South Sudan's Challenge

South Sudan's Challenge
Healing & Reconciliation

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Reflections on Death


And this denial of death stems too from the fact that, in the end, we don’t die, don’t become extinct, but move on to deeper life. At some level, we already know that, sense it, feel it, and live life in the face of it. To want to think about death can be as much a sign of depression or illness as of depth. Pushing away thoughts of death is normally a sign of health.
But how to think about death? Where is that thin line between contemplating the mystery of death and falling into morbidity, anxiety, and false guilt about being alive and healthy?

Honest prayer can help us walk that tightrope and honest prayer is what we do when we can bring ourselves naked before God, unprotected by what we do, by what we own, by what we have achieved, and by anything else we have to fend off loneliness, fear, and death. In honest prayer we can be deep without being morbid.

We can also be helped in this by the giants of our faith who have stared death in the eye and have tried to share with us what that feels like. For one perspective, I recommend Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, which is one of the finest and most readable treatises ever written on Christian death and the afterlife. He comes at it as an Anglican, but is equally sympathetic to both the Protestant and the Roman Catholic traditions. He stresses the continuity between this life and the next and sets this into a wonderful theology of God, grace, and the communion of saints.

Death is a journey into the unknown, the ineffable, the unimaginable, the unspeakable – unspeakable loneliness, ineffable embrace, unimaginable joy.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Cataclysms of the Heart


Jesus had a cosmic image for this. In the Gospels, he talks about how the world, as we experience it, will someday end: “The sun will be darkened, the moon will not give forth its light, stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken.”

When Jesus says this, he is not talking as much about cosmic cataclysms as of cataclysms of the heart. Sometimes our inner world is shaken, turned upside down; it gets dark in the middle of the day, there’s an earthquake in the heart, and we experience, in effect, the end of the world as we’ve known it.

But Jesus assures us that in this upheaval, one thing remains the same: the word of God, God’s promise of fidelity. That doesn’t get turned upside down and, in our disillusionment, we are given a chance to see what really is of substance, permanent, and worthy of our lives. Thus, ideally at least, when our trusted world is turned upside down we are given the chance to grow, to become less selfish, and to see reality more clearly.

What cataclysms of the heart do is to take away everything that feels like solid earth so that we end up in a free-fall, unable to grab on to anything that once supported us. But, in falling, we also get closer to bedrock, to God, to reality, to truth, to each other, beyond illusions, beyond selfishness, and beyond manipulative love masquerading as something else.

Clarity eyesight comes after disillusionment, purity of heart comes after a certain kind of heartache, and real love comes after the honeymoon.

SOS South Sudan!

Nicki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, did not mince her words. "We are not waiting anymore. We need to see a change,” she announced after meeting South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir on a visit to Juba last month. “We have lost trust in the government."
Haley has steadily escalated her rhetoric against Kiir throughout the first year of President Donald Trump’s administration. However, this rhetoric still awaits a clear policy, while the international community is continuing to back a failed power-sharing agreement instead of seeking bold alternatives to end the war.
As I wrote here a year ago, South Sudan’s collapse is a product of its winner-take-all political competition in a country that is, fundamentally, a stateless union of ethnopolitical blocs. 
The volatile combustion that this radical experiment produced continues to erupt and spill over, with estimates of 100,000 killed, and 6.2 million – more than half the population – in need of aid.


The downward spiral of political dissolution continues. Kiir’s own political coalition continues to shrink. The rebels lack ammunition, let alone enough guns. Government soldiers go unpaid. Fighters from both groups regularly desert to Uganda for food. 
Both sides of the conflict are now more focused on internal fighting than the wider war. In Kajo Keji, in southern Equatoria, two competing opposition forces under rebel leaders Riek Machar and Thomas Cirillo Swaka recently clashed for days in a bitter turf war until the government seized the opportunity and routed both groups. 
Along the Uganda border, I met yet another wave of fleeing refugees as local elders described their failed attempts to mediate between the two rebel camps.
Meanwhile, Kiir’s Dinka power base is cracking along clan lines, as evidenced in the standoff with his former army chief Paul Malong Awan, whom Kiir arrested and put under house arrest in Juba. 
It has escalated into an especially bitter feud between Kiir’s Warrap and the neighbouring Dinka communities of Malong’s Aweil, which supplied the bulk of Kiir’s fighting force for the war against Machar’s rebel SPLA-IO since 2014. 
In private, senior Juba officials readily admit the severity of the dispute, with one describing it as a “time bomb”.
No end is in sight to South Sudan’s misery. The deadly fighting season, when rains dry up, is fast approaching. Neighbouring countries must prepare for even more refugees.
South Sudan is politically insolvent and, if lives matter, too big to fail. If it were a bank, regulators would propose it be wound down or restructured. Since it is an African state, we prefer to keep piling it back up – each time with more and more debt of justice unpaid – and throw our hands in the air when it falls back apart. 
Trump’s administration can rightly complain it was handed a lousy baton by former president Barack Obama, whose policy on South Sudan had collapsed. In the Obama administration’s final months, the country it midwived to independence in 2011 was declared at risk of genocide by the UN as hundreds of thousands of refugees streamed out of the country. There was no peace process.
SPLA troops advance
Albert González Farran/IRIN 

Back to IGAD

However, the United States is directing its new diplomatic energy towards pressuring South Sudan into a new push to “revitalise” the Obama administration’s failed 2015 peace accord, based on the mediation of the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development. 
The decision to continue with the embrace of the collapsed IGAD power-sharing agreement is head-scratching, since South Sudan is one area where Trump’s proclivity for zigging wherever the Obama administration zagged is clearly a timely correction.
The last attempt to impose this peace accord failed in colossal fashion in July 2016, with the blast radius extending far past South Sudan's borders into Congo and Uganda as the civil war reignited.
Rather than diminishing the zero-sum fight for Juba driving the conflict, the IGAD deal upped the stakes. 
More groups mobilised across the country to join the new Kiir versus Machar structure – leading to an eruption of violence across South Sudan’s Equatoria region, hitherto not widely affected, prompting a mass exodus of refugees into Uganda as Machar was driven out of Juba.
The right lesson to derive from the peace accord's collapse was that solving South Sudan’s crisis by forcing Kiir and Machar together in Juba, with all their armies intact, to prepare in winner-take-all elections against each other, was a cure worse than the disease. 
The new approach from IGAD seems to assume that the previous approach only failed because it did not add enough aspiring rebel leaders into the mix.
The legacy of the last failed accord continues to reverberate. Machar’s marginalisation as a result of his exile in South Africa has encouraged a further fragmenting of the opposition and growth of rival rebel groups. 
Yet Machar’s SPLA-IO rebel movement, as the sole opposition signatory to the accord the world is now trying to “revitalise”, is resistant to an opposition realignment. The latest turf war in Kajo Keji is just one example.

Blind alley

South Sudan's dumpsite of failed policy interventions is now so cramped that policy makers have convinced themselves they have no room to manoeuvre. 
One failed initiative rests on the aborted foundations of previous ones. Pride, bureaucratic inertia, and the realities of multilateral diplomacy prevent starting anew.
The United States remains the leading global actor on South Sudan. But US diplomacy and leverage can only be helpfully applied if there is a larger vision for South Sudan beyond hopes that a state can be built in time for democratic elections and a nation will emerge from the rubble of ethnic cleansing. 
That vision should come from the South Sudanese themselves. They regularly circulate proposals for a restructured South Sudan that decentralises governance and the power structure, a similar approach applied positively in recent years in Kenya and Somalia. Others propose formally prescribing shared sovereignty through quota allotments and rotating executives.
The outside world's main contribution to South Sudan’s war has been to cement the conditions for its perpetuity. 
Clustered in regional capitals, biding their time for the next round of stalled political negotiations, South Sudan's opposition's greatest hope lies in the government imploding. 
This is the one thing the international community is most focused on preventing. International actions since 2013 have made clear that, to the rest of the world, the stability of the capital matters far more than ethnic cleansing throughout the countryside. 
The government is strengthened by the international presence and recognition; the international presence is justified by the government’s predation and neglect. They are there because we are there; we are there because they are there. This is the increasingly grim logic of South Sudan. 
(TOP PHOTO: Internally Displaced People demonstrate during the visit of the US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley in Juba, South Sudan on October 25, 2017. CREDIT: Albert González Farran/IRIN)

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Proverbs 31: 10-13, 19-20, 30-31; 1 Thessalonians 5: 1-6; Matthew 25: 14-30

Selected Passage: “For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (Matthew 25: 29)

Meditation: Every gift we receive from God has corresponding responsibility. It must bear fruit in plenty so that others may also share in the blessing.  Each one receives gives according to the measure one is capable.  We become responsible and accountable for that gift else we become half-hearted servants.  . The Parable of the Talents is a warning to those who do not produce anything. It is a kind of stripping (recalling) of anything that is left in an unproductive person.

Pope Francis reminds us that “only one whose gaze is fixed on that which is truly essential can renew his yes to the gift received.” Cf.


Dhikr is an Arabic word which means REMEMBRANCE.
1st step: Write the text in your heart.
2nd step: Let the text remain always in on your lips and mind - RECITING the text silently as often as possible...
3rd step:  Be attentive to the disclosure of the meaning/s of the text in your life.

Shaping a Theology of Non-Violence....

Simply Sharing the Short Paper I wrote for our Colloquium on the Theology of Non-Violence at De Paul University, Illinois....

A Preliminary Sketch for a Foundational Theology of Nonviolence – A Critique
By Eliseo Mercado, OMI
Notre Dame University Graduate School & San Beda Graduate School of Laws – Philippines

I will begin by commending Prof. Cavanaugh not only for a new hermeneutics of the Scriptures vis-à-vis the issue on violence and non-violence but more so for developing a foundational theology through the Church and the Sacraments. I find the approach and the development of such theology very original and fascinating, to say the least.

No doubt, the creation narratives point to a non-violent God shaping a new creation out of the chaos or in the language of Genesis – “without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep”. (Gen. 1:2) Yes, it is by the Word of God that all things came to be and ALL God created are found to be “GOOD”. The same Word blessed the whole creation thereby establishing harmony and beauty until the “FALL” (Genesis 3).

The entry of the “Serpent” in Genesis 3 tells the other “face” of creation that popularly known as “the Fall”. God has just turned his back a while, then you have the serpent inviting humans to be like God – “… your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3: 4).

Then continuing the dialogue surrounding the “fall”, we can see clearly the following: (Gen. 3: 10 – 11)
• They knew they were naked and they hid from God;
• The man could not own his disobedience and he pointed to “the woman whom thou gavest to be with, she gave me of the tree…” And the woman pointed to the serpent that God put in the garden – “the serpent beguiled me”; and
• The coup de grace in the narrative is when God “put enmity between the serpent and the woman; and between thy seed and her seed and it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruised his heel”.

There are two visages of creation. On the one hand, there is the creative Word of God that has produced ALL – establishing order, harmony and the beauty and the Good. Yet, on the other hand, there is the Serpent that beguiles; the serpent invites, in a way, humans to “become like” God and “compete” with God.
Here we see two narratives – one is the story of non-violence; and the other, which is the beginning of violence not only between man and woman but also humans versus the serpent and the whole creation is caught in the struggle.

It is NO accident that the paradigm of “dualism” has marked not only the history of salvation but equally the history of the church down to the present – good and evil; grace and sin; male and female; humans vs. the serpent, Cain and Abel, and in our present discourse, violence and non-violence.

More than ever, we now live in a very violent world that threatens humanity, the whole creation and our planet earth.
The first is the fact that our relationship with the world has been violent resulting to drastic and radical configuration of the world. Climate change is a clear manifestation that results from the violence inflicted on the land and the planet.

We have wronged God’s creation and we have betrayed his trust. “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them and God said unto them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living that moveth upon the earth” (Genesis 1: 27-28).

From the very beginning, we have struggled over the ambiguities of the verbs and images used – “replenish vs. subdue”; stewardship vs. dominion as against the very reality of being “Blessed” by God and thus become a blessing in return to God’s creation and of being “imago Dei” here on earth.

And because of this violence against creation, humanity is now faced with a prospect of yet another chaos or catastrophe of Noah’s flood that would, once again, destroy creation.
To prevent such catastrophic end, the call is to restore the relationship of harmony and interconnectedness in God’s creation and see that all creatures – humans, animals, all living things and the planet are intimately tied up – the future of every specie and the planet are intimately interconnected.

The second powerful manifestation of violence in our era is the emergence of Violent Religious Extremism. Often this is identified with Islam, yet the truth is the fact that a thread of extremism subsists in practically all religions. It is, indeed, a “divine” scandal bordering to “blasphemy” to invoke God’s name in the murder of fellow human on account of belief and unbelief or on account of observance and non-observance of the law.

This Violent Religious Extremism, first, shocked the world on September 9, 2001 with two planes crashed into the Twin Towers and toppling down the iconic symbol of global economy; a plane crashed also into Pentagon – the icon of USA military might; and another plane crashed landed before reaching its target “presumed” to be either the White House or the Capitol Hill – icons of USA political power.

This new phenomenon has brought to the fore the theory of “Clash of Civilization” as proposed by Prof. Samuel Huntington in his seminal work in 1996 – the Clash of Civilizations.
The confusion and the “enmity” brought about by Extremism characterized by violence, exclusion and declaring “the other” as “unbeliever” points to a culture and mentality that is both violent and radical xenophobia!

The Christian message and invitation in the midst of this violent milieu is to go back to the kingdom or the reign of God inaugurated by Jesus. It is the kingdom that excludes no one and the core message is contained both in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5; 3-11) and in the Final Judgment Day as narrated by Matthew (Chapter 25: 31 – 46).

To the poor in spirit; to those who mourn; to those who are gentle; to those who do justice; to those who are merciful; to those who are pure in heart; to those who are peacemakers to those who are persecuted in his name – to them belong the kingdom and they shall inherit the earth and be called children of God.

In a similar vein, Matthew chapter 25 reminds all sundry, that, ultimately, when all is said and done what truly matters in God’s eye is feeding the hungry; giving drink to the thirsty; shelter to the strangers; clothing to the naked; caring for the sick; and visiting the prisoners – in short, the excluded and those in the periphery shall find their reserved places in the kingdom.
The kingdom inaugurated by Jesus continues to unfold and Dan Schulte’s song - A Time will Come for Singing, captures the marks of the kingdom.

Yes, the time for singing comes “when all tears are shed; when sorrows chains are broken and broken hearts will mend; the deaf will hear your singing; when silent tongues are freed; the lame will join your dancing, and when blind eyes learn to see.
A time for singing has, indeed, come when men lay down their armor and gather their swords into plough; when the beggars live as princes and orphans find their home; and when prison cells are empty, and hatred has grown old”.

Meanwhile, the whole creation groans and we are caught in between the dynamics of the creation and the kingdom, on the one hand; and sin and violence, on the other, until the end of time. I believe that the children of the original creation narrative and of the kingdom are the witnesses of the creative and dynamic creative word and the power of the kingdom that destroys the power structure that dominates and alienates people from their roots and grounding. And we believe and proclaim that this would happen in the end of time and when the fullness of the kingdom shall come to fulfillment.

On a personal note…

I have always been in Southern Mindanao, and most of my ministry even today involves living with and establishing friendship with Muslims – ordinary citizens, rebels and those with Philippine Government – both in the Armed Forces and in Civilian Government

I began my ministry during the time of the great battles between the Philippine government and the Moro Rebels – first with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and then later with Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), as well.

It was in this setting when I began to grapple with understanding God's peace. It is not the peace that offers pacification, nor is it the peace that only involves the absence of conflict. As Isaiah puts it, it is peace that is the fruit of righteousness, the peace that comes over dwelling places and the security of homes after "justice dwells in the desert and righteousness lives in the fertile land (Is. 32:16). It is peace, where the vision of peace and wholeness is grounded in the work of justice. It is that peace which has been "brought near by the blood of Jesus Christ" through whom the "dividing wall of hostility has been broken" and by whom we have all been made one (Eph. 2:13 ff.).

I grappled with the question what it meant for me to bear witness to this peace and be minister of it amidst the sufferings and struggles of people? What did it mean for me to be instrument of God's peace amidst the many wars and conflicts among nations and peoples, and in the light of the painful and tortuous struggle to build and establish a new community based on human equity, dignity and freedom? What did the peace of God mean amidst the incredible despoilage of environment and the rape of our forests and lands? These questions were not only a matter of theological clarification; they also demanded a critical analysis of what was going on.

I was in this crisis when the “lightning” struck! On July 14th, 1976 at about 9 a.m. in Notre Dame of Dulawan in Maguindanao Province – the very heartland of the Moro Community, when the “rebels” lobbed two grenades into the two classrooms of second year high school. One was a dud; the other exploded in the middle of the classroom. I was in office of the Community Service Extension when I heard the big explosion, I rushed to the classroom and saw HELL - 7 dead and 35 wounded and bleeding. I carried the nearest wounded and ran into the nearby clinic… but before reaching the clinic the boy expired in my arms; I was full of blood; laid the boy on the ground and I went back to the classroom to pick another wounded. Hell literally broke loose with all the wailings; lamentations; and panic.

The Muslim boy’s name was Abdulrahman Tungao and the other one that I buried few days after was Samuel Chio. Was it a ‘coincidence” or an “accident” that two of the “fallen” that became intimately tied to me were a Muslim and a Christian?

Yes - a mixture of Muslim and Christian blood physically “stained” me – marks that have remained in me even today and for the rest of life.

Peace, non-violence and ministry are no longer something that is studied in books or in classrooms or meditating in churches. They have the smell of blood and gunpowder and explosives. In that Hellish and traumatic experiences that shattered my whole being, I vowed – never again!

It was NO accident that after that experience, I devoted my time to peace and justice advocacy thus when Government and Liberation Fronts were looking for someone to monitor the ceasefire agreement they chose me to head the team. It was no easy task, especially to stay in the middle of warring armies trying to establish and delineate “safe distance” between them. I had been asked several times why go through all these dangers and don’t I get tired or frustrated or discourage in the work for peace.

My painful reply had always been the vow I made on that fateful day of July 14, 1976 where I experienced HELL and said unto myself – NEVER AGAIN! Like a mantra during the difficult times, I kept reciting that saving even ONE life gives meaning to our work. Yes! The work for peace makes sense, Yes! My work makes SENSE even often times, the work goes NOWHERE!

The vow holds me together – never again the HELL and the bloodshed and the enmity that mar the relationship between and among humans; between and among communities! The work for peace and the work for friendship and fellowship – no matter what - make SENSE! And I believe that a time is coming for singing when the serpent narrative would be no more!

Monday, November 6, 2017

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Wisdom 6: 12-16; 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-14; Matthew 25: 1-13

Selected Passage “While they went off to buy it, the bridegroom came and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him. Then the door was locked. Afterwards the other virgins came and said, 'Lord, Lord, open the door for us!' But he said in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.' Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Mt. 25: 10-13)

Meditation: The parable tells the wise and the foolish virgins.  Both groups went out to meet the bridegroom that took time in arriving. The wise ones went out to meet the bridegroom bringing flasks of oil, as well, while the foolish ones did not. And when the bridegroom arrived, the foolish ones were not around and they missed him. 

We must, then, imitate the wise virgins who take things seriously, who are prepared to meet the Lord, anytime when he comes. They are prepared at anytime and they don’t scramble for things, when it is time to act. We cannot make God and others wait for us and let us stop being foolish!


Dhikr is an Arabic word which means REMEMBRANCE.
1st step: Write the text in your heart.
2nd step: Let the text remain always in on your lips and mind - RECITING the text silently as often as possible...
3rd step:  Be attentive to the disclosure of the meaning/s of the text in your life.