Interview with Moses John, director of the Organisation for Nonviolence and Development (ONAD) in South Sudan.
“Faith is like connecting ones’ phone to the socket to recharge. Once a phone is recharged, one can use it”
Can you describe your faith and in what way it influences or shapes your everyday life?
– Faith is like connecting ones’ phone to the socket to recharge. Once a phone is recharged, one can use it. When our phone battery runs empty, we cannot make any call even when we have credit or airtime. That is how I see my faith in Christ.
I am a Christian, an “Anglican” but do value, respect and work with people from different faiths. I received Christ as my personal Saviour and Lord in a market place. That was in September 1989. That day, the evangelist encouraged me to pray and read my Bible always as well as consider joining fellowship with other Christians where God is glorified. In 1990s, I started connecting my faith with socioeconomic and political realities around me. I then discovered many injustices going on against God’s people in Sudan and across the globe even in the name of religion (the case of South Africa, Northern Ireland, Somalia. etc).
Four years later, I co-founded what is today ONAD. Being aware of the fact that religion occupies a central part in the lives of millions of people around the world and that it affects the way people think, act and understand the world in which they live, we opted to become the firstever interfaith nonviolence organization in the Sudan. Working with Muslims, Christians and people from other faith (Particularly African Traditional believers) has greatly shaped our peace work in Sudan and South Sudan to this day. We used sacred teachings, values and practices that encourage nonviolence in different faiths. We also made sure, people understand that nonviolence does not require adherence to any particular religious or ideological orientation, as it is presented in secular forms as well.
We are inspired by the greatest proponents of nonviolence leaders such as Gandhi (a Hindu), Martin Luther King Jr. (a Baptist Christian Minister), Badshah Khan (a Muslim Sheik), and many others, who have all used their religion in nonviolent struggles. Their lives, beliefs and teachings have inspired and continue to inspire us in ONAD to follow their examples. We also use our space to correct religious mis-interpretation that divide us or belittle women.
What meaning does your faith have for you in your work for peace?
I always remember the popular marriage promise “for better for worse” as similar to my faith and peace journey. Meaning, a reminder to commit in serving God and humanity in good and difficult times. I therefore use my faith to recharge my energy when it is low, particularly during tempting and difficult times. For example, on June 16 2020, I was arrested and detained for 10 days by the National Security Services (NSS) over a nonviolent campaign “GurushWen?” arabic for “WhereISTHEMONEY?”, where I led a coalition of civil society organizations calling for financial transparency and accountability in South Sudan. That day, I reconnected with God in silent prayer and I felt empowered. I considered the campaign to be “the right thing to do” and “a good fight” that the Bible talks about.
To me faith in God is a source of inspiration and a coping mechanism in my peacebuilding work. Peacebuilders often go through ups and downs and we need some coping mechanism to face challenges related to our peace activism to move on. In the Bible God promises to “never leave and forsake us” (I will never leave you nor forsake you).
Are there aspects of your faith that have been difficult to combine with your peace work?
– Yes, I struggle with religious sources in Christian and Islam traditions, which belittle or marginalize women or promote violence. For example, in the Holy Bible, in one of the letters of St. Paul, women are told to consult their husbands at home, cover their hair while in worship. In one of the Good News gospels, a woman was said to have been caught in adultery and was about to be stoned to death. I wondered why was she brought alone without a man? Can a woman commit adultery without a man? Was that man a member or a leader of a religious group who often enjoy impunity? The story tells us that men often are protected before the law while women are not, with reference to that case. Thus, Jesus was right to forgive the poor woman and cancel the case.
In the Holy Quran, there are many verses, which say men have more voice than women and the call for jihad or use of violence is problematic even when there are many peace verses in the Holy Quran. Thus, women are often not treated as “equal” to men and are marginalized in formal religious roles and responsibilities including in civic spaces and leadership positions. Meanwhile, women have made tremendous contributions in nonviolence movements across history. For instance, in the Old Testament Book of Exodus, women Midwives disobeyed (civil disobedience) the order of the King to kill every Hebrew male boy and leave girls to live. They courageously resisted unjust orders and male structured powers.
To revert the marginalization of women in religious- and peace movements, I often work closely with women leaders and organizations. I also advocate for other male-led organizations, donors and international organizations, to prioritize their support to joint networks of women and men peacebuilders to promote gender equality. Building bridges between women’s and men’s organizations, as well as religious and secular peace networks, offers a unique opportunity to build a strong nonviolence movement to wield power to advance towards socioeconomic- and political change. I always say men cannot lose out when women are empowered. Equality benefits us all.
It is therefore, pivotal to approach peace work from a holistic perspective that recognizes women and men as equal partners. Going forward, faith based peacebuilders need to work collaboratively to fight marginalization of women and abuse of religion to incite to violence. There are enough body of literature across the globe which suggests that women have the capacity to plan, mobilize and lead nonviolent protests when men can do very little particularly in a highly repressive context like South Sudan. Besides, recent studies have proven the efficacy of nonviolent campaigns as more than twice successful to violent campaigns.