Month: May 2023

An Old Exile and a New War

Sudan is at war. 

The uneasy, unsettled surface of relative peace in Sudan cracked to reveal unresolved conflict that may continue for a long time to come. After genocidal dictator Bashir was ousted in 2019, Sudan’s military leaders took temporary control of the country under internationally brokered plans to hand the country back to civilian rule according to a set timeline. 

In the past weeks, deadlines were not met, and two military factions began all-out war to secure sole rule over the country. The fighting has been centered in Khartoum, the capital. And Sudanese there and around the world have watched in horror as the heart of their country and culture has spiraled into chaos. Infrastructure has broken down—water, food, and electricity are inconsistent at best, as well as phone and Wi-Fi communication networks and basic travel routes. 

Hospitals were first overflowing, then running out of supplies because of looting or inability to restock, and many had to finally close their doors because staff and patients couldn’t get there through the crossfire in the streets. The international airport is bombed and smoldering. People are escaping on foot if they have to, across any borders they can access. Dead bodies lie decaying in the streets because there are no relatives left to bury them, or no way to retrieve them and find a place to put them to rest. As the war has dragged on, wartime atrocities have increased in the chaos, including armed robbery and rape even of young girls. Most Sudanese are in shock. The civilians want nothing to do with this war, and they feel powerless to protect their own families. 

A few of my friends are there. Exponentially more of my friends’ families are there. My heart is heavy and I grieve with many of them as they deal with everything from survivor’s guilt to waiting interminably to hear from family members if they’ve survived the last few days. We’ve lamented and cried and prayed. But mostly, we wait. And we try to handle the worry and the fear the best we can from afar. I have turned to stories from the Exile in the Old Testament. They feel so very alive under the shadow of the war. 

Studying scripture within a different culture gives different eyes to see it with. When I lived and worked with people who experienced oppression and racism because of their ethnicity, it highlighted new realities in the Bible for me. I personally knew teenaged boys who had both a secret name from their culture, and a separate name in the language and culture they interacted with at school and in daily life outside their homes. The stories about Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah took on a whole new meaning. As those young boys learned to operate in a culture that penalized them for being Hebrews, they had to take on the names and culture and learning of a different people to survive. They walked a difficult tightrope of preserving their culture and their faith in God, while still trying to build a life and a home in a foreign culture. They became Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. 

Living myself in a few different places over the past years, the opening stories in the book of Ezekiel gained fresh life for me as well. God appears to his people exiled to a foreign land in the bizarre shape of a holy throne room that roves the earth attended by angels with many faces, and wheels that can travel vast distances in any direction. Feeling country-less and uprooted myself, I felt with fresh warmth the love of a God whose presence is everywhere with his people, not limited by the geography of a church or a tabernacle. He is not constrained by borders on a map or languages, or even a particular culture’s understanding of what God should look or be like. He can be both foreign and familiar to me when I feel both my new home and my own heart to be a shifting mixture of foreign and familiar. When I feel like I have many different faces in the cultures I travel between, God shows himself and his servants to be all things to all people as well, and to carry many faces looking in many different directions too. 

And now that I live in Uganda and rub shoulders with people who daily live the realities of refugees exiled unwillingly from their homeland, the stories from Israel’s exile come alive in whole new ways as well. I returned to Ezekiel again, as I told a friend, “like snuggling into warm blankets.” This book was written by someone freshly grappling with living the rest of his life in a land that felt unfamiliar and hostile. And though he speaks difficult truths to his own people about the depth of their sin and the extent God would go to in order to break them from their self-destructive habits, Ezekiel also shared perfect jewels of hope specifically tailored to comfort these same people. As I watched Sudanese friends here begin to grapple with the effects of the war, I knew I needed to dig deep into these exile stories to better understand their experiences. And I hoped to find answers for my own aching spirit about what possible good the Lord could bring to Sudan and her people out of such abominations.

Many verses and themes in Ezekiel have felt particularly “present” in connection to the war. The vision of God’s four-faced cherubim and the wheels covered in eyes the roam the earth has been a comfort again. It’s a reminder that God is never far from his people, and that his eyes see all the atrocities and his justice will not ignore them. It has been a comfort too, to know that just as God called Ezekiel to be a prophet to his people, so God continues to raise up believing Sudanese to share his Word and his message of salvation with their own people. 

It is also a bitter truth that Ezekiel saw God’s Glory, or presence, leaving the temple. He ‘left’ the people of Israel after they repeatedly ignored and disobeyed the very God who had protected them. But even this was a mercy, to show the people that without him, they can only be lost and scattered—fearful, unprotected, unable to fend for themselves. An overwhelming majority of Sudanese are Muslims. One of my recurring prayers has been for this war to help them see their need for God, and to drive them into his embrace where they will experience his sufficiency to meet their needs, peace that passes understanding, and personal, motherly love. 

But some of Ezekiel has read like looking in a mirror. As he taught about the siege of Jerusalem, he ate small, measured amounts of food, and sipped his allotment of water anxiously to show the desperation people would feel when they would not be able to find enough food and water to live on. He also graphically demonstrated the fear of violence the people would live under, the city streets scattered with bodies, and the overwhelming amount of death from starvation, disease, and brutality. I’ve heard those same feelings of desperation almost every time someone shares an update from relatives still in Sudan, and some of the exact Biblical words and phrases in the mouths of my friends have sent a chill down my spine. 

Those in Jerusalem couldn’t believe Ezekiel when he told them war would come to their city, that their pride and joy, the heart of their country, would be under attack. I have heard that same shock as people here have talked about the war, about the smoke rising and the rockets exploding in their capital. One friend turned to me spoke like an Old Testament prophet herself when she said, “In Khartoum people closed their eyes to the war in Darfur [the genocide in western Sudan for nearly the past twenty years]. They said, ‘nothing will happen to us. We are safe here.’ Khartoum slept and now the war has come for them.” 

Like Ezekiel when he fell down and cried out to the Lord to ask if he would destroy the entire remnant of his people, my friends and I have wondered and asked God what will be left of Khartoum, of Sudan when or if this fighting finally stops. The second time Ezekiel falls on his face and asks this question (11:13), the Lord’s answer froze me, and I held my breath as I read: 

“… the people of Jerusalem have said of your fellow exiles and all the other Israelites, ‘They are far away from the Lord; this land was given to us as our possession.’

Therefore say: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Although I sent them far away among the nations and scattered them among the countries, yet for a little while I have been a sanctuary for them in the countries where they have gone.’

Therefore say: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will gather you from the nations and bring you back from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you back the land of Israel again.’

They will return to it and remove all its vile images and detestable idols. I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God. But as for those whose hearts are devoted to their vile images and detestable idols, I will bring down on their own heads what they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord.”

Then the cherubim, with the wheels beside them, spread their wings, and the glory of the God of Israel was above them. The glory of the Lord went up from within the city and stopped above the mountain east of it. The Spirit lifted me up and brought me to the exiles in Babylonia in the vision given by the Spirit of God.”

Ezekiel 11:15-24

Wow. The Sudanese refugees mourn their land. It is their family heritage, their possession. I have seen the extra grief of loved ones buried in Ugandan soil, and the burden of knowing they will be left behind if their family can ever return to Sudan. Their ‘exile’ as refugees feels like a punishment, like a sign that God is far from them. But God says otherwise. 

The Sudanese are not the same as the Israelites, and they don’t have the same promises and covenant that God gave to them. But God is the same God. And his heart toward his children holds the same loving care and desire to heal and reconcile them to himself. So, like the Israelites, God has sent many Sudanese away from their homeland. And as they have been scattered in Egypt and South Sudan and Uganda and Chad and elsewhere, he has been a sanctuary for them. 

God has protected many Sudanese displaced from their homes over these long years of war. He has been a place of comfort and safety for them even if, like the Israelites Ezekiel spoke to, they did not even acknowledge him as their God. But we hope and pray that, like God has done for many of the Jews, he will gently gather back the Sudanese and give them back their homeland. 

As I lament and pray, will you pray with me? Will you pray that through this painful and horrific process, when the Sudanese do return home, it will not be with worship and devotion to ancestors or evil spirits or any other false gods in their hearts—that they will return with an undivided heart and a new spirit. 

Just as God has done throughout all history for those who have believed and followed him, he can take away the Sudanese’s hearts of stone that are dead and numb and enslaved to sin. And he can give them soft hearts that turn toward him. We pray it may be so, Holy Spirit. May the Sudanese be your people, and you their God. Let those who have begun this war, who continue to hunger for violence, bring down their own punishment on their heads. 

Lord, may your glory and your presence still hover near to the Sudanese, and may those still waiting in exile find comfort in your words and in your heart for restoration.