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Cover of Chosen Peoples, Duke University Press, 2021, used under fair use.
The Brink

A Comment on Christopher Tounsel, Chosen Peoples: Christianity and Political Imagination in South Sudan

My concluding question is whether the idea of religion itself both in its oppressive and liberatory manifestations becomes, in combination with the state, a recipe for spiraling trauma and terror.

This post, a contribution to the “Religion, State, Sovereignty: Interventions and Conversations” symposium, is a shortened version of an essay that will appear in Political Theology.

In Sudan, the British Empire laid the foundations for yet another partition. In addition to its existing four trophies of Ireland, India, Palestine, and Cyprus, imperial action combined with Sudanese agency made a toxic cocktail of what Jok Madut Jok has called the “Military-Islamic complex,” on the one hand, and Christianity, Insurgency and Militarization, on the other.[1] This recipe would create a more than half a century of civil war between the Islamist regime with Christians and animists. The conflict has been called the world’s “longest war” and was followed by the secession of South Sudan through a referendum in 2011. Current violence in the region is between the army and a paramilitary organization called the Rapid Security Force. What was to be a Black African zone of freedom and justice, however, as in so many places the world over, learnt the language of its victimizers!

Christopher Tounsel’s book is an important contribution to the literature on Sudan, South Sudan, and Africa at large, appearing in a series on The Religious Cultures of African and African Diaspora People, which seeks to understand the centrality of Black Religions in the formation of the “New World.”

The book recounts a continuing tragedy, terribly multifaceted with two civil wars, authoritarianism, failed democracies, military coups and massacres. The roots are deep, deriving from colonialism that identified native kingdoms as lacking in civilization and so brought in missionaries to educate (read, civilize) the Dinka and Nuer, which ended up marginalizing their own tribal religions. A correspondence between race, region, and religion ensued with the Negro/African arrayed against the Arab Muslim.

Postcolonial Sudan was among the first states to be decolonized in Africa, and South Sudan is the most recent nation to acquire freedom. But both failed to live up to their promise. Within two years of Sudanese independence, civilian rule was handed over to the military and, over time, its capital city came to display a distorted development with a black ring of endemic poverty created by the southern migrants who settled around Khartoum, once acclaimed as the Beirut/Paris of Africa.[2] Its mono-ethnic, majoritarian nationalism marginalized the south, east, and west and deepened what was seen as a divide between Arab and African.

The South Sudanese story is one of resistance interwoven with Christianity that Tounsel recounts. But it is also about insurgency and the militarization of society. The journalist, Peter Martell, visited the feared army barracks in Juba in 2011 in the aftermath of the referendum. This had been the Sudanese army’s torture and execution site. He met Major-General Mangok, its new commander, who told him that the new Sudan would be a country of freedom and justice. Two years later the next round of war began here between Dinka and Nuer members of Mangok’s Presidential Guard that led the slaughter of Nuer civilians with many buried in mass graves with as many as 300 corpses.[3]

Desmond Tutu writes that the South Sudanese “were exploited, subjected to slavery, abuse and discrimination, not only on racial, but also on religious grounds. Their oppression was systematic and institutionalized. Their struggle lasted almost 50 years.” Chairman John Garang was their Moses, Salva Kiir their Joshua, he states, but in the aftermath of independence the atrocities that were committed were “not by their oppressors, but committed by South Sudanese against their own people.”[4]

Even though the continents we study are different and their histories divergent, there are important convergences between Tounsel’s and my research, including in some of our discussion of religion and resistance. Indeed, our respective terrains are not dissimilar given the tribal/pastoral/peasant identities present in both cases. In my case, they comprise an originally forest inhabiting community that is then domesticated by conquest, colonialism and missionaries, the latter being of many different kinds including belonging to various Christian denominations but also subscribing to different versions of Islam and Hinduism.

A major difference between my approach and that of Tounsel is our respective conceptions of political theology. Tounsel analyses South Sudanese views of political theology from the point of view of white administrators, and also neo-Christian tribals, who saw ethnic conflict as the work of sin and evil and amity as Christian. He views political theology as evolving and fashioning selfhood in the struggle against “evil.” In the first phase, black liberation theology constructed the basis for a rebel movement; during the second Civil War, it spiritualized the war against Arab and Islamic oppression and was responsible for the ideological construction of the South Sudanese nation-state.

The question of political theology, however, is more complex and must include, in the Sudanese case as in many others, a discussion of the “animists,” i.e., those who followed non-Abrahamic religions, as well as the diversity of organizations of political Islam. In the context of India, political theology covers these and other debates relating to the crafting of an Indian version of secularism which is not about the separation between state and religion but one in which the state fashions itself as addressing religious requirements of minorities (e.g., right to educational institutions) and majorities (e.g. intervening and reforming Hindu law). Gandhi himself fashioned a multi-religious discourse for the freedom struggle drawing upon the Bhagavad Gita but also on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, particularly its moving line, the meek shall inherit the earth….

Another point of contrast, here between our two contexts, rather than our arguments, is the radical divergence of Sudanese and Indian democracies. To begin with, there were similar debates between those who stood for complete freedom and moderates; and between those advocating integration and those who supported federalism. The Sudanese north internalized a conception of the nation-state not dissimilar to that fostered by the Sinhala ruling elite of Sri Lanka, which made Buddhism the state religion and Sinhalese the national language. According to them, national unity required the building of a single Sudanese nationality.

Sudanese independence was followed by a military regime that lasted from 1958-64. But the longstanding demand of the south for federalism and pluralism, administrative and linguistic, was denied. The north dominated the civil service, military and private sector. In 1969 Colonel Jafar Mohamed Nimeri led a coup. Islam became the official religion and Nimeri imposed the Sharia on Sudan. A peace agreement was finalized in 1972 which granted self-government but not self-determination, which soon collapsed. John Garang sent to suppress a mutiny instead helped form the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and Army (SPLM/A), committed to a vision of justice for the marginalized in a New Sudan. Nimeri was overthrown in 1985, but another military coup established an Islamist regime under Omar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir inspired by Hasan al-Turabi.

Liberation war was the response to the mono-ethnic state, both in Sudan and Sri Lanka. In India, in contrast, the idea of a state religion was kept at bay and the project of developing a single nationality only began in the late 1980s.  The postcolonial Indian state followed largely multiethnic, multilingual and multicultural policies. There were surely distortions and major episodes of violence such as the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984, and “areas of darkness” such as Kashmir and the north-east and the marginalization of its “tribal” population that fed into the making of the Naxalite movement. Nonetheless,  a federal, democratic polity prevailed till an intensively majoritarian and authoritarian turn in 2014.

In “the Troubled Promised Land” of South Sudan, in contrast, Tounsel demonstrates, corruption held sway over the militarized state, and nepotism and tribalism reigned. The new government, in the aftermath of independence began suppressing dissent, including within the church. The very presidential guard that was intended to be multiethnic became the site of violence. The ultimate irony was the increasing racialization of politics with the Nuer-dominated army now called the White Army and the denial to Arab cattle herders access to pastures. Joshua, alias Salva Kiir, John Garang’s chosen heir, was himself a party to the violence within! 

Regarding religious nationalism in our two contexts, Africa and South Asia, in countries of the latter region there has been a dramatic decline in the ethical character of what my book calls inclusive nationalism. Instead we have seen the death dance of politicised religiosities, mobilizations and popular histories that have helped craft exclusive nationalism. In the case of Sudan anti-colonial nationalism was displaced by an insurgent sub-nationalism in the South coloured by a Biblical mythic imagination that minoritizes the “animist” other, creates a new popular history and crafts a new self in which victims internalised their victimizers.

My concluding question after this review of over a century of unending violence is whether the idea of religion itself both in its oppressive and liberatory manifestations becomes, in combination with the state, a recipe for spiraling trauma and terror.

[1] Jok Madut Jok, Sudan: Race, Religion, and Violence 2nd ed. (London: Oneworld Books, 2016).

[2]  The term “black belt” is used by Richard Cockett, Sudan: The Failure and Division of an African State 2nd ed (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016). He cites a writer who argues that the superiority complex of the Sudanese Arabs might be the cover for an inferiority vis-a-vis Arabs.

[3] Peter Martell, First Raise a Flag: How South Sudan won the Longest War but Lost the Peace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[4] Foreword, Hilde F. Johnson, South Sudan: The Untold Story from Independence to Civil War in 2011 (IB Tauris, 2016).

Introduction: Religion, State, Sovereignty: Interventions and Conversations

The essays seek a genealogy of and reckoning with the place of religion in modern regimes of sovereignty, its pre-colonial histories and post-colonial legacies, as well as an accounting of the fissures that remain in its emplacement, out of which new life continues to grow.

Unity of Being against State and Capital

In hearing [Fadl’s] story, we follow the travels of wandering saints and pilgrims, the insurrections of Malayali and Arab rebels, and the armed forces of the British and Ottoman Empires.

On Milinda Banerjee’s The Mortal God: Imagining the Sovereign in Colonial India

Specifically, in Banerjee’s work, the sovereign is at once a figure that was used extensively for conjuring anew political and ethical communities and a bridge (or more accurately a plurality of local constructions) for forming, ironically, a non-monarchical Indian nation-state.

The “Ideal” Islamic Polity: History-Making and the Modern Nation-State in Khoja-Moolji’s Sovereign Attachments

At its core, Khoja-Moojli’s work explores the Pakistani culture wars and the affective attachments they elicit in the public domain as a discursive clash between the Tahrik-e-Taliban (TTP) movement and the Pakistani state.

The Public Lives of Sovereignty

By furnishing us with analyses of protests, citizen-generated media, and everyday conversations through which relations of sovereignty are rerouted, the books extend our understanding of the cultural dimensions of sovereignty.

Religion and National Integration in Sudan and India

How can political actors use and misuse the ‘facts’ of history to rally constituencies to their side (and against one another), facilitate transfers of power, and legislate policies that unevenly impact different communities under the guise of corrective work?

A Comment on Christopher Tounsel, Chosen Peoples: Christianity and Political Imagination in South Sudan

My concluding question is whether the idea of religion itself both in its oppressive and liberatory manifestations becomes, in combination with the state, a recipe for spiraling trauma and terror.

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