Daniel Deng Bul Yak: What is peace?

The archbishop of Sudan describes his vision. He says his responsibility as a Christian leader is to help build a “trusted peace” in a nation wracked by war.


In January 2005 the United States signed on as one of the guarantors of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which sought to end 21 years of war in the African country of Sudan. Today, the CPA is at risk as violence and warfare continues.

The Most Rev. Dr. Daniel Deng Bul Yak was installed as archbishop and primate of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan in April 2008. The archbishop recently talked with Faith & Leadership about his prophetic calling as he urges the international community to fulfill its commitment to the peace in Sudan.

Previously, Deng Bul was a bishop of Renk on the volatile border between northern and southern Sudan. He founded Renk Theological College and served as chairman of the ECS Justice, Peace and Reconciliation Commission in the Sudan.

In his June 2009 pastoral letter, Deng Bul wrote, “This time we need freedom. For 50 years the people of Sudan have been through great suffering … Two-and-a-half million dead is enough.”  On Sept. 1, the archbishop issued a statement asking for help from the government and international community to help prevent attacks on civilians after 40 people were killed in late August, including an archdeacon shot dead during a morning prayer service.

Q: Talk about your political involvement and how it relates to your leadership in the church.

It is the responsibility of faithful leadership in the church to let the political leaders be aware of the mistakes they are making. Sometimes politicians’ actions are against human beings, and we have to let them be aware that they have gone wrong. [Church leaders] don’t join Parliament. We don’t seek to be elected, but we must let them be aware that somebody is checking that things are done in the right way. Politics have only one direction, but we have an obligation as religious leaders, as prophets, to let the world hear the other side of the coin.

Politics means you have to join the game, but [religious leaders] have to be outside the game. You have to watch the people playing the game, and you have to police them. You have to warn the nation, warn the people. You have to let the people see how they are really leading the nation. I have to tell the politicians what is wrong. That is my job. Ezekiel said you are like a dog that barks when seeing something wrong; that’s how I work as a church leader. When you don’t do that, then you are part of the politics and you only say, “Oh, OK, I’ll leave the politicians to do what they want to do.” At the end of the day, they may drive the train into the sea, so it’s better to caution them so that they don’t drive the train into the sea.

Q: In July you spoke to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church and asked the church to make peace in Sudan a top priority. What can American church institutions and individuals do to help the situation in Sudan?

There are huge things that the church in America could do to help. If we really believe in one body of Jesus Christ then it is the obligation of the church in America to see to it that there is peace for their brothers and sisters in Sudan. As Christians it is our responsibility to make sure that peace is sustainable in Sudan. Individuals can come to Sudan. They can do the development. The American government is one of the guarantors of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Sudan. That is an obligation already taken over by the government of the United States. People can pressure their government to make sure that the peace in Sudan does not collapse.

It depends on how you can conceive of it. If you conceive of our problem in Sudan as our own problem, that’s it; but tomorrow that problem can come to you. Human beings are the same. We are connected together, and all of us need to send a signal to all the people in the world. We have to tell them. That’s my work. That is the work of the Sudanese, to inform the people in America that there is a danger in Sudan.

People [whose lives] have been destroyed by the war for 21 years are coming back. They are coming back from refugee camps. They are coming back from diaspora with their children. They have no hospital. They have nothing. They have no school. No clean water. Nothing. The basic rights of a human being are not there. They have not felt the dividends of peace.

It is the obligation of Christian brothers and sisters in America to come in and say these are people who are beginning life. They should come in with whatever they have and support the innocent people who are returning to the country of Sudan. When you have the school, you have the clinic and you have other basic rights of a human being, then it is easier to receive peace.

When you ask people, “What is peace?” -- peace is to have water, to have food, to have education, to have health. Even though there is no shooting going on, there is no peace. These are basic human rights that we could be giving to our people.

Q: How do you maintain a focus on grassroots, local efforts along with the larger, international picture?

The grassroots are really the backbone of a country. When you are in a country where things are very difficult, you need to go to the grassroots. In my work as a church leader I make sure that I am aware of what is happening on the ground and that my people know what I am telling them on the ground. That is very important.

Then if you don’t connect the grassroots to the international community you will be sitting in isolation. The international community has to help the grassroots and the grassroots must be informed of what is happening in the international arena. It is the work of the church to connect the international arena with the grassroots. Some people in America may not know what is happening in Sudan. If somebody did not come to America to tell them, they would not know. I feel that I am in between. I make sure I am informing the international arena and the grassroots so that a dialogue and peace dividends can be realized both ways.

Q: You have made education one of the hallmarks of your episcopacy. Why is that?

Education is a light. It makes you see beyond your understanding. Education is a right of every human being. To eradicate some of the problems facing our people, they must be given a good education. We must make sure that everybody can read and write. When you have people who are educated in your community, in your country, they will know how to reason and they will know how to make their things for themselves. If there is no education, you can easily be turned around by somebody who is educated. Education is one of the keys for life.

Q: In your recent pastoral letter, you said, “a community without vision wastes time and loses energy.” What is your vision for Sudan, and what role does the church play in that?

When I say that a community without vision is wasting time, this is true. If you don’t have a vision for your community, then instead of doing the right thing for your people at the time it is needed you will not see it and you will not do it. That is a waste of time.

When we say “let us make education,” “let us make agriculture” or “let us look for water” and, instead of doing that, either we are quarreling or we think somebody else has stopped us from doing what we talk about, that is wasting time. We need to leave these human grievances behind us so that we can easily capture the advances and the advantages of the world. We need to work as Christians to love one another because we cannot do things unless we are united.

The only thing we are dying for is peace. Without peace, whatever vision we might have will die. Our immediate vision is to make sure we have a trusted peace in our country, a peace that all of us have confidence in. This will open doors for all the people in Sudan. We are looking forward to seeing a united peace in the country where people love one another and people work together on development. That is the vision at the moment.

Q: What do you mean by the phrase “a trusted peace?”

Trusted peace is when everybody is not afraid. You trust that you can sit under a tree without fearing that somebody might come and kill you. You can rear your cattle, and you are not afraid that somebody will take and kill your cattle. A trusted peace is one whereby everybody is feeling that, yes, this is my country and I have a right to live here and nobody will touch me. A trusted peace will grow confidence for the people to love their country.

Q: How does the church in Sudan help bring about that trusted peace?

We are bringing communities together. We are teaching reconciliation. We are teaching unity; we make workshops and conferences to make sure that the communities in the country are living in peace. Our work is to create awareness, to let them understand how important our being together is. We are giving them education. We are opening a primary school and a senior high school. We are opening some clinics in other parts of the country. We are trying to show to them that the church is part of them, and we love them and this is their right. We want to show that to them, but we are handicapped when we don’t have resources.

If you want to address the grassroots, there are basic things you need to have. There’s no way for the grassroots, the community, to survive without giving them basic rights. Those basic rights are the ones we are trying to develop.

We are also trying to let the people be unified, to reconcile them. The school brings people together who have not been together for many years. When people are sharing a facility like a school, they are making peace. Because of that facility that you are providing, you are making peace. It is the same thing with the hospital, the same thing with the water. If you dig a well, the community around will come and they will share that well. That is part of peace.

Q: You’ve been deeply involved in developing Renk Theological College and its partnership with Duke Divinity School and Virginia Theological Seminary through the Renk Visiting Teachers Program. What are the challenges of providing theological education in Sudan?

We are now four years after this peace was signed, coming out of the war when everything was destroyed. There is nothing existing. Nothing tangible now happens but we have some theological institutions coming up. It will take us time really to have them in a proper form because we are coming out of nothing.

Theological education in the country is essential. We are trying to make sure that our priests, our evangelists and our lay people are at least able to read and interpret the Bible. That is our main goal when we talk of theological education.

God has given us the mission of going to the world; that mission is not very simple. We are living in a multiform world where people need to make sure that their faith is well understood. You need to know what you are going to tell the world. If you don’t have a theological education, you are not aware of the gospel you are going to preach and it will be very hard for you. The church is obligated to educate those who are called to become theologians. We must make sure that the word of God is properly interpreted to the people.

The church is not Anglican; it is not Sudanese. The church is the church of God and the world. What we are interested in is: How do you give the word of God fully, in its holiness as it is originally in the book of God?