Looking Into the Mirror of Rwanda

We cannot look into the mirror of Rwanda without noting its deep contradictions. The slaughter that lasted for a hundred days in the spring of 1994 began on April 7, the Thursday of Easter week. In a country that was over 85 percent Christian, almost everyone gathered on Easter Sunday to remember the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Just a week before the genocide began, Rwandans celebrated Maundy Thursday. Maundy from the Latin maundatum, which means “command.” On the Thursday before Jesus was crucified, Christians remember how He gathered with His disciples in the upper room, washed their feet, shared a meal, and gave them a “new command.” Jesus looked at His disciples and said, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).

That is the new commandment Christians remember on Maundy Thursday--the command to love one another, even to the point of laying down our own lives. But one week later in 1994, Christians in Rwanda took up machetes, looked fellow church members in the face, and hacked their bodies to pieces.

It is strange enough to think that the 1994 genocide began during Easter week. But it is yet another contradiction that it happened in Rwanda. If you read Christian mission journals and textbooks from the 1980s, Rwanda is often held up as a model of evangelization in Africa. Nowhere else on the continent was Christianity so well received.

A revival movement spread throughout Rwanda in the latter half of the 20th century. Church growth was unprecedented. Seminarians in the United States studied Rwanda, asking how they might use similar strategies elsewhere to share the good news of Jesus Christ with those living in darkness. Yet in 1994 an unimaginable darkness descended on Rwanda. The most Christianized country in Africa became the site of its worst genocide.

I want to note a third contradiction for those who have never been to Rwanda. It is an important one to keep before us as we consider the great evil that is possible in God’s good creation. Rwanda is a beautiful country--one of the most beautiful countries in Africa. This “land of a thousand hills” is lush with fertile soil, beautiful flora and breathtaking landscapes.

There is a saying in Rwanda that “God travels the world by day, but He rests at night in Rwanda.” God makes His home in Rwanda because no other place exhibits so well the glory of His creation.

From my visit to Rwanda as a child, I remember the house of my grandparents, situated on top of a hill. Looking down from the house, I enjoyed a panoramic view of rolling hills, the slopes of which were covered with banana plantations and other crops. In the valley below a river flowed, tracing the curves of a beautiful landscape.

I have been struck by this same intense beauty every time I visit Rwanda. Yet in the midst of such beauty the unimaginable happened. St. Augustine said that evil is like a parasite-- it can only exist where there is something good for it to feed on. Where there is greater good, there is also the potential for greater evil. In the midst of Rwanda’s extravagant beauty we encounter a story of extreme horror.

Augustine helps me make sense of the peculiar nature of evil, but as I have dwelt on the contradictions of this Easter week of bodies, I find myself asking the question the apostle Paul put to the Galatians: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” (Gal. 3:1). While I trust that there is something to be learned from the scholar in me who wants to tell the story of how the Rwandan genocide came to be, the contradictions we find in this story ultimately lead me to believe there are powers at work beyond the rational progression of history. I cannot explain Rwanda without acknowledging that it has, in some sense, come under a spell.

I don’t think this sense of spells is some sort of African animism slipping into my theology. Rather, I believe that Paul is right when he says that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). We are not called to fight against bodies but against spiritual forces that lay claim to our bodies.

Rwandans are not the only ones susceptible to powers and principalities. When the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw Nazism come to power in Germany in the early 1930s, he wrote a letter to his brother asking, “How can one close one’s eyes at the fact that the demons themselves have taken over rule of the world, that it is the powers of darkness who have here made an awful conspiracy?” If we say the same when we look at Rwanda in 1994--and I don’t see how we can keep from saying something like this--then we have to name and confess the way those powers extend their conspiracy far beyond Rwanda--indeed, how their conspiracy came to include Rwanda through an interwoven history of colonialism and evangelization.

If Rwanda is a mirror to the church, then we must face in it all the contradictions that cloud the global Christian identity. The language of spells can help us about the genocide in Rwanda because spells usually remain invisible. This is what makes their hold on us even more dangerous. The first step in confronting the power of spells is to name them.

In the case of Rwanda, I think the words of Cardinal Roger Etchegaray help to rightly name the spell. Cardinal Etchegaray was the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace from 1984 to 1998. When he visited Rwanda on behalf of the pope in 1994, he asked the assembled church leaders, “Are you saying that the blood of tribalism is deeper than the waters of baptism?” One leader answered, “Yes, it is.”

This is the challenge. This is what the Rwandan genocide exposes for the global church to recognize. Christian expression throughout the world has too easily allowed the blood of tribalism to flow deeper than the waters of baptism.

Taken from Mirror to the Church by Emmanuel M. Katongole. Copyright ©2008 by Emmanuel M. Katongole. Used by permission of Zondervan. To purchase the book, click here.

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