This analysis of how South Sudanese refugees living in Northern Uganda understand the spiritual dimensions of their displacement is sharp:

But the role of the church is not just social. Often, biblical explanations for suffering are presented as a means of comprehending ongoing events. In some cases, biblical passages, for example Isaiah 19 and the prophecy of Kush—provide a direct parallel to lived experience. In others, preachers add their own nuance to biblical ideas. In one Pentecostal church, a pastor explained to the congregation: “You have mismanaged the light. The Lord gave the South Sudanese independence and freedom, but in this period of peace, you turned away from God. You turned to money, you bought things and vehicles, and forgot the gift that our Father had given, you forgot the light that God had given.”

I found that Pentecostal and other religious leaders, and even South Sudanese people themselves replicated the ideas put forward in this church. This is a narrative of individual responsibility for conflict. Independence granted to South Sudan in 2011 is portrayed as a gift given by God. But, enjoying this new freedom, the pastor posits that people turned towards money and ‘sinful living’, away from God, and stopped praying. Peace will only be restored when ordinary people, in exile—not just those actively fighting at home—repent for their sins, in order to be forgiven by God. In this case, this message resonated with the congregation, who, speaking in English, Arabic and local languages, offered desperate pleas for forgiveness, in order for them to be able to return home.

At first glance, this take appears to place responsibility for violence onto those communities themselves displaced by these acts. But for some, this logic, rooted in the bible but transformed to resonate with local experience, provide a tangible explanation for the unexplainable. Through active repentance, during church services and at home, people are given a workable directive through prayers for peace to allow their future return.

Posted by Matthew Loftus

Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org

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