Franklin Graham in Juba, and the separation of church and state

Franklin Graham and his wagon of evangelical Christianity came to Juba town this weekend. It was hard not to know, as his face – looking prophetically forward – covered huge billboards and posters around town, and young eager men were handing out fliers everywhere. So obviously I went, because there’s very little entertainment in Juba and you have to take what you can. It was insensitively and provocatively (and likely intentionally) held on Eid al-Adha, a public holiday.

Any event, no matter how organised in advance, always becomes mildly farcical in Juba. (A prime example: the archive tent is right next to the now-revamped Central Equatoria State Secretariat offices, which were opened with attempted fanfare last week; I spent a happy morning working while listening to a certain dignitary cut the ribbon too early, tie it back together, shout “please kill the bull now, please just kill the bull” and attempt to control overly enthusiastic traditional dancing troupes, who seemed to be attempting a duel.) The vice president Riek Machar came to Friday’s Franklin Graham extravaganza, but was awkwardly (and prophetically?) introduced as Vice President Salva Kiir, to the amusement of many in the crowd. There was an enjoyable but baffling Christian country music band shipped in from the US. And there was a wonderfully patronising, self-glorifying video about Billy Graham, Samaritan’s Purse, and their contribution to South Sudan, which involved an epic summary of the civil war: ‘there was fighting that broke out.’

I wasn’t disappointed in my first experience of American preachers. There was a US proselytising streak a mile wide: “I believe that God has called us here”, declared Franklin Graham, while the video noted the Samaritan’s Purse and Graham efforts to rebuild churches across the South.  While it was supposed to be uplifting – the “hope for a new nation” of the slogan – I think it suffered from the same problem as many events held here, in that it attempted to be generally positive.  People were not – at least in the cheap seats at the back of the field – particularly fired up by the usual “South Sudan Oyee” and the persistent optimism and national pride.  I think people are a lot more appreciative of enthusiasm tempered with acknowledgement of the issues of independence: harder to do, but a lot more reflective of Juba mood.

However, the fundamental message was hard to miss, and it was one propagated by the Sudan Council of Churches representatives who spoke. A local and influential Bishop declared: “before there was a political party in this country there was a church.” Arguable, but he went further: “the genesis of South Sudanese nationalism was in the church”, and the church was fundamental to independence. The great spirit of John Garang was invoked, and it was proclaimed that he was right in saying that there were three wings of the SPLM/A: the political, the military and the spiritual. That Friday, the SCC and Franklin Graham were claiming their stake in the national project, emphasising that there is – to them – no separation of the church and the main political movement, and therefore the state, in South Sudan; that the new state – and independence – was in part due to ‘the church’; and that therefore there can be no separation of South Sudanese ‘freedom’ and the Christian faith.

The evening ended with Franklin Graham calling new converts to him for a mass conversion. I’m afraid I didn’t stay.



Filed under Politics, South Sudan

11 responses to “Franklin Graham in Juba, and the separation of church and state

  1. Ryan

    Very interesting. I’m an evangelical Christian who is here in town for two months, and cynical of SP’s work. I didn’t have any interest in going to the event, so it’s interesting to get your perspective. Thanks!

    • Great, thanks! Promoting Christianity is all fine with me, and to be honest I thought I would be more offended by Graham’s rhetoric than I was, but I still don’t understand the psychology behind trying to instigate mass conversion at a rally – is this a usual method for his style of work?

      • Ryan

        Well it’s a style of evangelism that has a long history (I guess all the way back to the very founding of the Christian church when Jesus’ apostles began preaching to crowds). I’m sure FG is very influenced by his dad’s work with the huge Billy Graham crusades – which were actually incredibly effective in gaining converts across America. I think that “style” is pretty ineffective for the majority of us who are products of post-modern culture, though.

        On another note, I appreciated your insight into the separation of church and state, and as well as what would be an appropriate “mood” for national pride: “enthusiasm tempered with acknowledgement of the issues of independence”. I couldn’t agree with you more.

        Thanks again, and I look forward to reading your blog more! (I don’t remember how I originally came across it, but I did a few weeks ago, and have subscribed to it!)

      • Thanks for the info on the “crusades” – were they actually called that?! – I’m doing some more reading. It’s interesting too that many of the people I was standing with were really not going along with the rhetoric of mass conversion either, and were more curious than anything.

        I’ll try to make sure I blog more, then! Thanks!

  2. Fabulous, many thanks indeed. What do you make though of the irony that the SCC decided against separating from the church in the North?

    • Thanks! I’m not sure – and Graham did pointedly say we were praying for people in South Sudan AND in Sudan. If pressed, I’d guess that it’s to do with a lot of links with Nuba priests and communities? It’s quite a powerful institution as is.

      • Think so too, but still pretty self-contradicting: promoting Southern secession vs. keeping unity through SCC.
        Really a MUST read. Striking how many folks accept the role of the church in South Sudan as normal and good whereas mixing of religion & politics in Sudan is taken as evidence of evil.
        BTW, I happened to be in Khartoum when the “Billy Graham of Africa”, Reinhard Bonnke, electrified huge crowds there, scary:–VIOLENT-EASTER-FOR-CHRISTIANS-IN-KHARTOUM1.aspx

      • I don’t know whether it’s quite so much about unity, being the SCC – I think actually they could be an organisation where Garang’s “New Sudan” vision, and the supposed fundamental goals of the SPLM-N and Kordofan/Blue Nile revolutionary hopes, still functions… they’re happy enough with secession, but definitely I think working on a wider political Sudanese platform.

        It is funny, isn’t it, the positivity around the church in South Sudan as a political force. The Bishop was right in saying that religion, and religious people, have been heavily involved in Southern politics since the earliest days.

        That Khartoum Easter was terrifying – thanks for the link!

  3. Ant

    The Church must have a political component to be able to compete with Islam. Separation of Church and State does not exist in Islam, not in any permanent sense, and the Church has to make up for the vulnerability of the South Sudanese State in this respect; if not, South Sudan will become Islamised quickly.
    As for

    • This is quite a zero-sum vision you’re putting forward: Christianity Vs Islam, one convert = loss for other “side”. What I’m just talking about the Sudan Council of Churches’ implied idea of positioning itself as fundamental; I’m not saying there is or isn’t a church/state divide in South Sudan, or that either way is a good or bad thing. (I personally think it’s a good idea not to have religion involved in Southern government, since Christianity is not necessarily the most adhered to form of religious belief nationally, and it plays into a continuing framing of international politics which is at best deeply unhelpful.)

      I would love to know why you think South Sudan would become predominantly Muslim? And how the SCC is making up for the vulnerability of the state?

  4. Ant

    As for Bonnke, he converted Muslims, not people who were already Christian. But the government eventually forced the converts to revert to Islam.

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