South Sudan: Famine, War, and Hope

The fields of South Sudan could feed the whole continent.

Three years ago, Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) flew us from Uganda onto a dirt landing strip in Yei South Sudan, a wind-blown village bravely holding onto life. For four days, with 90 chiefs, elders, and government ministers, we endeavored to broker a peace. These weren’t enemies because of religion; instead, they were fighting and killing each other over cattle dowries. In a Dispatch then, I outlined the feud going on among the tribes.

Recently, I landed with Aiah Fouday-Khanenje, head of the Association of Evangelicals in Africa, in Juba, capital of this newest of nations, South Sudan. Since its 2011 independence, warring factions within the government has left thousands dead and exasperated food shortages. Five years after independence it has what it wanted: nationhood. But it also got what it didn’t want: civil war.

At home in Canada, a friend winced when he heard of the places I visit. He asked, “How can you do it?”

I heard myself say, “I love being there.” There are more convenient and comfortable places to visit; yet it is here, in a county hanging on by its fingernails, that one experiences the joy of faith. The opportunity to make a difference sounds its call.

A Great African Nation

As a country, before its separation into the north and south, Sudan was Africa’s largest. It was critical to the spread of the Christian message. One of the largest missionary agencies in the world, SIM, had its name by way of this country: Sudan Interior Mission. Catastrophe after calamity, this area and its people are still at the forefront of the church. What they do and become matters, and this is made more urgent by the steady crawl southward of Islamic influence.

Historically, Sudan has had …

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Interview: Stephen Mansfield: Why So Many Conservative Christians Wanted a ‘Pagan Brawler’ in the White House

And how their choice of Trump has affected the church since last year’s election.

Election 2016 ended a year ago, but its effects on American culture, including the American church, persist. Many are still asking how Donald Trump became president, and what part evangelical Christians played in making that happen. Stephen Mansfield, author of bestselling books about the religious faith of recent American presidents, believes that faith matters in the story of President Trump as well. Choosing Donald Trump: God, Anger, Hope, and Why Christian Conservatives Supported Him describes Trump’s remarkable partnership with conservative evangelicals. Blogger Samuel D. James spoke with Mansfield about what the events of last year mean for Christians and how a divided American church can heal.

Is it fair to consider Donald Trump a prosperity-gospel Christian?

He’s definitely drawn to the side of Christianity that preaches personal power, prosperity, and success in this world. Part of that preconditioning comes from his years hearing sermons from Norman Vincent Peale, who wrote The Power of Positive Thinking. Peale privately believed in “born again” Christianity, but Trump fed from the stream in Peale’s thought that was essentially secular motivational philosophy. Trump sees himself as a religious man and sees his own success as the result of living out certain religious principles—just not the ones at the heart of the gospel.

You describe how meeting with religious leaders during the campaign gave Trump something of an “education” he didn’t know he needed. Were his stances on religious liberty, abortion, and socially conservative issues a product of political ambitions?

A good illustration is his approach to the Johnson Amendment, which prevents pastors from endorsing …

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The Game of Thrones Christians Should Be Watching

Arab believers assess crown prince’s pledge to modernize Saudi Arabia’s Islam.

Before the crown prince of Saudi Arabia stunned the world with his sudden arrest of dozens of fellow princes and millionaires on corruption charges, he stunned many Christians with his stated desire to moderate its version of Islam, commonly dubbed Wahhabism.

Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932 as an alliance between Bedouin warriors of the al-Saud tribe and strict Salafi Muslim scholars following Mohamed ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Discovering oil six years later, it also became one of the Muslim world’s wealthiest nations. The combination has led many religious freedom advocates to blame Saudi petrodollars for funding a worldwide rise in Islamist extremism.

But last month, Mohammad bin Salman said his conservative Muslim country would return to “what we were before: a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world.”

Extremist ideas would be destroyed, the crown prince proclaimed, blaming Iran for sparking Saudi Arabia’s notoriously tight religious control. He pledges now to reverse this and stamp out extremism.

“What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia,” bin Salman said. “What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries; one of them is Saudi Arabia. We didn’t know how to deal with it.”

But many aspects of Saudi Arabia’s closely regulated enforcement of Abd al-Wahhab’s version of Sunni Islam were in place long before Shiite Iran’s revolution.

Many analysts—including Christians—are skeptical of the scapegoating. In terms of faith, Saudi leaders have long applied the deathbed instructions of Muhammad that …

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What’s a Christian to Do with Statements and Confessions?

Public pressure to sign or abstain from them undermines their greatest value.

Two recent documents remind us of the importance of doctrinal clarity and how hard it is to achieve unity on doctrine.

The Nashville Statement addresses a burning issue of our day: human sexuality. The social and political pressures to deny the biblical teaching on God’s intent for our sexuality are immense, and we believe the statement’s creators clearly grasp the need to stand firm. This is not merely an ethical debate about what one can and cannot do in the bedroom; in fact, on this issue rest crucial aspects of the doctrine of Scripture and theological anthropology.

Unfortunately, in attempting to clarify classic orthodox belief, the Nashville Statement ended up confusing some issues and has divided advocates of biblical sexuality. This is in part because it was largely driven by The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (although the group had conversations with other organizations) and lacked broader participation, failing to garner a consensus among those most deeply sympathetic to its main affirmations.

For example, the Nashville Statement says, “We deny that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.” This critiques those who, while honoring the Bible’s teaching to refrain from same-sex relations, still describe themselves as “gay Christians.” Some signers of the statement have argued that our identity cannot be grounded in a broken state but instead must be grounded in Christ. This argument fails to appreciate the nuances of identity, however.

Take the parallel example of Christians who are alcoholics—an admittedly tired and imperfect comparison but one that is still apt. Some long …

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How to Care for Abuse Survivors in Your Congregation

Practical ways to care for the wounded.

Alex left home 10 years ago when he was 18 and hasn’t been to church since. When a friend at work mentioned going to church, Alex felt nagging guilt. Alex hoped that by attending church with his friend he might feel better about himself.

As a young boy, Alex was sexually abused by his uncle. When Alex told his parents about the abuse, they instructed him to “be a good Christian” and forgive his uncle. It’s been years since Alex has seen his uncle, but the shame left by the abuse remains and has made him feel disconnected.

Alex remembers his former pastor’s attempts at transparency during sermons. The pastor spoke about arguments with his wife on the way to church and failure to rest on Sabbath days. “If those are the darkest aspects of your life,” Alex thought, “you could never understand my experiences.”

While sitting in the church service with his coworker, Alex felt worse about himself. Everyone else seemed put together and healthy. “I’m broken and out of place,Alex thought.

Alex’s experience is one of many stories about the aftermath of abuse and how attending church can be difficult for those who, like Alex, have endured trauma. No single statistic captures the ubiquity of abuse. The National Center for PTSD estimates that 7 to 8 percent of the general population will have Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some point. However, there are many people who do not neatly fit a PTSD diagnosis but have experienced what psychologists call “attachment trauma” and other forms of abuse or neglect. The National Center for Victims of Crime shares that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys are victims of sexual abuse. The National Domestic Violence …

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The Promise and Failure of Antibiotics

How the church can play a key role in better stewardship of antibacterial medicine and avert a global health crisis.

In 2013 the American Academy of Pediatrics began encouraging doctors to treat certain ear infections with what they called “watchful waiting,” an attempt to combat the skyrocketing incidence of antibacterial resistance that was due in part to the overuse of antibiotics.

For me, that meant when exhausted parents showed up in my ER halfway through a sleepless night with a child cradling a painful ear, I could explain to them that in 95 percent of cases the infection is viral and therefore not helped by antibiotics. We could talk about ways to make the symptoms better, how the infection would likely resolve itself in a matter of days. I could point out that starting antibiotics to treat a viral infection could, in fact, cause diarrhea, allergic reactions, and most importantly, antibacterial resistance that could reemerge as a severe and even life-threatening infection in their child in later years.

I could then give the parents a prescription for antibiotics and tell them that if the fever and pain weren’t gone in 48 hours—the point at which most viral infections would have resolved—they could fill the prescription and start the medication.

I have spent hours on these conversations: urging parents to be patient, reinforcing that antibiotic resistance is a real and dangerous side effect, and trying to convince them that waiting is in the best interest not only of their child but of their entire community. The drug-resistant bacteria that develop from unnecessary or inappropriately administered courses of antibiotics are a real risk to children and everyone children “share their cooties with.” I hand over my prescription, ask them again not to fill it for two days, and then call them back …

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The African Diaspora (Part 1): A Brief History and Lessons

Immigrant lessons from Joseph, Daniel, Esther, and Nehemiah

We live in a world where emigration is an option for many people. For some, persecution or famine in their own country causes them to flee their homeland. Many of us know people who have felt forced to emigrate. For others, the promise of a better life for their family is hard to resist. Still others move to another country for an education or a job opportunity and never return to their homeland. Many of us emigrate to Europe or America, but the African diaspora is worldwide. For instance, a large African community lives in Guangzhou, China.

Diaspora means the dispersion of people from their original homeland. There were two examples of a diaspora in the Old Testament—the voluntary immigration of the Israelites into Egypt and the forced immigration of the Jews to Assyria and Babylon.

The people of Africa have been dispersed throughout the world perhaps more than the people of any other continent.

Thirteen hundred years ago, Arabs took Africans from their homelands in East Africa to the Middle East to be slaves. Three hundred years ago, Europeans took Africans from West Africa to Europe and the Americas for the same purpose. Today, many Africans emigrate voluntarily. Do Africans living in other countries have to renounce their faith, their origins, or their culture? How can they have a positive influence on their new country? What are their responsibilities to their home country?

We can learn from stories in the Bible about those who have emigrated from their homeland. Most of these stories involved forced immigration (although Jacob immigrated to Egypt voluntarily), but they still show us how believers should or should not act in a new land.

Learning from Joseph

Sold to Ishmaelite traders by his jealous and bitter brothers, …

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Are Evangelicals Losing the Gospel in Our Day?

The Gospel itself never changes; the way we share the Gospel must.

When preaching the gospel, many preachers today are talking less about forgiveness and getting to heaven and more about bringing God’s kingdom to earth and changing and healing the world in the here and now.

Is this a good thing?

No and yes. Let me explain.

The gospel is always the gospel of grace, which is about what God has done, and therefore about what we can only receive and never earn. On top of that, in Colossians 4:4, Paul asks the church in Colossae to “pray that I may declare the Gospel clearly, as I should.” Clarity on the proclamation of the gospel is always paramount.

Paul expresses his desire to present the gospel clearly, but also acknowledges that it’s not always easy to do that. My guess is that we can all relate. We all want to be able to clearly explain the gospel, but we’ve also been in conversations where, despite our best efforts, there still seems to be a significant disconnect with those listening to us. How do we move past that?

Changing How We Understand Communicating the Gospel

How do we clearly communicate the gospel in a way that connects to those around us? How do we ensure we really ‘get’ the gospel clearly so we can communicate the gospel clearly?

Although the gospel itself never changes, our understanding of the gospel can change, and the way we communicate it must change with the shifting cultural tides if the world around us is to clearly hear and receive the good news.

For many years, sharing the good news of Jesus for evangelicals meant explaining how his death and resurrection provided for the forgiveness of sin and the promise of heaven. Although forgiveness and heaven are just as true now as they have always been, how we communicate those truths is …

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A Punk Rock Rebel Returns to Church

I was parked between “spiritual but not religious” and “New Age dilettante” when depression threw me into God’s arms.

I have always been a person of gloom. Even as a small child, I suffered bouts of depression salted with anxiety before I even knew what the words meant. From toddlerhood on, insomnia overtook me as I tried rocking myself to sleep. I didn’t want to get up in the morning. I wouldn’t brush my hair. I didn’t want to go to school.

But I did go to church. Until I didn’t.

I’m a cradle Christian, raised on Sunday school classes with picture books of Moses bobbing in the basket in the reeds and Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus in the straw-dusted manger. Christmas Eve meant candlelight services, and the rest of the year was punctuated with youth group performances of schlocky Jesus-pop musicals. I attended Bible study after school, and in the summer our teacher toted us to rallies where I’d win scoops of candy for correctly reciting Scripture verses.

My sensory memories of church were always profound: the heady scent of stargazer lilies on the Easter altar, pine boughs and candle wax at Christmas. When “Do You Hear What I Hear?” played on the stereo, hearing “A star, a star, dancing in the night / With a tail as big as a kite” felt like having a hand wrap around my heart and give it a loving squeeze. I even liked the zing of fear I got from scary biblical lore. Watching The Ten Commandments every year, my favorite moment came when I’d superstitiously hold my breath as the spooky Angel of Death drew across the sky, bypassing houses that had lamb’s blood painted on the lintel. Whew, close one!

Depression, Sarcasm, and Cynicism

Meanwhile, the darkness within kept creeping. Way back in second grade, an upsetting session with a school psychologist had given me the impression …

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Evangelical Distinctives in the 21st Century

The first in a series on the meaning and place of a historic movement.

The evangelical faith is going through another of its spasms of critical self-reflection. Every week, it seems another prominent person claims that “evangelicalism is in crisis” or that they no longer want to be identified with the word evangelical.

This sort of thing happens when some evangelicals do something scandalous in the eyes of another part of the movement. In the recent past, many were disturbed by the televangelist scandals of Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and others. Over the last year, many American evangelicals have been aghast at other evangelicals’ support for Donald Trump and their general political conservatism. Meanwhile, the movement has seen increased division over racial reconciliation and sexual ethics.

There is nothing new under the sun. I remember my days at evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary in the mid-1970s, deciding that evangelical had no real meaning other than a code word for some that meant “real Christian.” After 50 years in the movement, I’ve come to believe it really does mean something. But like many realities we can’t define with absolute precision (gender differences, happiness, time, consciousness), the reality exists.

This series of essays will try to describe the hard-to-pin-down reality that is evangelical faith as it has expressed itself throughout history and today across the globe. It has been and continues to be an extraordinary phenomenon of God, changing not only individual lives but the trajectory of nations. Like all great movements, it is subject to misunderstanding and mischaracterization. Because of the way the media covers it, the larger public today tends to think of it as primarily a political movement with a religious veneer. …

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