May 16: The Martyrs of the Sudan

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“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” the third-century North African teacher, Tertullian, once wrote. And in no place is that observation more apt than in Sudan, Africa’s largest country, and a land long torn by violence.

British policy in the late nineteenth century was to arbitrarily divide the vast country between a Muslim North and a multiethnic South, limiting Christian missionary activity largely to the latter, an artificial division that has created enduring problems. Since independence, on January 1, 1956, three civilian governments and three military dictatorships have ruled a country that has experienced forty-one years of civil war. During the 1980s Sudan’s internal armed conflict assumed an increasingly religious character, fueled by a northern-dominated Islamic government imposing authoritarian political control, Islam as the state religion, a penal code based on Sharia law, and restrictions on free speech and free assembly.

On May 16, 1983, a small number of Episcopal and Roman Catholic clerical and lay leaders declared they “would not abandon God as they knew him.” Possibly over two million persons, most of them Christians, were then killed in a two-decade civil war, until a Comprehensive Peace Treaty was signed in January 2005. During those years, four million southern Christians may have been internally displaced, and another million forced into exile in Africa and elsewhere. Yet despite the total destruction of churches, schools, and other institutions, Sudanese Christianity, which includes four million members of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan, has both solidified as a faith community, and gradually expanded at home and among refugees, providing steadfast hope in often-desperate setting.

This hymn, written by Sudanese children in exile in Ethiopia, reflects both the tragedy and depth of faith of Sudan’s Christians:

Look upon us, O Creator who has made us.
God of all peoples, we are yearning for our land.
Hear the prayer of our souls in the wilderness.
Hear the prayer of our bones in the wilderness.
Hear our prayer as we call out to you.


I.  O God, steadfast in the midst of persecution, by whose providence the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church: As the martyrs of the Sudan refused to abandon Christ even in the face of torture and death, and so by their sacrifice brought forth a plenteous harvest, may we, too, be steadfast in our faith in Jesus Christ; who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

II.  O God, steadfast in the midst of persecution, by your providence the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church: As the martyrs of the Sudan refused to abandon Christ even in the face of torture and death, and so by their sacrifice brought forth a plentiful harvest, may we, too, be steadfast in our faith in Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


Psalm 116:10–17

Wisdom 3:1–9

Hebrews 10:32–39

Matthew 24:9–14

Preface of Holy Week

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

* * *

We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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20 thoughts on “May 16: The Martyrs of the Sudan

  1. Blaming Sudan’s problems on 19th century British colonial policy is a closet endorsement of Edward Said’s orientalism theory, which is far from universally accepted, so to present it as settled fact is misleading.

    HWHM specializes in random capitalization: why the initial caps for “Comprehensive Peace Treaty”?

    Once again, we seem to be breaking the 50-year rule.

  2. This commemoration is for Trial Use. All elements (Title, Collect, Lections, and Proper Preface) are new.

  3. Subtitle. They need a subtitle of some sort, I think.

    Bio. 2nd paragraph. The 41 years of civil war mentioned … from when to when is that?
    3rd paragraph. What does the phrase ‘… and gradually expanded at home and among refugees … ‘ mean?
    Is the word ‘often-desperate’ a hyphenated word, or two words?

  4. I don’t think this really qualifies for inclusion, and not just because it is too recent a tragic story.

    It is painful to be reminded of the slaughter of so many in Southern Sudan, but I suggest it is too early to introduce this commemoration. Shouldn’t the fifty year guideline apply?

    The bio already needs to be re-written, to cover the miraculous result of the recent plebiscite. The future remains uncertain..

    I also wish we could differentiate those who died for their faith from those who died in the civil war.

  5. Next to last paragraph: since Sudan is IN Africa, being exiled in Africa makes no sense as written. I agree with Nigel Renton – this is too recent and too unsettled for inclusion. And I say that as a member of the Diocese of Virginia, which has longstanding and strong connections to the church in Sudan.

  6. I know little about the situation in Sudan, but I know enough to think this commemoration is worthwhile. The clooect is very good and the readingson target.

  7. There are so many issues with the proposed Martyrs of Sudan commemoration I am not sure where to start.

    First, despite the January referendum which will create a new county of South Sudan in July, fighting is still going on in Sudan. There is now conflict between the Dinka peoples and other tribes such as the Nuer. There are charges and counte- charges of tribalism and corruption and marginalization. Both groups are predominately Christian. This is still evolving current events. We are still praying for peace among these peoples. This is not yet the time for commemoration. And I will only mention the problem of the 50 year “rule.”

    Second, the South Sudanese have a day for commemoration of martyrs on June 30th. They apparently have celebrated this for only a few years, hardly time to see if this will become a tradition or is only the whim of a warlord. If over time, this date comes an established tradition, would it not be proper for the Episcopal Church to honor that date with a commemoration of martyrs?

    Third, the commemoration of martyrs when the death date of a specific person is not the reason does not really belong during the 50 days of Easter. Since this is a commemoration of sacrifice, even death, this belongs during a penitential season, if there are not compelling reasons for it to be somewhere else in the calendar. I know this is not part of the “rules” for setting commemorations, but it makes sense not to put such a commemoration during the season of joy.

    Fourthly, the political tone of the “biography” for the commemoration has already been mentioned. The explanation for the commemoration should be apolitical, even-handed, and factual. As written, the current explanation would tend to foster anti-Islam feelings which is inappropriate.

    Enough for now.

  8. I’d like to agree with others, I think it’s too soon and in contravention of the 50 year rule. I think it’s one of the worthiest modern-era additions to the calendar, but as others have noted, the situation is far from finished. I worry that adding this as a commemoration makes it seem far more over and done than it actually is. Some of my classmates have family in Sudan or grew up there themselves and their consistent worry is that Americans far too often think these things can be filed away when there’s still many years of painful reconciliation before true peace may be had.

    Some points on the entry (which I’d love to see shelved and re-introduced 15-20+ years from now when things aren’t changing every day):

    1) The bio seems to be missing the “martyr” element. There’s mention made of some Christian political leaders and mention made of many people being killed, some of whom happened to be Christian. Were they actually killed for Christ and if so, could we be more explicit about it? I’d love to know more about the specifically Christian martyrdom — baptismal witness unto death — which is rarely reported in the “regular” news.

    2) The readings are great. Great choices all around.

    3) I’m hesitant about the preface choice, but I can’t put my finger on why. I feel that the HW preface should be reserved for JC alone (so HW as well as Sept 14, etc.), but I don’t know if any of the current saint prefaces work.

    Maybe SCLM could propose some new prefaces to be included in HWHM. I’m thinking martyrs, an explicitly Eucharistic preface (the Anglican Missal one warms my heart everytime I hear it), Christ the King, BVM and one or two more. I can’t think of a classic Anglican martyr preface off the top of my head (though the Novus Ordo has one) but I’ll look around to see what I come up with.

    (I’d personally love to see some more feast prefaces — Transfig, Joseph, Maundy — added but that starts sending us down the road to the every day a new preface road of the modern Roman rite and that seems to be a little too much.)

    4) The collect is a solid “B+”** — it seems unbalanced, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. I’ll use it this afternoon and see if I can figure out what feels off.

    ** That’s grading on a curve for HWHM. They are great literary constructs, but a little weak on the relationship between the commemoration and the request. For example, the collect starts here with the “blood of martyrs = seed of the church” theme but then it never picks up on it again. (And they consistently jump through hoops to avoid saying “Lord,” but I’m just an old-fogey on that topic)

  9. I don’t particularly care if we have a 50 year rule, a 25 year rule, 10, 5, or just looks pale and is on hospice care this week. WHAT ARE THE GROUNDS

    • I didn’t click “Reply” for that previous one to be posted yet.
      I was saying, that time period (50 years), or any other time period, seems meaningless without a sense of WHY we have it for some commemorations, but not for some others. I don’t like double standards. WHAT STANDARDS (what criteria — reasons — grounds) warrant waiving the rule (whatever length it may specify)?

      If it comes down to waiving it whenever we feel denominationally proud, socially relevant, morally enthusiastic, or just impatient, then having the rule in the first place is sheer and unbridled stupidity (or stubborn hypocrisy). I don’t believe we even know why we have it, in the first place. (That’s bad enough.) Worse yet, I doubt we have any conscious criteria for waiving it! (That’s laughably yet pathetically worse!)

      Dump, change, or live with whatever rules we concoct, but let’s get real about either having or not having a rationale or a rule by which we decide. All in favor indicate your arbitrary whim by incoherently grunting okay.

      (This is not about THIS or any other commemoration’s inherent merits –it’s about shooting from the hip — or lip — blindfolded.)

  10. Please create hyperlinks to the texts from the NRSV for each daily meditation. I would like to access them, so that their imaginative, disputatious, generative, poetic testimonies can echo in my mind alongside the reportage above from Sudan. Alas, hearing others read them aloud in church and then hearing a priest speak a call about all of today’s words would help me to rehearse a liturgical response of marching in solidarity with the Sudanese. My disembodied mobile phone (no such links on this site) kindles, printouts, trinkets, etc. are, of course, the paltry, popular substitutes that don’t otherwise know of the human contexts in which the Church has traditionally performed them. I need both sets of epistomologies in human conversation in mind to be a faithful participant in the covenantal neighborliness to which we attest through Jesus. Yes, I’m tapping these words while under the influence of Walter Brueggemann sermons, lectures, and books. I apologise to him, who I don’t know, for misstatements herein

  11. Northern Sudan was ruled by the Khedive of Egypt from 1821 to 1885 and by the Mahdi and his successors from 1885 until 1899. Southern Sudan was a collection of largely independent tribal states until the British conquest in 1898-99. The British did exercise considerable control over Egypt during the 19th century, but they tended to let the Khedives do their own thing in Sudan. So the division between the Arab/Moslem north and the non-Arab/non-Moslem south was already a fact on the ground when the British took over. British policy after 1899 (i.e., in the early 20th century) may have intensified the religious divide, but if so it was mostly as a by-product of their efforts to reverse the Khedives’ efforts to incorporate northern Sudan into a kingdom of greater Egypt.

  12. May 16: The Martyrs of the Sudan
    GENERAL: Strangely, as I read the narrative I felt each paragraph could have begun the narrative, but they didn’t flow or connect or relate to each other. Paragraph 3, particularly, failed to tell about martyrs. “Would not” is an intention, not an event. “Possibly” doesn’t affirm anything. “Civil wars” are not persecutions, with casualties and victims, not martyrs. “May have been” takes us back to possibly, and “exile” isn’t martyrdom. That the church grew despite a hostile national atmosphere is a blessing, but it just doesn’t tell a story about martyrdom(s). With no disregard to the plight of the Sudanese children’s traumatic experiences, looking only at the wording of the hymn verse, it could be used in situations of supplication having nothing to do with martyrdom.
    COLLECT: Like the narrative it has possibilities, but it doesn’t hang together. In its invocation, what are we to assume God is being steadfast about? “Steadfast” doesn’t seem to relate to anything in the narrative or the other parts of the collect. Then we have the Tertullian quote again, used as a backdrop for the imputation that martyrdom in the Sudan caused the growth of the church there. I have two problems with that: it was never shown that the cause of growth was the martyrdom, and martyrdom wasn’t demonstrated in the first place. The petition is framed as a parallel, but it’s incomplete: as their heroic faithfulness resulted in growth, may we be faithful too. (Nothing about growth.) (But I see why “steadfast” is used in the invocation – but what equivalency is invoked between the two?) There is no “so that” clause – not even about growth of God’s church in our locale – presuming we accept the premise of the parallel to begin with. The Trinitarian ending is fine, but the collect needs substantial work.
    READINGS: In general the OT lesson is good, but I have trouble with verse as it applies 5 – in what sense is the (presumed) martyrdom “disciplinary”? (“5 Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself;”) This alone would have me looking for a better selection, lest murder be condoned as a godly work of disciplining.
    Psalm 116 is a magnificent psalm, but by specifying vv. 10-17 we end up thanking God but omitting the life threatening premise that makes thanksgiving meaningful. (Use the whole psalm – it’s only 17 verses.)
    The Hebrews lesson is great. Important questions have been raised in other participants’ comments, about this gospel selection for this commemoration. It does cast political enemies in Sudan into a context of theological nefariousness, i.e., it is a de facto anti-Islamic choice. I would look for something more appropriate. That presumes, of course, I buy into accepting the commemoration, which for several serious reasons, I can’t.
    PREFACE: No fewer than eight (8) proper prefaces go with this commemoration: Holy Week, Of God the Holy Spirit, Epiphany, Trinity Sunday, All Saints, Dedication of a Church, Baptism, or Commemoration of the Dead. If there were a demonstrable martyrdom then Commemoration of the Dead would seem most suitable. That it is not the chosen preface suggests other matters have run away with the focus of the commemoration.

  13. In my READINGS section I misspoke on “OT lesson” and my cursor jumped when I typed “5.” I meant:

    ” In general the lesson from the apocrypha is good, but I have trouble with verse 5…”

  14. Thought sharing comments from those who heard the bio at MP would be useful, with no analysis:
    “Who are the martyrs? It didn’t really mention them specifically.”
    “I didn’t understand the part about the ‘Episcopal and Roman Catholic … leaders'”
    [ note: I didn’t either ]
    “Isn’t this still going on?”

  15. I like Michael Weylandt’s comments about prefaces. We need more of them in general. It would be nice to have one for each category in the Common of Saints, in addition to the others he suggests.

    I’m not sure I agree with S. Sauter’s contention that commemorations of martyrs are inappropriate in Easter season – seems to me that, if anything, the rejoicing in the resurrection is highlighted when we celebrate people who went to their deaths in conscious imitation of Christ and anticipation of reunion with him.

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