How the church grew in south Sudan

"They shall all be left to the birds of prey of the mountains and to the animals of the earth. . . . At that time gifts will be brought to the Lord of hosts from a people tall and smooth . . . whose land the rivers divide, to Mount Zion" (Isa. 18:6–7).

On my recent sojourn in southern Sudan, I learned that in the view of the Christians of the Episcopal Church of Sudan, Isaiah 18's description of the sufferings of a people "tall and smooth" refer to them. (Manute Bol, the late Sudanese professional basketball player, was seven feet, seven inches tall.) Suffering came to the people of southern Sudan when President Omar al-Bashir in the predominantly Arab-Muslim north sought to impose Islamic Shari'a law—an effort that sparked a southern uprising and years of civil war. Isaiah's reference to the "gifts brought to the Lord" is taken by the Sudanese churchpeople to mean the mass Christianization of the south; in the midst of civil war the ECS grew from a fledgling missionary enterprise to a church of 5 million (that's twice as many Episcopalians as there are in the U.S.).

From one vantage point this interpretation of Isaiah can seem arbitrary. Fundamentalists in the U.S., for example, sometimes argue that the "land of whirring wings" in Isaiah 18 refers to Apache helicopters and therefore to coming events in the U.S. But looked at another way, the Sudanese Christians' explanation of the passage may be true historically; Ellen Davis of Duke Divinity School says that the Dinka (or Jieng) people of southern Sudan likely were the southernmost Africans known to the Israelites. The Sudanese interpretation also places the south's Christians in the midst of a biblical drama with a cruciform shape of suffering and redemption.