels.
Southern Sudan is officially at peace. And yet it's not. The agreement has been signed. People no longer live in immediate fear ... but the damage is there, the wounds are there, and the war still goes on in the hearts and minds of the people -- and you can't blame them.
At the first place we visited for confirmations in the bush, one of the opening songs we were greeted with was "Onward, Christian Soliders" ... sung in Moru. Even though it's one of my least favorite hymns, there was something comforting about the familiar tune in the beauty of the native language and instruments. But then we kept hearing it ... over and over again, wherever we went.
When your whole world is armed to the teeth, the image of the Church militant and triumphant is the natural image to cling to. Exponentially so when the world is armed to the teeth and half of it is coming at you specifically because you are Christian. The casualties of war are much more than the bombed out roads and bridges. Much more than the scarcity of men when compared with the numbers of women and children. Much more than the agricultural and economic systems that haven't been allowed to develop for more than two decades.
The casualties of war are also the hearts that have been molded into battle gear. It is the turning of the cross from instrument of self-sacrificing redemption to battle standard to be used against an enemy.
The causualties of war also include trust. And that is a definite casualty in southern Sudan. People relish in the peace. People celebrate the peace. People have great hopes for development now that peace is here. But when you talk with people individually and in small groups, people do not believe the peace will last ... because they have no trust for the Arabs. They talk about it in the broad, stereotypical terms that remind me of the times I encounter racism in my own society. "Arabs can't be trusted." "Arabs will always try to undermine us." "Arabs are killers. They are evil."
I wouldn't expect anything else from these people after they have been through things I can't even begin to imagine. It makes me realize how truly remarkable the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was ... to strive for true reconciliation in the wake of terrible atrocity. But understandable or not, the mistrust and outright hatred are an infection ... and a continuation of the war in people's hearts even though the guns and bombs have stopped.
One of the fascinating and inspirational people we met in Lui was David Charland, a missionary with Church Mission Society who has been in Congo and Sudan for about 20 years. He is not optimistic about the peace holding ... but not because he doesn't trust the Arabs.
He says that hopes are sky-high now ... unrealistically high. People believe that now that peace is here that development will come quickly. And indeed, the pace of change in the first three months has been quick. But there will be many delays and many frustrations. And the people will get impatient. And even though the peace has come, the guns have not disappeared ... they are out there, and they are in the hands of children and others who are used to dealing with their frustrations and problems by force.
The official hostilities are over ... but this is still a society where guns = respect, where guns = power. For young men this is especially true. It's like a drug. When you are trapped in an economic and social situation that is all about powerlessness, having a gun, being part of a militia, eliciting fear in people and getting the rush of ego from being a protector at the same time is positively addictive. It's the same situation that happens in our own inner cities. Guns = respect. Guns = power.
As we were waiting on the Mundri airstrip for the plane to arrive that would take us out of Sudan, a young man walked down the road carrying an automatic weapon. It was one of the few instant fear reactions I had during my time there. This person had the power to kill us all ... and I had no idea if he was friend or foe, stable or not. All I knew is that he was young and very well armed.
Some of our Moru friends greeted him and it became clear that he was friend. So my heart rate slowed. But I was still struck by this image of this child soldier ... it typified in one picture so much of what I had been feeling about the effects of war on this country. I asked him if I could take his picture ... and he was more than happy to oblige. And as soon as he began to pose, I deeply regretted asking him.
He held the gun up like his most prized possession (which I'm sure it was) and posed for the camera. He knew the only reason I was taking his picture was that he had the gun. What was worse was the others around him knew it, too. I was reinforcing just what I hated ... that guns = respect. That guns = power.
I think about what we are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan ... and what we are doing and have done in so many places. You can argue back and forth whether it is justified or not. You can look at the geopolitics and all the rest. But in the end, I just think we don't realize what we're doing. It's been nearly 150 years since we had a war fought on our own land. We might have a grasp on the atrocities of war in terms of combatants, but we do not have the necessary deeply personal knowledge of what war does to societies, to hearts, to souls.
We do not have the wisdom that it is one thing to acheive an objective and to sign a peace agreement. It's much, much more and it takes much, much longer to stop the war inside, to heal the wounds that continue to fester, and to reach the peace that is more than just a cessation of hostilities, but is the living, breathing, growing peace of Christ ... a peace that passes understanding ... a peace that doesn't just halt the taking of life, but fosters new life and new possibilities.
EGR resources and connects the church to embrace what one person, one congregation, one diocese and one church can do to make this mission of global reconciliation happen.
Want to find out more ... check our our website at www.e4gr.org.
"Christ's example is being
demeaned by the church if they ignore the new leprosy,
which is AIDS. The church is the sleeping giant here.
If it wakes up to what's really going on in the rest
of the world, it has a real role to play. If it doesn't,
it will be irrelevant."