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

The short version: this excellent book is both insightful and accessible. Jesse Zink is specifically focused on the surprising growth of Anglican Christianity amongst the Dinka people of (the southern) Sudan during the conflict of the 1980s and 90s. He connects this growth to three factors brought on by the Second Sudanese civil war: increased movement and migration, a need for non-traditional resources to meet societal upheaval, and a major challenge to the traditional Dinka understanding of the world. An inspiring read which is fit for a wide audience.

“Yet Dinka adopted Christianity in ways that made sense in terms of the cultural frameworks of meaning that already existed. Christianity makes universal claims, but it only exists through a set of local, context-specific beliefs and practices. The key variable in understanding the Dinka experience of religious change is the catastrophic damage of the war.” (p. 216)

The Anglican Church experienced remarkable growth amongst the Dinka during a period of major societal upheaval in the 1980s and 90s. Jesse Zink, currently the Principal at Montreal Diocesan Theological College, wants to know about it and to help us understand how it came to be. Zink has provided us with an insightful and inspiring look an important period of modern church history.

Christianity and Catastrophe begins by setting the stage and explaining why the expansive growth of Dinka Anglicanism is so surprising. The Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS) had an active work in southern Sudan from around the beginning of the 20th century but the results had never been encouraging. Christianity was a minority presence which was restricted mostly to men in towns and government centres. The rural populations and all-important cattle camps of the Dinka were essentially untouched. So although “East Africa was the site of many movements of Christian conversion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,” the “Dinka stood isolated from these trends” (p. 29). There is a trail of discouraging reports sent home by missionaries which helps to tell this tale.

The historical catalyst for change was what is commonly second the Second Sudanese Civil War which began in 1983 and led to the independence of South Sudan in 2011. The Dinka refer to this war as a riäk, “a supple word that can refer to drought, flood, epidemic, or armed conflict” (p. 10). Zink is interested in identifying factors brought on by this conflict which significantly contributed to the growth and spread of Christianity amongst the Dinka. “It was the catastrophe of civil war that changed patterns of movement among the Dinka, forced them to look for new sources of power, cut them off from the larger world, and allowed for the emergence of a mixed Christianity that brought together different elements of religious expression into one church” (p. 10). His boils his list down to three key factors: a forced increase in mobility, a need for resources which were not supplied by traditional Dinka life, and a substantial challenge to Dinka cosmology (p. 217-18).

There are plenty of books already written about Sudan/South Sudan, not least of which is the Paulines Publications Faith in Sudan series associated with Andrew Wheeler. This book makes two distinct contributions, the first of which is a much more in depth look at this period. Zink’s material comes from two invaluable sources and he must be commended for contributing to its preservation. The author spent time in South Sudan and conducted interviews with participants of the events which he narrates. This kind of oral material is especially important considering the lack of records which remain after decades of conflict. His other main source was archival material and the Appendix tells a harrowing story of the vulnerable status of much of this irreplaceable evidence.

The second main contribution of Christianity and Catastrophe is Zink’s analysis of the period. In giving an account of how catastrophe contributed to the growth of Dinka Anglicanism, he challenges assumptions, advances key discussions, and gives a stirring account of this corner of African Christianity. Part of his emphasis is to reframe our understanding of displaced peoples as he focuses on the so-called ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’. His main concern here is that when we conceive of people as ‘victims’ we tend to rob them of agency. So he argues that although “refugees are frequently depicted as passive, immobile recipients of aid who bide their time through the good graces of others until they can return home,” we must recognize that the “refugee camps of Pinyudu, Itang, Kakuma, and elsewhere were not places where they simply went to wait. They were, instead, staging grounds for further church growth and development. In Christianity, refugees found mutual aid, education, community, and a set of beliefs that allowed them to understand their time of ‘exile'” (p. 132). In this way, Zink’s book reminds me of the work of someone like Emma Wild-Wood.

The book has quite a narrow focus – the Anglican movement in a single people group over just twenty years – but this does not limit its value. For a start, our understanding of World Christianity needs more studies like this. The broad brush strokes are important, but they depend on work like Zink’s and of necessity pass over the kinds of contours which he explores here. We are missing much if we never slow down enough to get a ground-level view. Secondly, situating this Dinka Anglican movement involves tying in a host of broader issues and discussions. In Christianity and Catastrophe we encounter the East African Revival, Nilotic prophetic movements, Independent African churches, and the ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’. We think about gender, translation, the relationship of the church to military movements, indigenous song writing, appropriation of Old Testament prophecy, the persistence of orality, and modern sociological understandings of religious conversion.

Christianity and Catastrophe began as Zink’s PhD thesis but that should not scare any readers away. This is written with refreshing clarity and the book is remarkably accessible. Readers with some familiarity with World Christianity will have a definite advantage, but I suspect that very few will find this book difficult. I recommend it for a broad readership and strongly encourage church libraries to pick up a copy and feature it. Zink serves us well by helping us to see this corner of the church and guiding us in how to think about such movements.

You can purchase the book from the publisher here.

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3 thoughts on “Christianity and Catastrophe in South Sudan, by Jesse A. Zink

  1. eileenagnes

    Thanks Tyler. Have read it and found it interesting.

    Often think of you, Christiane and the children. So hard for you all to arrive in UK just before the pandemic! It’s been the same for us. No opportunity to make friends etc.

    But there’s been good times too!

    Love Eileen x


  2. Pingback: Academics Turn Up the Volume – Too Small A Thing

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