South Sudan is a far of country of which we know little, and if we are honest, care less. Its story does occasionally appear on the the BBC News website, but it rarely breaks through onto our television screens. South Sudan is not a fashionable cause: celebrities don’t go there, doubtless heeding the advice of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office against any travel to a country currently holding an unenviable international reputation. In a crowded field of misery, with many competing claimants, it currently holds last place on the United Nations ‘World Happiness Report‘.
South Sudan has been at war for many decades, first as part of an independence struggle from majority-Muslim northern Sudan; and then, despite a referendum in which a unifying 98% voted to secede, came a descent into bloody civil war, as militias indiscriminately butchered the civilian population while fighting for positions in governmental ministries, with all the opportunities for corruption such dominance connotes. After 2.5 million died in the independence fighting, some 400,000 have been killed in the internecine conflict out of an estimated population of 12 million. No reliable figures exist.
If this were not awful enough, the horrendous plague of locusts descending on East Africa is moving not-so-slowly across into the country, decimating a rural population that can expect little help from central authorities even if they can resolve to act: there is so little infrastructure after decades of war and corruption.
So who on earth would want to go there?
The answer is the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who has had a heart for the stricken people of this largely neglected and forgotten country since a visit shortly after independence. He has spoken movingly and with great faith and conviction on the subject in this 2014 video:
More recently, in the context of explaining the place of righteous anger within prayer, he drew upon those experiences to explain how inadequate he felt after coming across a massacre scene and being asked to consecrate a mass grave. Where does one even begin?
You can see his visceral response here:
The first half references this visit, but as Lent commences the whole talk on the place of lament in prayer is worthy of our attention.
Last weekend, some of that prayer appeared to be answered. Once again, the two leaders of rival South Sudanese factions agreed to try once again to create a government of national Unity. We should pray that this succeeds: it previously broke down in 2018.
What has not made the national news (or the BBC website) is the central role the Church has played in these peace negotiations. The Anglican Archbishop and Primate of South Sudan was (and remains) pivotal in bringing together the parties, as have been leaders of the Roman Catholic and Presbyterian churches. And on Saturday last, the new Government encompassing former enemies took up office.
In expectation of this, both Archbishop Justin and Pope Francis have provisionally planned a joint visit in the coming months to work further toward peace and reconcilaition. This follows a Vatican retreat last April during which the Primate and Pope brought together President Kiir and Vice President Machar and explored the path to a renewed peace effort.
Blessed are the peacemakers.
Exploring this story led me to a number of tentative conclusions:
Faith still matters in a very practical sense in the modern world.
The Anglican Communion embodies considerable and valuable soft power which can be and is exercised for good in the world.
The Lambeth Conference is valued by our Anglican friends across the world for just these kinds of problems.
We should sometimes put our first-world problems into perspective by viewing them from the perspective of our fellow Anglicans.
When we load our parochial concerns onto the Archbishop of Canterbury, we easily forget how many others are doing the same: he needs and deserves our prayer support.
As for South Sudan, we can only hope and pray that this time the new Government can and will hold together. It is not entirely a hopeless situation. It was not so long ago that we were praying for the country of Rwanda which had become a byword for savage inter-tribal conflict, yet now it presents as a benchmark for peace and prosperity in the region.
Prayer leads us from lament to hope, and it does us no harm for Christians to reflect in these terms at the start of the Lenten season.