Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation
March 25, 2007
“The Shame of Darfur
Rev. Catherine Torpey
When I was around 20 years old, living on my own in New Haven, Connecticut, working, renting an apartment and going to college part time, I came up with three statements to guide my decisions and my actions.
I’ll tell you some other Sunday about the first two statements, but the third saying that guided my actions was, “Do SOMEthing.” Not “DO something,” but “Do SOMEthing.” Often, then, as now, I see situations that trouble me and I want to fix them. They are enormous problems, and so I know that I cannot simply do nothing. But I often found myself then, as I do now, almost paralyzed by how much needs to be done, how grave the situation is, how little time and resources I have in comparison to the problem. And in my mind, I’m screaming, “DO something.” But tremendous power comes from just shifting the emphasis slightly, “Don’t worry about doing everything. Don’t worry about doing it correctly. Don’t worry about being perfect. Just take one tiny action in the direction you want to go in. Do SOMEthing.”
Today is Justice Sunday—the one Sunday a year where our Unitarian Universalist Service Committee asks ministers to preach on the area of concern that is most pressing in the world. And this year, they’ve asked us to preach about the genocide in Darfur. And they’ve asked that we each do SOMEthing, something about the enormous suffering that millions of innocent people are facing.
The Sudan is a country in Africa which lies just below Egypt, just above Ethiopia, and which touches the Red Sea. Cush and Nubia, ancient lands mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, were located in what is now the Sudan. Moses, according to one passage in the Torah, was married to a Cushite woman, much to the chagrin of his sister and brother.
This East African land has a rich and diverse history and a complex mix of people. Languages spoken in the Sudan include Arabic, Daju, Erenga, Masalit, Zaghawa and Fur—from which we get the name Darfur, or “Land of the Fur.” Darfur lies in the west of the country and, Sudan being a large country, the region of Darfur is itself the size of Texas. Its people are in great distress.
Darfur is a mostly dry land—a portion of it lies within the Sahara desert. If we were there today, in late March, we would experience the end of the dry season. The land is yellow now, but come the rains in June, Darfur becomes green and, if not lush, at least productive.
Throughout the centuries, the Darfur region was mostly inhabited by settled farmers who were what we might call black Africans. These are dark-skinned people who are Muslim by religion but not ethnically Arabs. Centuries ago, these black people settled permanently in the areas of Darfur which—when there is no drought—yield millet, peanuts, mangos and papaya. But competitors to these settled people came from the north in the form of the traditionally nomadic, camel-herding people who are identified as Arab peoples, although technically they are not necessarily ethnically Arabs. These nomadic people they are identified with the language and culture of Arabia, and some of them have adopted a racist ideology of Arab supremacy over black Africans—an ideology which is used to justify their takeover of the lands of the black African people in the region. The cultural and racial clash between these two groups has been worsening steadily since a significant drought in the 1980’s made scarce resources even scarcer.
They are neighbors, but they have not behaved as neighbors.
The worst culprits in the current crisis in Darfur are the Janjaweed, who are armed gunmen of the nomadic Arabic-speaking tribes. The Janjaweed developed strength throughout the 1990’s as they sought control of local areas through armed intimidation. The black Africans—the settled people who farmed the land and raised livestock—organized their own armed militias and began attacks on the Janjaweed and on the Sudanese government in the summer of 2003. The government responded by actively arming the Janjaweed, and the conflict escalated out of control.
“The Janjaweed commit unspeakable brutalities. [They] appear in a village, burn houses and fields, slaughter livestock, brutally murder men and boys, rape women, kill children, and capture youth as slaves. The Sudanese military is often present when the Janjaweed attack; the air force [even] bombs and shells villages to [assist the Janjaweed].”
In the past four years of this conflict, almost half a million people have been killed. Two million innocent civilians have been forced to leave their homes. Most of them have fled to Chad. And Chad has been acting as neighbor to these refugees as best they’ve been able, but it is itself a poor country which has had its share of civil strife over the years.
In the parable of the good Samartian, Jesus defined “neighbor” not by who the other person is, but rather by how we act toward them. The Samaritan was to the Jew what the nomadic Arab African is to the farming Black African in Darfur today. Like the Samaritan and the Jew, these two groups of Darfurians share the same religion—in their case, Islam—and they share much of the same history. They are neighbors. And today, there is many a Darfurian lying on the side of the road, beaten and left to die, while priests and Levites walk by.
The scholar had asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” but Jesus, after finishing his story, turned the question completely around on the scholar. He asked him, “Which of the three proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" He has turned the question around—not, “who is my neighbor?”—not, “who is worthy of my love?”—but rather, “to whom have I been a neighbor?”
Our government declared what is happening in Darfur a genocide over two years ago, and yet the crisis continues unabated. A peace accord was negotiated and signed between the government of Sudan and one of the factions of rebels. Since then the violence has increased.
On this “Justice Sunday,” as declared by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, we are not alone in our prayers and concern this morning for the suffering in the Sudan. UU congregations all over the country are learning about the shame of Darfur and they, with us, are holding the people of this region in their hearts and prayers. In fact, our neighbors in Garden City have organized a walk for Darfur today, to take place right after worship. It was the youth of the Garden City congregation who learned about the genocide in Darfur, and wanted the congregation to do SOMEthing, to act as neighbor to these people far away.
Do SOMEthing—so often we feel paralyzed. We see the endless suffering in the world, some of us even feel within ourselves a kind of endless suffering. And nothing we do seems adequate to the enormity of the need.
After all, very powerful people have taken powerful steps to change the situation. Over two years ago, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution demanding that the government of Sudan disarm the Janjaweed. And last summer, the Security Council took the further step of authorizing a UN peacekeeping force for Darfur, which has yet to arrive. Despite these actions, though, by individuals more powerful that we, the Janjaweed are still active and free to commit the same genocidal crimes against civilians in Darfur with the aid of the Sudanese government.
Bill Frist, a Republican senator, personally went to the Sudan recently. He reports that President Al Bashir believes that allowing UN peacekeepers in will lead to his being ousted. Bashir believes that the UN peacekeeping force is just a cover for the US wanting to overthrow him and indict him for genocide. And so, he is doing everything in his power to stop anyone from ending the crisis.
Frist reports that even humanitarian aid workers are now being specifically targeted for violence, both from the rebel factions and the government. Unless things improve and the Government becomes proactive in supporting the humanitarian operations, humanitarian groups will have no choice but to withdraw. The humanitarian crisis would then rapidly escalate.
And tragically, even the refugee camps are not safe, since women must leave the camps for firewood, and are frequently raped by the Janjaweed militias and others, just as they had been previously in their villages. But as bad as this is, they go because if the men go, they will be kidnapped to be enslaved as soldiers or killed. There is even fighting among the rebel factions, since one of the rebel groups signed a peace agreement with the government, infuriating those who want no compromise.
So, how do we act as neighbor to a people so far away, in a conflict so fraught with political motives, economic greed and racial hatred? What can we do from Freeport, New York?
What can we ever do?
Our flaming chalice calls to us every Sunday to ask ourselves what we can do. The symbol was begun as the symbol of the Unitarian Service Committee, now the UU Service Committee. And, as you may recall, two of the founders of the UUSC were honored with the title of Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes Remembrance Authority in Israel. For their work in helping to save Jews during World War II, the Rev. Waitstill Sharp and Martha Sharp are the second and third U.S. citizens to be so honored for their wartime work. Their courage and dedication has earned them this high honor. It has also left for all of us an example of what real commitment to human rights in a time of disaster means. As they are honored for lifting high our humane ideals, so we are challenged in our own right. The Sharps are no longer alive, but we are.
And yet, although Waitsill and Martha Sharp’s spirits call out to us this day, we also risk dismissing our own small efforts when we compare ourselves to them—a couple who left the comfort of home, moved across the ocean, and went to Prague to help refugees there, despite incredible risks to their lives.
In the story of the good Samaritan, the one who acted as neighbor understood that he had one piece to play in helping this man. He happened to have oil and wine to dress the wound. He had a donkey to carry the man and some money to help with expenses. But he brought the man to the next phase and said to the physician, “I have done my part, I put him in your hands.”
There are many small actions that we can take that will allow us to do SOMEthing. If you have investments in mutual funds, ask if any of the money is invested in the Sudan, and if it is, transfer your money to another fund if possible. Even just asking the question is doing something important. Contact your senator or congressperson to ask them to keep pressure on President Bashir and the government. If you are able, go to the walk for Darfur sponsored by our neighbors in the Garden City congregation.
For every problem that feels overwhelming—whether it be as far-off as Darfur or as nearby as your own heart—there are things to do. We need not do everything, but small actions can make big differences. The people of the Sudan are our neighbors—may we act as neighbors to them.