Wednesday, September 07, 2005

book review: The Bible or the Axe

Book: The Bible or the Axe
Author: William O. Levi (as told by A. F. Chai)
Genre: Autobiography
Publisher: Winepress Publishing, 2004
ISBN: 1-57921-732-X

In The Bible or the Axe, William O. Levi (with A. F. Chai) tells us what it was like to live as a refugee from and later a Christian in South Sudan.

William was born to Messianic Hebrews Ajjugo and Anna Levi in 1964. In 1965 when Muslim troops from the north made life in South Sudan dangerous for Christians and Jews, the family fled to Uganda. There William’s earliest memories include being responsible for a herd of cattle at age five.

Another early memory of William’s is how much he wants to go to school. He finally gets his wish when he is eight years old. Even the miles-long trek through the jungle each day is worth learning to read. However, his joy is short-lived. In 1972 when Ugandan President Idi Amin brokers a treaty between North and South Sudan, most of the refugees leave Uganda to return home. The school closes after William has attended for only half a semester.

William does eventually return to Sudan and school. There, under the influence of his grandfather, he makes a personal decision to accept Christ. His grandfather also teaches him the Bible and baptizes him in a moving ceremony where, discerning full well the struggles that William will someday face, confronts him with a decision – will he fight with the Bible or the axe. William determines then, his weapon will be the Bible.

As the political situation worsens with North Sudan’s Khartoom regime assuming more and more control, William’s education is again in jeopardy. Finally, Shari’a law is imposed. South Sudan resists, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) comes into being and when William and his friends hold a series peaceful demonstrations, they are arrested and questioned about SPLA involvement. Though they are tortured, they are eventually released.

In following days William is tempted to join the SPLA and fight alongside his countrymen. But he can’t forget the decision he made the day of his baptism. He also senses that he will be able to best help his people by getting an education. To do that, he knows he must flee the country. The story of his flight takes us from Kapoeta in South Sudan, to Khartoum (North Sudan) to Cairo (Egypt) to Istanbul (Turkey) to France. He eventually lands in New York in August 1988.

Here the miracles continue. William, who knows no one in America, finds, in his wallet, the phone number of a Christian American man he met in Egypt years earlier. He calls the number and a few hours later has a bed for the night in the home of the parents of his only American friend.

With incredible determination and hard work, he earns his American high school diploma and finally graduates from the New Jersey Institute of Technology in 1993. Far removed from Sudan and now looking forward to living the good life in America as an engineer, he attends a last Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship retreat where his friends encourage him to join a circle of potential full-time ministry students for prayer.

Though he has felt no such call, that day as his friends pray for him, he feels the hand of God on his life for a special purpose. The struggle to live his life selfishly is completely overcome a few days later. He meets Richard Wurmbrand (Voice of the Martyrs) and Wurmbrand’s description of the 1993 situation in Sudan changes William’s focus once and for all. By October of 1993, he has established Operation Nehemiah for South Sudan – a ministry to restore the church, enhance the education of youth and promote agriculture and health care. This ministry carries on till today.

Several themes running through the book take it from being merely a gripping story to an inspiring one. The first is William’s single-minded focus on getting an education. His bull-dog tenacity and can-do attitude (he maintained a full-time night job while going to school full-time as well, subsisting on about 3 hours of sleep a night) stand in sharp contrast to the lazy, world-owes-me stance many North American kids have.

William’s simple child-like faith is another inspiration. Each step of the way, from facing herdsman dangers as a young child, to his flight from Sudan, to his life in America, William’s faith is tested. As God sees him through situation after situation, he learns that it’s a waste of time to worry. And of course all these faith tests prepare him to establish the ministry which is helping thousands today.

Finally, William’s determination to make the Bible and not the axe his weapon of choice is a testimony to the power of God’s Word and faithfulness. Using this weapon, he overcomes the temptation to hate the Muslims who torture him in Juba, the fellow South Sudanese who mock him for resisting temptation in Cairo and the students who make racist comments to him and his roommate in America. Instead, he attacks the real enemy, Satan, with the truth of God’s word and prayer. What a victory he gains with his positive attitude, lack of bitterness and love!

I have two small criticisms of the book. First, the story stops at 1993 and though the book contains photos of Mr. Levi’s wife and children, they are never mentioned. A brief update would have made the story seem more complete.

Second, I searched for but couldn’t find the incident which begins the narrative (Foreword) in the latter section which deals with the same dates. Some linkage here, even if only a sentence referring back to that opening scene, would have brought the story full-circle and made it a more satisfying and structurally sensible read.

For students of Africa and specifically Sudan, this book has added value with its opening chapter on the historical and political background of Sudan and its Appendix Two "The Politics of Jihad." However you don’t need to be a specialist to be riveted by Mr. Levi’s story and be amazed at what God has accomplished through the Nehemiah Ministry (Appendix One) since it was started in 1993. More information on Mr. Levi and Operation Nehemiah Missions, including how to support it financially, is found at Operation Nehemiah Missions.

Disclaimer: The book The Bible or the Axe was sent to me by Mind & Media as a gift from the publisher who donated the books for reviewers.


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