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.
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.
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.