A Missionary Zeal for Human Rights

Nuban "friendlies" employed by the British to suppress recalcitrant Nuban groups, 1917. From M.W. Daly's "The Sudan"
Nuban “friendlies” employed by the British to suppress recalcitrant Nuban groups, 1917. From M.W. Daly’s “The Sudan”.

On October 22nd, Ryan Boyette will be honored by Human Rights First at the organization’s annual gala at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan. As the 2014 recipient of the Human Rights First Award, Mr. Boyette will join the ranks of such esteemed advocates as Saad Eddin Ibrahim of Egypt, Denis Mukwege of Congo, and Albie Sachs of South Africa. Such recognition seems at first glance well deserved. Human Rights First describes Mr. Boyette simply as a “human rights advocate” who refused to leave his adopted home in the Nuba Mountains region of Sudan when his “aid organization” evacuated their staff in the wake of growing conflict in 2011. Over the past three years, with admirable courage and determination, Mr. Boyette founded Nuba Reports, an organization that employs an “all Sudanese” staff to document human rights violations and the humanitarian impact of the Sudanese government’s bombing campaign of the Nuba Mountains region.

The aid organization through which Mr. Boyette first travelled to Sudan in 2003 was Samaritan’s Purse. It is, indeed, a very particular type of aid organization, one run by Franklin Graham, a conservative preacher, noted Islamophobe, and the son of Billy Graham. After eight years of dedicated missionary work, Mr. Boyette resigned from Samaritan’s Purse in 2011 to avoid the staff evacuation. While his decision demonstrates considerable commitment to his new home in the Nuba Mountains, there is no indication that it signals an ideological break with evangelical work. Indeed, in late 2011, Nicholas Kristof of the NYT still described Mr. Boyette as an “evangelical Christian deeply motivated by his faith.”

Mr. Boyette’s rapid transformation from soul savior to life saver raises a troubling question about the evangelical appropriation of the language of human rights. When Human Rights First only describes Samaritan’s Purse as an “aid organization” and Mr. Boyette as a “human rights advocate,” their tactful silence about his evangelical motivations draws evangelical humanitarianism into the ambit of human rights work. In so doing, Human Rights First legitimates to a theological project that many in the human rights community—as well as many Sudanese—would find unpalatable.

Mr. Boyette’s successful metamorphosis into a major human rights advocate is particularly ironic in the context of Sudan. In the late 19th and throughout the 20th century, Christian missionary activity has played no small part in shaping the social and political divisions that structure the very conflict Mr. Boyette is now being lauded for documenting.

Llewellyn Henry Gwynne (1863-1957) of the Church Missionary Society of Sudan and other dignitaries at the Gordon Centenary in Khartoum, 1933.
Llewellyn Henry Gwynne (1863-1957) of the Church Missionary Society of Sudan and other dignitaries at the Gordon Centenary in Khartoum, 1933.

Perhaps the most iconographic evangelical in Sudanese political history is Charles Gordon, the Governor-General of Sudan (1833-1885). In the months before Gordon’s death in Khartoum at the hands of the followers of the Sudanese Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmed, the British general and the Sufi rebel exchanged letters, each attempting to convert the other to their faith. When the British returned to Sudan in 1898, and defeated the forces of the Mahdi’s successor, it was partially to avenge the “matrydom” of Gordon, who had become a popular Christian icon back in England. Historian Heather Sharkey describes the missionaries as “partners in empire,” while anthropologist Janice Boddy describes Christian missionary activity as a tool for “quiet crusade” to civilize pagan Sudan. In the following decades, the British justified their rule with the language of “civilizing” the natives and spreading Christianity, especially in the south.

The Christian penetration of the south was deep, contributing to the cultural, linguistic, and religious division of the northern and southern regions of the country. As Mahmood Mamdani has written, the British colonial authorities gave Christian missionaries “exclusive charge” of educational and social policy in the 1920s. English replaced Arabic as the official language in these areas, as Sunday replaced Friday as the official day of rest. Islamic proselytization was banned while Christian proselytization was encouraged. Following the creation of an independent Sudan in 1956, the Christian identity crafted in missionary schools and through British colonial policy became a point of ideological conflict between Khartoum and the South. In the Nuba Mountains region, the animosity towards communities of Christian converts reached a fever pitch in the early 1990s, as the newly installed Islamist government in Khartoum led an atrocious—and arguably genocidal—counter-insurgency campaign through the region.

An English-Arabic Service Book: Forms of Service Sanctioned for Use in the Church of Saint Mary, Wadi Halfa, Sudan. Printed at the Nile Mission Press in Cairo, c. 1930.
An English-Arabic Service Book: Forms of Service Sanctioned for Use in the Church of Saint Mary, Wadi Halfa, Sudan. Printed at the Nile Mission Press in Cairo, c. 1930.

Throughout this period, missionary groups have restyled themselves as humanitarian organizations, but their effect has been no less deleterious. The Swiss-based group Christian Solidarity International was the largest of about a dozen organizations that undertook massive slave “redemption” campaigns throughout the 1990s. These campaigns sought to buy freedom for Christian captives of militia raids in towns and villages across south Sudan. Such campaigns, as some have argued, have greatly expanded the slave trade. In the United States and across Western Europe, evangelical campaigns raised millions of dollars from church groups and school children, inadvertently providing slave raiders, traders, and owners with a lucrative international market in which to sell their captives.

Of course, an evangelical Christian can also be a human rights advocate. Across the globe, some of the most dedicated advocates of human dignity are members of faith communities, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and otherwise. But Human Rights First should acknowledge their honoree’s complicated history in public—or find someone else to honor. A more straightforward account of Mr. Boyette’s evangelism would indicate that Human Rights First respects their supporters and funders enough to give them the more truthful and less compelling story of how and why Mr. Boyette found himself in the Nuba Mountains, documenting the human rights abuses that his missionary predecessors helped to foment. While neither Human Rights First nor their honorees can change the past, they should not efface it, either.

About Max Shmookler

Max Shmookler is a MESAAS doctoral student at Columbia University, where he works on trends in contemporary Sudanese literature and the place of Arabic as a language of poetry and thought in the modern Middle East. He lived for many years in Cairo. His first collection of translations (with Najlaa Othman) was published online by Words Without Borders in December, 2013. He is the co-editor of “The Book of Khartoum”, which is forthcoming from Comma Press (2015).

3 thoughts on “A Missionary Zeal for Human Rights

  1. Great piece! It’s important that Human Rights First and other organizations recognize and speak openly about evangelical involvement in Sudan and elsewhere. It’s not that evangelicals can’t be human rights activists — they increasingly are. But evangelical involvement in Sudan, and the work of Samaritan’s Purse in particular, has a very complicated history, where bravery and commitment were mixed with politics and policies that encouraged a view of Sudan’s conflicts in religious (Christian-Muslim) terms. Human Rights First does need to acknowledge this history.

  2. Mr. Shmookler: I wish you would have contacted me before writing this. You based your piece on assumptions about my beliefs, my work and my life. I have received no email from you asking about the work that I do. I don’t see how this kind of misinformed armchair “opinionating” is valuable.

    What would be valuable, is writing about what’s happening to the people of Sudan. They’re going through constant bombardment and the burning of their villages. Thousands of them are being displaced from their homes.

    As a result of the current conflict, many students have lost their chance to get an education and contribute to Sudanese Literature in the future. I wish this would be the motivation behind your writing and not who I am and who HRF gives their award to. In the grand scheme of things Ryan Boyette, Samaritan’s Purse and HRF are insignificant on a level of importance when compared to the1000s of people that are undergoing great suffering.

    I encourage you to look over our site (www.NubaReports.org) and evaluate some of our video and text reports, that our team of Sudanese journalists, have risked their lives to report. Thank you.

    1. Mr. Boyette,

      I’m grateful for your response. Indeed, my post is an exercise in armchair opinionating. While I don’t see how writing from an armchair, in and of itself, invalidates my opinions, I invite you to share any details about your beliefs that you feel I misrepresented, although keep in mind that I drew my observations from the public record (your NYT interview and other available sources).

      More important, I think, are my questions about the relationship between the current violence in the Nuba Mountains and the history of Christian missionary work in Sudan. These are questions you did not answer, and I would still be curious to hear your thoughts about this morally complex past out of which Samaritan’s Purse comes.

      Numerous people have responded to my post in private, cautioning me that perhaps I concentrated too much on your personal beliefs, and for this, I apologize. But unlike you, I think that, in the grand scheme of things, it is precisely the larger historical ideologies and organizations which create conditions of instability and violence in countries such as Sudan. Human rights advocates such as yourself should not only be aware of this history, but to be clear about the ways in which your own work differs from earlier–and more transparently problematic–interventions, such as the work of Christian Solidarity International. This history of evangelical Christianity in Sudan is not insignificant; it is one of the factors that has led to the very violence you and your colleagues are admirably dedicated to documenting.

      If you have the time and inclination, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on these questions.

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