My Mom and South Sudan?

My Mom occasionally buys me books that she thinks I will like. She has bought me about ten books in the past couple of years, and all ten books were far from my usual reading selection. I try my best to have a diverse reading list, but my Mom is in a league of her own when it comes to getting me out of my comfort zone. The most recent example of her eclectic curation came from the book – What is the What by David Eggers. What is the What is a nonfiction book written as a fiction book…yes I did say my Mom expanded my horizons. It is technically a piece of fiction because it is the story of Valentino Achak Deng – one of the lost boys of the Sudanese war during the 1980s. Valentino was a child when the war occurred, and hence his first memories are not 100% accurate – but doesn’t take away from the real nightmare that made up the first two decades of his life.

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When Valentino was seven, his peaceful life in the southern region of Sudan turned upside down when war broke out. The war was between the SPLA, who wanted an independent South Sudan, and the government of Sudan who wished to maintain control over the area. Southern Sudan was primarily Christian while the political north was primarily Muslim. The Islamic government wanted to bring an Islamic state to the south, and the SPLA wanted to maintain its unique Afro-Christian identity. The conflict has been known to posterity as the Second Sudanese Civil War which began in 1987 and ended in 2005. During that time, two million people were killed – almost three and half times more people that died in the American Civil War – and thousands of children were left orphaned to fend for themselves.

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A large portion of those children were boys who were too young to enter into the SPLA and fled their homes to escape the conflict. Valentino was one of 20,000 lost boys who marched from South Sudan to safe havens like Ethiopia and Kenya. The boys walked to these places many times in small groups and had to endure starvation, government attack, and even predatory animals. Valentino witnessed his friends being dragged into the jungle by lions, shot by overhead helicopters, and eaten by parasitic flies after dropping dead from exhaustion. The walk he took consisted of hundreds of miles and months of toil – on several occasions, he laid on the ground for hours unable to move from extreme malnutrition and infection.

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Valentino was able to obtain some semblance of life at a Kenyan refugee camp that was funded by the United Nations. He lived in the camp for several years until the US allowed several Lost Boys to resettle in the states. While in the States he met Dave Eggers who recorded his story and wrote the book What is the What. Through funds of the book, Valentino started his own foundation to support education in Southern Sudan. South Sudan won its independence in 2011 but is still in conflict with various internal organizations – it is one of the most depressed countries on earth. I had no idea the turmoil in Sudan until reading this book, and it has ignited in me a desire to learn more about Africa in general. Oftentimes, we get consumed with our own interests that we miss seminal events around the world. All these things impact us, and we must continue to learn and help those who are suffering. Refugees need help more than ever, and we need to seek practical policies which benefit not only the “lost” but also the countries who take the “lost” in as citizens. Thanks, Mom, for expanding my horizon, and I always appreciate your eclectic tastes – I never thought I would be mentioning your name with South Sudan. Expand your world…I am continuing my expansion by reading a book that is far from my comfort zone – Emma by Jane Austen.

Here are 9 out of the next 15 books that I will begin in June:

Nabokov, Vladimir
Tennessee Williams

When Prayer Kills

Guess the context…”They found a two-year-old boy whose treatable kidney tumor weighed six pounds and a twelve-year-old girl whose bone cancer was the size of a watermelon. They found a two-year-old girl who had accidentally inhaled a small piece of a banana…turned blue and died…They found a twenty-three-year-old woman who had come to an emergency room after fifty-six hours of active labor because her baby’s head was stuck at the vaginal opening. The dead baby, delivered by caesarian section, ‘was in an advanced stage of decomposition.’ The mother died within hours from puerperal sepsis: a bloodstream infection. The coroner noted that ‘the corpse of the infant was so foul smelling that is was inconceivable that anyone attending the delivery could not have noticed…Swan and Asser also found children who had died from treatable bacterial infections such as pneumonia, meningitis, and sepsis. A one-year-old girl named Eva Swanson died of sepsis after she had accidentally spilled a pot of scalding tea on herself. A fifteen-month-old boy named Dustin Gilmore ‘was deafened, blinded and killed’ by meningitis…” Is this list of atrocious medical outcomes from a third-world country? Maybe it is from an isolated area where there are no medical treatments available? Sadly, all of these examples occurred in the United States within the last 20 years and are only a few instances of hundreds that occur every year. How could this happen in a country where there is relatively easy access to vaccines, antibiotics, and children’s hospitals? Paradoxically, the cause of all these unfortunate stories was religion and more specifically certain Christian denominations which do not believe in modern medicine.

I learned about these unfortunate truths in the book Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine by Paul A. Offit, M.D. In total, there are 23 Christian denominations that practice faith healing with 5 sects accounting for most adult and child deaths due to avoidance of medical treatments: Christian Science, Church of the First Born, End Time Ministries, Faith Assemble, and Faith Tabernacle. In general, these sects reject medicine because it is a product of man and believe that having illnesses is a test of faith. These denominations literally interpret verses like Mark 11:24: Whatever things you desire, when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you shall have them. These ardent beliefs come from the common stand of many Christian denominations that their interpretations of the Holy Bible are correct and subsequently God looks favorably on them now and in Heaven. These literal interpretations lead to using prayer as the only treatment for a medical illness. For example, imagine my son had diabetes and needed insulin to survive. Instead of getting a vial of insulin and giving it to my son I would hold a prayer group over him while he threw up and suffered until eventually dying. I would rationalize that God wanted my son to die, that God is punishing me for my sins, and/or I didn’t have enough faith in God’s healing powers.

How the heck could a parent let their child die when they call themselves a Christian? First off, Jesus loved children and said in Mark 9:27:”Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” As a Christian, the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. Love is the zeitgeist of Christianity! If there is a way to save an individual within reasonable means then every effort should be taken to provide that help. Modern medicine is not the work of the devil or an avenue taken by unbelievers-modern medicine is the result of great thinkers throughout time. God created those great-thinking brains and thus gave us the ability to invent and the resources to better help people. The other side of this unbelievable coin is the government allowing it to happen. 45 states permit the medical neglect of children if the parents have justifiable religious reasons. Religious freedom cannot trump the inalienable right to life which is taken away from children by these laws. Children are protected by the 14th amendment which says that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” This medical neglect is outlawed in many countries and it is time for the US to actually follow the constitution when it comes to protecting children’s lives. In the end, Christians please remember the greatest commandment, recognize the dangers of myopic religious beliefs, and don’t use prayer as a complete substitute for medical care.