Khartoum is wracked by violence, and my mind goes back over two decades to a couple of trips I took to that city, which is positioned dramatically at the confluence of the muddy White Nile and the dark Blue Nile. We were there to meet with believers in a region not particularly congenial to the faith, where Christian assembly was allowed, but you’d better keep what flows from it under strict control.
Now and then, I’ve spoken of the challenges that Christ’s people faced in that land — of their demographic, geographical, political, and theological situation. Along the way, I’ve made comparisons, both explicit and implicit, between the two countries, and the contrast has typically favored our fair nation. But now, I’m struck by the similarities. Here are 12:
1. Sudan is racially and ideologically tribal (as with the Arab, Fur, Beja, Kababish, Dinka, Nuer, and Nuba peoples), as are we increasingly so. Thanks to critical theory and its iterations/avatars, we are becoming “systemic racialists.” Thanks to the LGBTQ movement, we are discovering and fortifying a vast divide between traditionalists and political nihilists. (Witness the recent party-line vote on H.R. 735, the Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act.)
2. Sudan used to be the largest country in Africa, whose southern border would have reached into central Texas had its northern border been aligned with Canada’s southern boundary. Then came the split. And there’s been talk of it here, not between North and South (1861), but rather Red and Blue.
3. Over there, we talked with a convert whose departure from Islam brought police abuse — and with the family’s assent. Before conversion, he’d had nightmares featuring a “boogie man” who’d chase him through the village. One night in a dream, the harried young man ran across a neighboring stream for cover on the other side. Just then, Issa (the name for Jesus in the Quran) stepped out of the brush, and the monster ran off. When our friend awoke, he hurried to discover more about his rescuer, and, sure enough, he encountered the real Christ and accepted his gift of salvation. And this landed him in the police station.
In the midst of a harsh interrogation, a cop slugged him in the stomach, and the pained grunt sounded a little like the Arabic word for “better.” So, the abuser exclaimed, “Oh! You think you’re better than me?!” and hit him in the jaw, toppling the chair, and slamming his head against the wall. When we met him several years later, he told us that story with a smile on his face, instantiating Matthew 5:10 as a blessed persecutee.
We Americans aren’t there yet, but when casinos rather than churches get special treatment by the COVID czars, we can make out trouble on the horizon. And what’s this about spies in Catholic churches and a million-dollar fine for Calvary Chapel in San Jose?
4. On one trip, I ventured to ask a cab driver if he’d show me the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory, which, under suspicion of poisonous-weapon manufacture, had been wrecked by some U.S. cruise missiles. To my surprise, he was quite happy to take my wife and me out to the rubble, where a lone, disheveled soldier guarded the gate. He let us right in, and we walked around the ruins, picking up aspirin bottles and missile fragments. Instead of muttering about the Great Satan’s attack on his country, the driver expressed admiration for the pinpoint accuracy of our weapons (which left surrounding factories and homes untouched) and the decency of our timing (with the strike coming at night on a weekend when only a few guards were on site).
I bring this up because I see that our once-awesome military is becoming less so, weakened by leadership more concerned about wokeness than alertness, about gratuitous sensitivity than deterrence, about demonizing patriots than designating the real enemies. We can only hope that our foes will be as humanely fastidious as we were if and when they endeavor to attack us, perhaps from a flyover balloon.
5. One of my prized souvenirs is an ornately sheathed and tassel-adorned Beja sword, the sort carried by herdsmen. One late afternoon in Khartoum, we were taken to the home of one of these tribesmen, the first of his people group to be converted to Christianity. As we sat in the walled courtyard, he went back into his house and came out wearing a colorful, knitted vest and bearing a small, stringed instrument and a stool. He proceeded to entertain us with a lively song in his native tongue, after which I asked our guide for the words. It turns out that it was a celebration of the wonders of coffee, another element of their defense package against nighttime raids. It helped them stay awake to wield their swords if necessary.
Back in the day, swords could do the job. Not so much in modern Sudan and America. And so we ask what it would take under our Second Amendment to keep the armed marauders at bay.
6. We crossed the Nile to the sister city of Omdurman. It’s known for the 1898 battle in which British troops under Gen. Herbert Kitchener defeated followers of the Mahdi, a Muslim messianic figure who 13 years earlier had killed Gen. Charles Gordon. (He’s the one who declared that the rocky hill above the “Garden Tomb” in Jerusalem was the true site of Christ’s crucifixion — hence the name “Gordon’s Calvary.”) Our guide took us to the camel market, where I managed to buy a fringe-handled whip with a 5-foot-long working end. The sight of over a hundred hobbled beasts was impressive, as was the smell of that whip in the airline overhead bin, where I discovered it had been cured by the application of excreta.
Those camels — intriguing, indeed charming “ships of the desert” — operated with a low carbon footprint, indifferent to fossil fuels. But they lacked the utility of the vehicle we’d parked to the side. Nevertheless, there are environmental zealots in America who’d prefer the camel to the van for trips back and forth across the Nile.
7. On one trip over to Omdurman (to buy some unique, fired-clay beads from craftsmen in the market), we visited the tomb of the Mahdi, where we found pilgrims praying, some pressing currency into the protective latticework against which they leaned. Of course, we found it sad that they would put their hopes in the supposed continuing ministrations of this pretender to apostleship. Similarly, we’re saddened (and yes alarmed) to see so many Americans grasping at metaphysical straws to alleviate their anxieties and condone their proclivities.
8. On another trip, we headed up north on a highway constructed and gifted by Osama bin Laden, who’d found sanctuary in Sudan after he’d made himself toxic in Saudi Arabia. Of course, there’s no telling how much favor you can garner from those in power if you’re a huge donor to their questionable enterprises.
9. That same highway took us up to Meroë, the former capital of Kush, a kingdom that once dominated Egypt, a region associated with the Nubians. (Incidentally, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ first name links to ancient Nubia.) They had their pyramids too, albeit lesser ones, and we got to poke around in them. But the kingdom of Kush fell in the 4th century AD, and now you can picnic among the ruins, a good place to read Shelly’s “Ozymandias.” Or in Chicago.
10. Back then, my passport wouldn’t gain me entry to Sudan. The problem was that it had an Israeli stamp in it. The Sudanese so loathed Israel that any evidence that you’d traveled there was enough to nullify your credentials. (I was able to get a blank one good for three months.) It reminds me of the posture of many cultural elites, whose contempt for the Jewish state (vis à vis the Palestinians) has generated a range of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BSD) initiatives. Some are professors and student government leaders at prestigious universities. Others are denominational activists. So far as I know, none is ready to applaud the Sudanese passport policy. But it’s clear that a good many others would shun a visiting professor from Tel Aviv or exclude the scores of publicly traded, Israeli stocks (Nasdaq and NYSE) from their institutions’ pension portfolios.
11. A few years later, when I was a pastor and professor up in the Chicago area, I saw a young African man sitting across from me on the El. He had what looked like a severe cleft palate, but I learned in our conversation that, as a member of the Nuer people in Southern Sudan, he’d been wounded as a child in the civil war between the Muslim north and the non-Muslim (Christian and animist) south. Millions died. This particular fellow fled, as a child along with other children, across the crocodile-infested Gilo River into southwest Ethiopia. But that country was soon consumed by a civil war of its own, and they migrated to Kenya, from which over 20,000 “Lost Boys of Sudan” were brought to America (many of them thanks to Christian churches and charities). No, we Americans don’t need refugee camps for our own citizens who are victims of tyranny and violence; but, as this Tennessean can testify, a lot of Californians are moving our way (if they don’t stop in Texas or press on to Florida), relishing the relative safety, freedom, opportunity, and hospitality they’re finding hereabouts.
12. A number of the “Lost Boys” worked in the food and beverage services of our local, North Shore, university campus. Two young women who attended our church supervised some Dinkas and spoke very highly of them in terms of punctuality, cheerfulness, and careful attention to detail. By all accounts, these tall, graceful, Sudanese tribesmen are some of the darkest-skinned people on earth. (Think of the 7 feet, 7 inches Manute Bol, twice the NBA’s leader in blocked shots, and the 5 feet, 11 inches fashion model, Alex Wek.) I bring up pigmentation since the “person of color” criterion is all- or much-consuming for many Americans — the dividing line between the deserving and undeserving, the oppressed and the oppressor. But these orphaned refugees from hunger, pestilence, and wartime atrocities were distinguished for their energetic and thoughtful excellence in the workplace, often above that of their native-born “brothers” in Chicago.
They reminded us that “the content of one’s character” is the thing; not “the color of one’s skin.”
Unfortunately, back in their homeland, skin color is still fateful, grounds for belittlement in the Arab north. The American “colorblind” ideal has not taken root there. But it’s fallen on hard times here as well. They used to turn the fire hoses on those pushing colorblindness; it still happens, but now it’s the Left manning the hydrants (rhetorically and socially).
God help Sudan. God help us.