by Joy Anderson
In his books Peace Child and Eternity in Their Hearts, missionary writer Don Richardson proposed that God has placed within every culture certain concepts that find their fulfillment only in the gospel.
In his books Peace Child and Eternity in Their Hearts, missionary writer Don Richardson proposed that God has placed within every culture certain concepts that find their fulfillment only in the gospel. Richardson called these cultural concepts "redemptive analogies." As I have studied several scholarly works on the Dinka people of Sudan, it has become obvious to me that the Dinka culture displays many such bridges to the gospel.
The Dinka people live in an area in south central Sudan along the White Nile River and its tributaries, from Renk in the north to Bor in the south and from Bor in the east to Awefl in the west. There are at least two million speakers of the Dinka language.
Cattle are integral to the Dinka way of life. Cattle provide them with much of their worldly goods. The Dinka believe that cattle protect them from evil forces such as illness and death. The possession of cattle guarantees the continuation of the tribe through bride wealth payment. Cattle are also paid in compensation for wrongs. Even the grammatical structure of Dinka language reflects the importance of cattle.
Since the Dinka live near rivers, they also fish. The young boys who go to the cattle camps live on fish and milk. They are a tall, slim people who often have been known to stand for hours on one foot, leaning on a spear looking for the fish.
THE CREATION STORY
Dinkas believe that in the distant past God was close to people and they could communicate with him directly. However, when the first woman was pounding grain, she hit God accidentally because she was too greedy and was pounding too hard. As a result, God withdrew from humankind.1 The Dinka long for that close relationship with God to be restored. This can be seen in the hymns Lienhardt collected.2 The wonderful message of the gospel is, of course, that the sin of the first humans caused a division between humankind and God, but that Jesus came to restore that relationship.
Meanwhile, the Dinkas seek to restore their broken relationship with God through a system of sacrifice similar to that of the ancient Hebrews. They understand the concept of substitutionary atonement.
Their generic term for sacrifice is ox3, but the sacrifice can at times include the wild cucumber as well as other animals. Some Dinka friends I know say that a cucumber can be called an ox under such circumstancs.
"It is one’s bull that redeems him," goes a Dinka song. The New Testament talks of Jesus’ sacrifice taking the place of animal sacrifices. The book of Hebrews shows that, while the sacrifice of bulls cannot once and for all take away our sin, the blood of Jesus Christ can (Heb. 10:1-10). What a wonderful answer we have for the Dinka, to agree with them that a sacrifice is necessary, and that Jesus has provided the perfect sacrifice. Jesus, indeed, is the "Ox of God."
Cattle, so prominent in Dinka culture, offer another key redemptive analogy.
Each newborn Dinka male receives a "personality ox." The ox personifies that person and he personifies the ox. He even dances out the picture of the ox’s horns during courtship. He has become that ox in a sense, and that ox represents him. When women talk of their boyfriends and husbands in song, they do so by talking about that man’s personality ox.4
When a Dinka or anyone else becomes a Christian, he or she becomes God’s child and is born into his family. To show Dinka people that they have been born into God’s family, we can help them become like Christ and have his personality within them. Just as they have identified with their personality oxen, the Ox of God, Jesus Christ, now wants to be identified closely with them, and them with him.
Through his Holy Spirit, Jesus now indwells them. Just as God is love, people will know these Dinkas are Christians by the love they show one for another (1 John). They can learn how to be imitators of God (Eph. 5:1-2). They can now be tied up with God just as once they were tied up with their personality oxen. Jesus Christ can be the true "personality ox" for the Dinkas.
The idea of God’s sovereignty is seen clearly in the Dinka faith. They see lightning and other natural phenomena as coming from God. Deng observes that Dinkas consider God to be whimsical. Sometimes he appears harsh. He may appear not to answer them, or to judge them. When problems continue, they may feel that he has refused their sacrifices. But they do feel that somehow good will come from it. "The evil and good aspects of experience are merged into a positive image."5 We agree with the Dinkas about a God who allows problems in their lives for the purpose of turning those problems around for good (Rom. 8:28). He is the potter and they are the clay, and he has the right to shape them as he pleases (Rom. 9:21).
THE WORD OF DIVINITY
The Dinka religion is a relationship between humans and the ultra-human powers they encounter. It is more phenomenological than theological, an interpretation of signs of ultra-human activity rather than a doctrine of the intrinsic nature of the power behind the signs. Nhialic is the Dinka word for God. Nhialic is a multiplicity of gods, yet one God. The Dinka speak of a deity whom they call the wet nhialic, which means the "Word of Divinity." This Word of Divinity is said to be truth.6 In Christ, we can introduce the Dinkas to one who is truly the Word of God (John 1:1), and who is also the "truth" (John 14:6).
Dinka priests are thought of as spear-masters and chiefs and look back to their founder as a cultural hero of the tribe, just as Jesus is a hero to Christians. The Dinka hero, Longar, is considered the prototypical master of the fishing spear and is thought of as the eldest son of Nhialic. The Dinka priests represent humans to the divine and the divine to humans.7 Jesus is the mediator between God and humankind (Heb. 9:15). The ancestors of Dinka priests light the way and pronounce truth.8 Jesus can be presented to the Dinkas as the true light of the world (John 1), the ancestor who can truly light their path.
There is also the idea that the master of the fishing spear can give life. Lienhardt says, "The present functions of the master of the fishing spear are summed up in the idea that they carry our life."9 When a fishing spear is buried, people talk about him giving life to people.10 Jesus also gives us life (John 14:6, 3:16 and John 3:36 and many other places).
CULTURAL VALUES AND GOALS
Many of the Dinka values and goals are fulfilled in a better way through Christianity. There is, for instance, the goal of immortality. The Dinkas seek immortality through procreation. The Bible tells us to be fruitful and increase in number (Gen. 1:28). But Christianity goes much further than this toward answering the Dinka longing for immortality, for in Christ we have a life eternal which far surpasses life on earth (2 Cor. 5: 1-10).
There is a recurring theme in Dinka religion imploring God to restore harmony, as seen in the Dinka hymns.11 We can show the Dinkas how to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:11). The Dinkas also desire interpersonal harmony. Deng points out also "that cieng does not merely advocate unity and harmony… it requires assisting one’s fellowmen."12 We can show them how their newfound harmony with God can lead to harmony with one another as brothers and sisters in the faith.
For a Dinka to promote harmony or possess good cieng, he must be "opposed to coercion and violence,"11 The fruit of the Spirit include even-temperedness (Gal. 5 :23). As a person becomes closer to God, he or she will become more able to achieve the self-control so highly valued by the Dinkas.
The Dinkas are also concerned with dbeeng, or human dignity. A person may be considered to have dbeeng because of his conduct,13 or because of his wealth of cattle; however, an ideal is to be generous with wealth, or because he belongs to the family of a chief. God has graciously accepted Christians as his children and they are heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:17). What more dbeeng could one have than to be the children of God? We also are expected to be generous and be concerned for others (Heb. 13:16).
Dbeeng involves having high moral standards, and God certainly asks that of Christians (Rom. 6). Christ can give the Dinka believer the power to become free from sinful practices (Rom. 7?8).
The Dinka custom of bride price could also be a redemptive analogy. As Christians, we are "bought with a price," not of so many cattle, as is a Dinka woman, but with the precious blood of Christ (1 Pet. 1:18). Exchanging of cattle for brides involves many relatives. This puts social pressure on the couple that they remain together when there is marital discord. It tends to make the marriage stable. The blood of Christ makes our relationship with God stable, and nothing then can separate us from God’s love (Rom. 8:28-31).
In a Dinka marriage the wife’s relatives must also give the man’s relatives cattle. This is called "reverse bride price" or "bride wealth."14 In Romans we are asked to give our lives to Christ (Rom. 12:1) as a living sacrifice. This sacrifice is like a reverse bride price. We are redeemed freely, but to really profit from redemption, we need to turn our lives over for Christ to use. This makes the relationship even more stable because it gets us and our wills involved.
THE BULL OF PEACE AND BLOOD WEALTH
The Dinka person who has killed another must go through the ritual of atonement. A bull, called the "bull of peace settlement," is sacrificed. One young Dinka who had been in a fight at the Bible school said that "Christ is our bull of peace. We have peace with God since we have been justified by faith in Christ" (Rom. 5:1).
In the ritual, the clan of the deceased and the clan of the killer drink the blood and eat food together, much like Christian communion. The settling of homicides also involves something called "blood wealth," which involves the same number of cattle as bride wealth.15
WELL-BEING OF LIFE
The Dinka word for "well-being of life" is wei, and is similar to our concept of breathing. Wei does not refer to a single act of breathing but the continuing chain of breathing which maintains one?s life. wei implies the very height of well-being.16 As Christians, we can certainly tell the Dinka people of a well-being of life that can be theirs through faith in Christ. Christ makes us whole and gives us life at its optimum. Jesus cares for our everyday needs right now. We don?t need to be concerned for the next day, for he will care for us.
If we "seek his kingdom," all the other things we need will be "added to us" (Matt. 6:33). Certainly, we may still have problems, but our problems won’t overwhelm us (2 Cor. 4:8-9). Jesus gives us life (John 11:25), and it is certain wei, well-being of life, by any cultural definition.
The gospel need not be an alien message to any people. God has allowed each culture to develop in a way that prepares people of that culture for the gospel. He has spoken to the Dinkas as he spoke to the Jews and to all other cultures. What a thrill to be able to preach a message that can fulfill the needs of a culture according to its own value system.
1. See J.W. Burton, "Living with the Dead: Aspects of the Afterlife in Nuer and Dinka Cosmology (Sudan)," Anthropos (Fribourg: 1978), pp. 141-160; Godfrey Lienhardt, Divinity and Experience: The religion of the Dinka (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961), p.33.
2. Francis M. Deng, "Hymns of the Dinka," In Man’s Religious Quest: A Reader, edited by W. Foy (London: Croom Helm, 1978), pp. 595-598.
3. Leinhardt, 1961, p. 257.
4. Francis M. Deng, Tradition and modernization: A Challenge for Law among the Dinka of Sudan. Foreword by Harold D. Lasswell (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971), p. 247. Also Lienhardt, 1961, pp.17, 20, 27.
5. Francis M. Deng, The Dinka of Sudan (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972), p.123
6. Lienhardt, 1961, p.47.
7. Lienhardt, 1961, p.45.
8. Lienhardt, 1961, p. 247
9. Lienhardt, 1961, p. 206.
10. Lienhardt,1961, p. 300.
11. Deng, 1972, p.127.
12. Deng, 1972, p.13,
13. Deng, 1972, p.p. 14, 22.
14. Lienhardt, 1961, p. 25.
15. Deng, 1971, p. 262.
16. Francis M. Deng, "Dinka Response to Christianity: The pursuit of well-being in a developing society," In Vernacular Christianity. ed. Wendy James, D.H. Johnson, JASO, 1988 p. 157-169.; Lienhardt, 1961, p.206.
Joy Anderson and her husband John have worked with the Summer Institute of Linguistics for 34 years. They have worked among the O’odham people of Arizona, the Northern Paiute people of Nevada, California, Oregon and Idaho, and as translation consultants to the people of Sudan and Kenya.
EMQ, Vol. 34, No. 3, pp. 316-320. Copyright © 1998 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.