John Calvin’s South Sudan: The Theological Groundings of Great Lakes Advocacy

By: Grant Brooke

Generally this forum leans towards the academic. But, for this post, I’d like to begin with a personal confession: In late 2005 I dabbled in Neo-Calvinist (sometimes called Neo-Evangelical) international advocacy. There was a weekend in my misspent churchly college years when my closest friend – now one of the Horn of Africa’s leading journalists – and I illegally camped in a Washington, DC park with hundreds of other evangelical youths. We were there for either the “Lost Boys” or the “Invisible Children” – Uganda or Sudan, I don’t remember which. It didn’t really matter. What mattered was that we were there, and our presence is what our God desired. He wanted us to be cold. He wanted us to ponder starving African bodies. He wanted us to join in his grand Manichean narrative of history. He wanted us to pass around tracks from the Evangelical David Crowder Band, and flirt with likeminded Christian campers.

Years later, as a reasonably secular, restrained academic, it is clear that perhaps I, more than God, wanted to be cold, to ponder starvation, to flirt, listen to music, and place myself in a grand historical drama. The Calvinist theologian I idolized in my college days – Karl Barth – used to say something like ‘when we try to speak of God we often end up yelling about ourselves.’  Perhaps I should have taken heed of his words, as I stood in that park, enjoying the image of myself shouting about an Africa I neither understood nor, in truth, cared to understand.

The Kony 2012 incident has made clear that people like my college self continue to wield considerable influence on U.S. policy in the Horn of Africa. I date their involvement to 1998; the early days of the Bush 2000 campaign. Allen Hertzke, an American academic sympathetic to Evangelicals, suggests that these American Evangelical groups are in large part responsible for the international drive for South Sudan to secede from Sudan. I’m prone to agree. Though, unlike Hertzke, I’m unconvinced that the U.S. Evangelicals’ effect on African policy is all-in-all a good thing. Too often their media outlets simplify facts, and obscure the role of African religions, presenting the conflicts as Christian vs. Muslim. Too often they motivate their members to action by degrading Islam as fundamentally evil and fanatical. Too often they turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed by those they openly support.

The groups’ mistakes are well documented – as seen with the reaction to Kony 2012, whose producers were on their way to meet Sudan’s “Lost Boys” when they ran into Uganda’s “Invisible Children.” As U.S. policy towards the Great Lakes in particular continues to often be defined by ad-hoc moments of catalysing advocacy– “Save Darfur,” “Kony 2012,” the budding “Save Nuba” movement – rather than well drawn, long-term, regional planning, I think it’s time we reflect on why these movements continue to thrive despite their systemic errors.

Looking back at that park in 2005 it’s clear that the institutional characteristics of these Evangelical advocacy groups were borne of a fairly monolithic take on theology, which combined with a somewhat uniform sociological experience of what it meant to be a young American. The lingua-franca of the campsite, the conversation openers, were the same books – Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life… if you really wanted to impress you’d drop the name of the NeoCalvinist author/preacher John Piper.  These texts, buffed by catchy Christian rock maxims like Carry My Cross and Hell is for Wimps, socialized us to be obsessive about our purposes in life, our vocational callings. Wild at Heart, a popular book amongst male Christian youths, defined the masculine life-task as a duty to ‘find his battle and win his bride.’ The harder you fought for your life the more meaningful, godly, it would be – the “Machine Gun Preacher” mentality.

Now you may recognize a problem with holding that theological view if you’re a white, suburban, college educated, middle class, American: namely, life often wasn’t – at least comparatively to South Sudan – very hard. The single-cause fatalism that is endemic of Calvin’s Protestantism didn’t go over very well in an America that, as the Princeton sociologist of religion Bob Wuthnow has shown in several texts, offers its youth a shortage of apt callings, mundane workplaces, and finds younger generations abandoning traditional customs and traditional homes. Our theology didn’t take well to the complexity or boredom that defined the tone of our lives.

A further general trait this camping crowd of Neo-Calvinists shared was that most of us had conservative roots. And judging by the location data for the early spread of the Kony 2012 video on Twitter, this trend continues. It’s earliest success (likely due to the pre-established followers of Invisible Children) was in places like Midland, Texas, Birmingham, Alabama, and the Florida Panhandle, locales where a culture of secession, anti-federalism, and a rejection of a bureaucratized America reigns. These are the regions where – according to Hertzke –  the nascent Sudan advocacy campaign found the most resonance around the turn of the millennium.

They are places where a sense of a collective failure of the Protestant American experiment dominates. The brand of American governance they brought forth is betraying them, and the reaction has been to withdraw to a politic of states’ rights, local governance, and international interventionism. Herein, I think it quite important to remember that it is from this political milieu those of us in that park rose from.

Many of us were educated in private schools or at home in order to isolate ourselves from public life. Our parents (actually not mine in this case) were often strident anti-federalists, who increasingly called for a form of cultural secession at home by rejecting popular culture, symbols of modernity, and scientific transformations, while through NGOs, militarism, missionaries, and media links, sought interventions abroad. That is, we were the children of the Bush generation.

Often, this spiritual secessionism arose from troubles in our homes. Our older siblings were secularizing, and our parents (or at least our neighbours’ parents) were getting divorced. The double hearted individualism that refuses to acknowledge economic inequality tore at generations of familial finances and found its home in an increasingly shortening sense of America’s time, of communal collapse. The sense of loss in Neo-Evangelical America was and is palpable, adding great stress to the lives of the fatalistic, suburban, white, evangelical, youth. As Max Weber predicted, the drama of the grandchildren of ardent Calvinists was bureaucratized meaninglessness.

Proclivities towards a soon ending world, such as those evidenced by The Left Behind Series (an end-times best seller amongst Evangelicals), are endemic of a society burdened with a collapsing belief in its own time. The experience of a coming apocalypse in an all-too-often meaningless place led us to project our fatalist fantasies upon real or imagined communities abroad. The simpler the better. We handled the stress of domestic withdrawal, and our lost sense of purpose, by finding causes such as that of the Nuba, the “Lost Boys,” or “Invisible Children.” For those of us in the park, laregy DC residents, transplants into the strange heart of urban America, the need to reconnect our social narrative with our current lives was engrossing. In my subsequent fieldwork in Northern Virginian Evangelical churches, filled with rural, young, white transplants, it was apparent that the wounds of collapsing narratives served as the theatre underlining most every sermon.

So it was, primed for purposeful battles of eschatological weight, that we left our collapsing homes behind and arrived at that D.C. park as a righteous army in search of a war.

Thoroughly haunted by the spectre of what remains of Protestant dualism, we increasingly found our present American realities harder to navigate. We knew there was a right and a wrong, a good and an evil, family members and non-family members, brethren and enemy, but we found them difficult to distinguish in a modern America with its ample cross-cutting sources of identity. Especially for those of us living in D.C., the domestic other was increasingly not so other. The devils we were raised to fear turned out to be our friends. For the sake of our theology, new devils had to be found. Conveniently we were offered fresh and novel others in the form of Al-Bashir, or Kony, or the Janjaweed. We latched onto the artless awareness narratives presented to us. The noble savage of the mind can be black or white, Christian or Muslim, good or evil. It needn’t have any reference in the complexities of the lived life of Sudanese.

The common saying “the devil is always more present on the mission field,” is basically a statement that it is easier to maintain a dualistic theology in societies one barely understands. Of the chief accusations against Kony 2012 was that it missed complexities. I would suggest its creators’ theologies couldn’t tolerate complexity, nor were their Evangelical support bases terribly interested in them. Far from the purpose of Kony 2012, careful understanding of the actual situation on the ground would have undermined the movement’s efficacy for its consumers. In the same way, I arrived at that D.C. park far more looking for my own salvation than saving those in a foreign land; facts muddle religious zeal.

The most awkward recollections of these Evangelical advocacy days are those of young, eloquent, preachers extolling upon the horrors of life in Africa, followed by dramatic alter calls for we American youth to come to Jesus. Black bodies of African children were a means to heaven. “Lost Boys” and “Invisible Children” – titles that conjure faceless canvasses on which to paint our intentions – served as the emotional currency of salvation.

We were, in many ways, attempting to find redemption for a lost home in a foreign land. Truth be told, we were the lost ones. As the ad-hoc advocacy movements rise up from time to time, I hope we treat them with increased sobriety. And, as Karl Barth suggested, ask not only what the advocates are saying about God, Justice, and those they are seeking to help, but also what they are yelling about themselves.

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Filed under al-Bashir, Nuba Mountains, Religion, South Sudan, Sudan

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