This is a tribute to a poet whose name I do not know. As with all of the arts, poems are a very important tool for speaking out.
Advocates should inspire action for the persecuted Church through painting, sculpture, plays, poems, songs, and other forms of creative art. The arts touch people’s souls: they should be a voice for the persecuted.
What I have in my mind when I offer this advice was what has deeply touched my own soul. I was speaking at a conference on global Christian persecution. I can’t remember what year it was, or even whether it was a conference in Columbia, SC or in Knoxville, TN. But I will never forget receiving this gift.
One of the attendees was a big guy, in his early twenties at most. He was quiet and bashful as he handed me several sheets of paper. I realized that it was a poem. His poem. He wrote a poem about the genocide of southern Sudanese Christians that was still taking place at the time.
I can’t remember the young man’s name. I sure wish I could. If he is not a famous poet today, he should be. His name wasn’t on the paper. But the title was written with a red sharpie above printed lines, as if added at the last minute: Sheet Lightning over the Veldt. I never forgot that poem —or its name – in all of the intervening years. But somewhere along the line, I lost the poem.
For years I searched my office, house, files, computer, everywhere – or so I thought – for Sheet Lightning over the Veldt. I had pretty much resigned to the idea that I would never find it. And then, one day in a couple of years ago, when I was pulling all of my files to move them to a new office, it happened. I found the poem in literally the last file folder that I was packing.
Here it is, republished for you:
I am happy. This poem should be shared as a powerful example of art being used for advocacy. It should also be shared because the Sudanese Islamist regime in Khartoum continued to perpetrate the same kind of genocide in Darfur, Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile State, and elsewhere that it previously committed in southern Sudan. Today, in spite of changes to the Sudan government, far too many people continue to die.
And it is worth remembering through the agony-etched lines of this poem what the people of southern Sudan – now the Republic of South Sudan – suffered for decades at the hands of Khartoum. Once South Sudan seceded from the North, the world swiftly forgot about the suffering they had endured and moved on to the next tragedy. And then the world just as swiftly condemned, and continues to condemn, the baby nation, the war-traumatized leadership and citizenry, for not immediately becoming a thriving, democratic country.
The poem includes several movements, in the style of The Waste Land. (Yes, I know that is an audacious claim for an amateur literary critic to make about an unknown poet, but it is what it is.) Unlike in Eliot’s masterpiece, the three movements in Sheet Lightning are left untitled, as if to imply that these movements are so transient and, to the world, insignificant, they should not have names.
Each movement is heartbreakingly beautiful and haunting. The “Veldt” of the poem is a waste land, bereft of anything but corpses of people and animals. The narrative is a Lou Reed landscape of disillusionment and degradation. Yet a glimmer of redemption remains. The narrator cannot accept that the evil to which he is a witness is the final word.
In the first movement the narrator focuses in on one small, dying victim of genocide, skinny so frighteningly breakable in such terrible wretched sadness twisted and contorted, as if to show that in a genocide of millions, one life, every life, matters. Each life is God’s creation.
He describes the actions of the perpetrators and then addresses them directly: I do not accept these orders from God or Allah or whoever it is that sends you and winds you like some sick robot or puppet. The movement ends with the narrator’s lament and challenge to God, oh how long lord will you remain silent in the face of such oppression to your servants? How long?
In the second, brutal, movement the narrator speaks to the dying child. He is full of sorrow for the child and indicts God’s seeming indifference to senseless suffering. He tells the child, still struggling to survive, believing that if he reaches the refugee camp, he will live, Oh beautiful child, you who were chosen before the earth. . . you were known and chosen But chosen for what?
He then turns to the child’s guardian angel, oh beautiful angel, given charge over this child, give the child strength and godspeed over the walk, the seven day journey. The angel is a pretty lousy guardian.
The narrator then returns to the child, who is nearing the refugee camp. And if the angel is doing a lousy job, the refugee camp is doing an even lousier job. He urges the child, Walk dear child, run dear child, fly on eagle’s wings faster and faster and faster to a promise land a land of grain mixed with water into a swampy mush A land of starving, naked, and hopeless people a land without promises, or even maybe promises but what to call a promise that you know won’t be kept.
A “promise” land. Not a Promised Land, not anywhere near a Promised Land! That would be a southern Sudan without jihad and genocide. A southern Sudan in which all people have true freedom and democracy.
(Neither my young poet friend nor I knew what the future held – the 2005 realization of that Promised Land, fought for by its Moses, Dr. John Garang, and the SPLA. Delivered in 2011 by its Joshua, Salva Kiir Mayardit. But then that Promised Land undermined by greedy and envious men — and women — who were aided by those same “promise” makers who acquired billions of dollars to provide swampy mush to hopeless people.)
No, he was very accurate to say a “promise” land. Promises, promises. Promises from the U.N. Promises from the world community. Promises from the United States government.
Southern Sudan Church leaders at that time told me sadly, “Every time the U.S. promises to do something for us, Khartoum runs to the Arabs and tells them, and they get more money to buy arms to kill more of us. And then the U.S. does not do what they promised. Please stop promising us. Your promises are killing us.”
The final movement is devastating. Hannah Arendt spoke of the “banality of evil.” This poem describes the banality of death: They buried that child side by side with the grandmother no tears of course no one there that had ever known that child.
And yet, as Arendt knew, evil is not really banal. And neither is death. The narrator imagines God, with sad eyes, comforting this child and grandmother, now with Him in Heaven – wiping away every tear, no more death, no more sorrow, no more pain – for them. And yet, the poet says, there is sorrow for God who looks with:
far away sadness and anger at these men, these wretched men and all
of the emotions because let us not forget that God does love them
and he loves them as much as you or I
That strange and powerful miracle to raise someone from the dead is in
itself hard to believe but how will you explain love for such an evil
and wretched people a people, loathing their creator, turning to fire
and guns and strength and greed to murder and oppress a people
and a generation we wonder how can he love them
The poem ends with the same lament and question asked at the end of the first movement, God please come soon, alleviate the suffering of your children please lord, how long will you allow the wicked to oppress Please lord, please. But it does not end with complete despair.
In the famous photograph of a dying southern Sudanese child, skeletal, hunched in agony, there is complete despair. In that picture, whose photographer committed suicide soon after, there is nothing to uphold the child. There is only a vulture waiting patiently for the certain outcome. In Sheet Lightning, the poet adds, casually, but not cynically, But we also know that he is just, and he will uphold the oppressed. So he can pray in the poem’s last lines for a just God to come and uphold the oppressed. He does not know when He will come. But he knows He will come.
If the author of Sheet Lightning over the Veldt reads this, please know that your poem has meant so much to me. I hope I can find you, to give you the credit you deserve – both for the poem and for your passionate advocacy for the Southern Sudanese people.
I hope you still have faith. We saw God birth the nation of South Sudan in a day. We will someday see it flourish and bless the whole world in spite of all the forces that are against it, trying to bring it down. I hope you will pray again: Please, Lord, come soon, bring peace and blessing, and vindicate South Sudan. Let the lies that have been told and cultivated about it be exposed and the truth revealed. Amen.