Hon. Paul Yoane Bonju is a Member of the South Sudanese National Legislative Assembly.
Hon. Paul Yoane Bonju is a Member of the South Sudanese National Legislative Assembly. He previously served as the host of Christian radio owned by the South Sudanese Council of Churches. He is one of the few South Sudanese MPs who attended the last two consecutive African Biblical Leadership (ABLI) Forums. He has a passion for the place of the Bible in public life and the role of the Church in bringing peace and reconciliation. We asked him to reflect on the Bible, public life and political climate in South Sudan. We will present this conversation in two parts, and here is the first part.
Describe your first encounter with the Bible?
This question is touching. My encounter with the Bible goes back to the 1980s. As a son of a local preacher (Lay Reader) of the Wider Anglican Communion, before understanding what it is; let alone what it contains, I had observed my late father always carrying his Bible under his armpit while going to lead prayers. Seeing my father carrying it daily, I thought that the Bible is like any other book.
My personal encounter with the Bible goes back to early 1980s. It was the worst period in my life and that of my country, Sudan (then the Republic of South Sudan). It was a time of hopelessness, because the war was intensifying. It was at this time that thousands of our people died of hunger. It was a time of despair. I found nourishment in the Bible when attending a religious conference tailored for senior secondary school leavers in Torit, Eastern Equatoria. The passage that changed my life and gave me hope was from St. Paul’s letter to Romans 8.38–39 (‘For I am certain that nothing can separate us from his love; neither death nor life, neither angels nor other heavenly rulers or powers, neither the present nor the future, neither the world above nor the world below – there is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord.’)
I found nourishment in the Bible when attending a religious conference tailored for senior secondary school leavers in Torit, Eastern Equatoria.
Since then, I learned a lot from the Bible. The second moment was during my 21 years’ service with the then Sudan Council of churches Radio Station after the completion of my Diploma in Christian Communication from Trinity and All Saints College, Leeds (UK) in 1988. The weekly programmes we produced contained biblical elements exposing me further to it. These were some of not only turning moments but also memorable years of my life. Now with all these, the Bible becomes a strong tool in my political career. For example, in the National Assembly in Khartoum among the Muslim MPs, I do read the Bible in the chambers before the sitting officially commences.
How does the Bible shape your political life?
The Bible continues to shape my life. The Bible has now become my guide in most of my actions that I take or those that I plan to take. Without the Bible one would have fallen as a victim to many corrupt practices. Being a politician in a corruption infested third world (in which South Sudan is a part) expose one to variety of temptations.
Sometimes it is difficult for an individual to measure himself or herself on how they are living a shaped faithful life. My country (RSS) underwent a series of corruption challenges. One among many of these is what we continue to call ‘The Dura Saga’. Dura in Arabic language translates as sorghum – a common staple grain. In The Dura Saga about $4.5 billion dollars got lost from the national treasury between 2005–2008. Those implicated are senior South Sudanese government leaders, some of whom unfortunately were Parliamentarians who happened to be Christians. All these result from forged documents without actually delivering a single grain to the affected people. In such instances, one could never say these individuals were not exposed to the Bible. Despite reading the Bible, the value of integrity was not ingrained in their lives. The reason is that this is a matter of individual commitment for those who fear the Lord and willing to be guided by the Holy Spirit.
Despite reading the Bible, the value of integrity was not ingrained in their lives.
Some believe that you need to put your belief and your Bible behind you to become a public servant. Your take on that is:-
Exactly, that was the slogan during the protracted civil war when the then Republic of the Sudan was at war with itself particularly between Southern Sudan (now the Republic of South Sudan) and Northern Sudan (now the Republic of the Sudan). We in the South were fighting for a secular state, while the Sudanese want to maintain Islamic laws.
This scenario led to most of our South Sudanese senior politicians to sharply deviate from practicing their basic Christian values. In other word, a politician who wants to practice his/her Christian belief is looked at with mixed feelings. Some South Sudanese politicians became converts to Islam to earn a living. Individuals were not able to openly define their own beliefs in a hostile environment.
Putting away one’s belief to become a public servant is a misguided notion. History can testify here that those missionaries who took the Gospel seed to what was then referred to as the Darkest Continent (Africa) were not ordained church ministers.
For example, come February 2017 the Anglican Diocese of Yei from which I hail will be celebrating its centenary. Those first British missionaries who risk their lives to come to our villages e.g. Paul Gibson in Yei, and Dr Frazer who served among the Morus in Munduri Diocese were not ordained pastors. I was told some of these British Anglican Missionaries came from medical or military disciplines.
I am one of those who are against putting my belief away in order to become a public servant. I strongly believe that my Christian faith has a positive influence on my public service by constantly reminding me of the fact that Jesus Christ was a servant. Moreover, putting away our Christian belief covers the light which is supposed to shine before people, so that they will see the good things we do and praise our father in heaven. (Matthew 5.16).
Some people claim that the South Sudanese conflict has a religious dimension. In other words, despite being a Christian majority country, the prevalence of traditional way of life and tribalism makes it difficult for the Bible to penetrate and positively transform cultural values of the society.
Very admirable question as it touches a raw nerve. In a nutshell, the answer to this question could be yes, and no. South Sudan is a land of over 64 tribes from the three former British designed Provinces. These Provinces are Bahae El Gazal Province with it capital in Wau, Equatoria Province with its capital in Juba, and Upper Nile Province with its capital in Malakal. When missionaries flocked to the Sudan, many of them met stiff resistance from the Northerners who were predominately Muslim. As such, some of these missionary groups moved South with the British continent declaring it a closed district.
Here there was a scramble among the different Christian denominations. For instance, the Catholic Church claimed its part; the Anglican Church also did the same. These two are the denominations that command large numbers of followers in the country. Other denominations like the Presbyterian, African Inland, and Pentecostal Churches don’t compare in size with the Catholic or the Anglican Churches.
After all, the actors in this conflict are South Sudanese themselves, some of who maintain their traditional African belief although possessing Christian names.
The strictest rule by almost all these foreign missionaries was their preaching against polygamy which is a common practice in most parts of Africa even today. Some of these Christian denominations allow alcohol consumption. These are a few examples I could give. Therefore, some denominations are more permissive than the others when it comes to traditional life, and as such inability or ability to transform culture depends on modes of teaching. Admittedly, in a society that is not exposed for modern way of life like that of South Sudan where illiteracy rate is about 75% can struggle with negative influence of tradition. Fresh stories are still being heard of some prominent politicians, for example, seeking magic to remain in power. Regrettably, some of these South Sudanese politicians are probably regular church goers who want to maintain the status quo.
I could narrow my answer to this question in a sense that the impact of the traditional African way of life is still prevalent among the South Sudanese people despite massive propagation of the gospel. But the current conflict in South Sudan seems to have little religious dimension. After all, the actors in this conflict are South Sudanese themselves, some of who maintain their traditional African belief although possessing Christian names. You could make a judgement about the way the country is governed by its sharp ethnic divisions. And Mathew in his gospel says, ‘if a country divides itself into groups which fight each other that family will fall apart’ (Matthew 3.24). South Sudan will ever remain deeply rooted in Christ, but its corrupt leaders will fade away.
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