Global Christianity: The Cross in Southern Sudan

Posted: March 31, 2009 by Scott Kistler in Missional Thought

I have been teaching an introductory course on the history of Christianity using Mark Noll’s Turning Points as our textbook.  This Sunday’s lesson focuses on the modern-day reality of global Christianity, brought about both by missions and the “indigenization” (or adaptation to local cultures) of the Gospel.  Noll agrees with what I usually hear that missionary activity is the necessary first step that needs to be built on with the appropriation of the Christian message by the converts themselves.

Noll provides an example of this from the Bor Dinka people of southern Sudan (who were deeply affected by the recent civil war in Sudan), for whom the cross is an ever-present symbol, which “represents a Christianization of existing cultural forms, for the Dinka had historically put to use a wide variety of carved walking sticks, staffs, and clubs.  Among Dinka converts, the Christian symbol has filled a form provided by traditional culture.”  He continues:

In the second instance, however, the Dinka appropriation of the cross has also become a powerful expression of pastoral theology.  As revealed in a flourishing of fresh, indigenous hymnody, the cross is now a comprehensive reality of great power.  The cross provides protection against hostile spirits, or jak; the cross figures larges in the baptisms that mark conversions; in hymns the corss becomes an ensign or banner raised high for praise and protection; the cross brings the great God, Nhialic, close to the Dinka in the person of Christ, whose suffering is appropriated with striking subjectivity; the cross is spoken of as the mën, or the solid central post that supports the Dinka’s large, thatched cattle sheds; and the cross becomes a symbol of the potent Spirit who replaces the ancentral jak ([singular] jok), whose protective powers have so obviously failed in recent years.  A song composed by Mary Nyanluaak Lem Bol illustrates the depth to which the cross has entered Dinka culture in desparate times:

We will carry the cross.  We will carry the cross.

The cross is the gun for the evil jok.

Let us chase the evil jok away with the cross.

Note: Noll’s source for his information on the Bor Dinka is Marc R. Nikkel’s “The Cross of Bor Dinka Christians” in Studies in World Christianity 1 (1995): pp. 160-185.

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