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Lessons don’t come easy
Just who is saved? they ask, and once more she faces a cultural conundrum


7/1/2006

Madjur Chol Deng
Students from Bor, Malakal and Renk dioceses surround the Rev. Lauren Stanley at the Renk Bible College in South Sudan.   (Madjur Chol Deng)
I teach Christian theology.

I work with students who have had little training, who have not been able to study for any great lengths of time. My job is to figure out what I am supposed to teach them. The course is called "Introduction to Theology," and I have good texts. But what, exactly, am I supposed to teach? Which information do they need to be better trained, better informed, more theologically inclined?

This has been a great conundrum for me here at the Renk Bible College in South Sudan. Many of our students lived in war zones during the recent, 21-year civil war. Many were ordained without going to Bible colleges or seminaries. Most have been preaching and teaching and evangelizing for years, some for decades, helping the Episcopal Church grow in astonishing numbers.

But they haven't had formal training. Which is where I come in. I am supposed to help them understand the history of the church, the theology and doctrines that have been formed over the last two millennia. But what is essential?

As I stand in front of the students and point out the connections between the great "I am" statements of Jesus in John's Gospel and the great "I AM" statement of God to Moses in the burning bush on Mount Sinai … as I teach that Jesus is the new Exodus for a people who had been formed by the Exodus story, that he leads us from death to life, slavery to freedom, oppression to the promised land … as I tell them that we always must pay attention to the Hebrew Bible or we will never understand the New Testament, I wonder: Am I doing the right thing?

For many of these students, the history I teach seems irrelevant: These students have lived with war for 36 of the country's 50 years of independence. War, not peace, has formed their lives, and it has formed their faith.

The Episcopal Church in Sudan has spent the last two decades struggling to survive. Sometimes, when I am talking about Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Barth, I wonder: Is this what they need to know? Or am I being some sort of dreaded neocolonialist, imposing Western values on an African society where Christianity is relatively recent?

The majority of the students I teach converted to Christianity at some point in their adult lives. They were traditionalists before that, following the faith of their fathers that was intricately linked with their tribes. They know the passion of evangelism and that moment of transformation and conversion in their own lives. What they don't know is the history of this thing called Christianity… or who the famous theologians are.

The questions I have about what to teach, and how to teach it, all come to a head whenever one of the students asks about salvation. Who is saved? Just Christians? What about Muslims?

This is not an idle theological question here. Sudan is a divided country, with a predominantly Arab Muslim North and a predominantly black, Christian and traditionalist South. The last civil war, which ended only 15 months ago, was racial and religious. The North tried to impose Islam on the South, along with the Arabic language. So this question is not asked lightly. Here, it is quite serious. Here, the answer could have dire consequences.

I tread carefully. I tell them: I don't know.

I know -- I'm a priest of the church. I declared in my ordination vows that I believe that the Holy Scriptures contain all things necessary for salvation. I am teaching Christian theology, for God's sake!

And still, I tell the students: I don't know. I only know what I believe. And I believe that Jesus is the Way and the Truth and the Life. I believe that for me, I need Jesus. But I also tell them this: No one truly knows how God handles salvation. Salvation is God's business, not mine.

Yes, this is a rather universalist approach to salvation. That is the conundrum for me: Do I tell the students what I truly believe, or do I teach some sort of "party line," without interpretation, without reference to other religions, without cautions about inclusivity and logic and graciousness?

The question hangs heavy for me because, if I say that salvation is only for Christians and that all others are lost, which is a literal interpretation of the New Testament, I fear I will help ignite new tensions, new fires in this land where Christianity and Islam butt up against each other daily, where religious tensions remain high and where war has been the way of life for so long.

I am afraid that if I give the universalist answer, I am imposing Western liberal, progressive thought on conservative Africans.  I am afraid that if I quote strictly from the Bible without any attempt at interpretation, I will contribute to more hatred, more despising of the "other," more intolerance.

On the question of salvation, I have taken the middle road: This is what some people, including myself, believe: We can't tell God what to do. We only know what God has told us. And I know that, as a Christian (never mind as a priest), I need Jesus, and I need to follow Jesus.

As for my students? I tell them to pray, read, think and talk about it, then pray some more, then make up their own minds. I don't think this is the essential information they were seeking. But it's the best that I, their teacher, have to offer.

©Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Information Services. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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