The “Save Darfur” signs and banners that once sprouted in church yards in America have largely vanished, replaced by notices for some other cause. E-mailed petitions and calls to action that flood the inboxes of Christian activists tend to be about some other problem these days. The evangelicals who in 2006 were running full-page ads in leading newspapers urging the U.S. government to take stronger action to halt the genocide in Sudan have largely turned their attention to other topics.
And yet, the situation is, if anything, more dire than ever today in the Darfur region of Sudan, where hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions have been driven from their homes. Darfur has resurfaced in the news intermittently since March 4, when the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, indicted the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Bashir retaliated by ordering many international aid organizations out of the country, leaving displaced people even more vulnerable.
But Darfur has not seemed to re-emerge as a high priority on the agenda of many U.S. Baptists and other Christians.
To the Rev. Dr. David Emmanuel Goatley, the problem is more a shortage of attention and of commitment than a lack of compassion. Most American Christians would agree that the systematic murder, rape and destruction of homes in Darfur are terrible, if they thought about it. It’s just a lot of them aren’t thinking about it.
Goatley is the executive secretary-treasurer of the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Convention, president of the North American Baptist Fellowship and a member of the board of directors of Save Darfur. Part of the problem, he said in a telephone interview from his office in Washington, is that many people “take their cue from the media,” and “over time, Darfur has lost some of its media appeal.” The presidential election and then the worsening recession have crowded Darfur out of the headlines, Goatley said.
“We live in a media-driven environment or society,” he said. “Some of us remain energized, and we have to keep telling the story because people cannot be energized if they don’t know. We must keep telling the story in ways that are compelling.”
The very intractable nature of the Darfur situation is another likely reason that some “of our evangelical brethren” have turned their compassion elsewhere, Goatley said. It is the nature of many evangelical people, Goatley said, to want to “do an event” – to attend a march, or to ask people to pray at a meeting.
“Another dynamic is that many of our Baptist siblings have a temperament for doing service projects, but service projects alone are insufficient when you are talking about an issue as difficult as ending a genocide and ensuring that there is security and lasting peace,” he said. “A lot of our people have more experience with raising money to dig a well or buy a tent, but this is about more than digging wells and buying tents.”
Saving Darfur will require a different sort of temperament, Goatley said. “Systemic change is hard work,” he said. “Rather than events or service projects, we need to be using our influence to help shape public policy and government response. This is a different type of a missional approach for a church, so what we have is an opportunity for a teaching moment.”
“Some of our people are better able to be energized when they are able to be the principal influencer of what’s happening,” he said. “But on global issues, we need to work in collaboration. We need to be able to listen to others, and to learn and to dialogue. This is not always the fastest process, especially for those who are not used to working together.”
“We need a temperament and commitment to collaboration for the good of those who are most suffering,” he said.
Baptists and others need to work together to press the global community, including the U.S. government, to make sure that there will be “some high-level both diplomatic and economic action to help Darfur, and military if need be,” Goatley said. “It is urgent that the world’s leaders make it clear to the Khartoum government that they will not be standing idly and passively by while genocide goes further. They must demonstrate that there is major global political commitment to decency and the rule of law. There must be high-level diplomacy with the full support of the administration.”
There have been some encouraging signs from the U.S. government in recent days. On March 17, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Bashir will be held responsible if any deaths result from his expulsion of aid groups. And the next day, President Obama’s naming of retired Air Force Gen. J. Scott Gration as a special envoy for Sudan drew considerable praise.
Goatley believes that the goals of security and lasting peace in Darfur will continue to take much hard work and sustained commitment. Sporadic news coverage will fade again, but the need for determined, collaborative work will continue.
“What I hope for and desire is that Baptists and evangelicals and whatever language people want to call themselves – that more of us will join the efforts of advocacy that are designed to influence those who have the power to ensure peace, security and justice. We need a commitment to stay with the effort and keep this issue alive and in front of the people of the church and of the broader community,” he said.
This cause should be especially compelling for Baptists, Goatley said.
“I pray that Baptist believers, who have historically had a commitment to religious liberty and justice, will see that in the 21st century, we should be engaged in Darfur. It ought to be in our DNA to be engaged and to work for change and to join hands with others,” he said. “It is important that Baptists, particularly, stir up that part of our heritage and our history and what has made us who we are. We need Baptists to retrieve those aspects of religious liberty and justice, and make them a hallmark of what it means to be disciples of Jesus who call ourselves Baptist believers.”
Linda Brinson retired in November as the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal. She is a member of First Baptist Church in Madison, N.C.