24 years ago, over a 100 day period of time, nearly one million people were slaughtered in Rwanda. It was not war, per se, and it was not a fascist government eliminating the opposition, per se. Rather, it seems to have been anger and hostility smoldering beneath the surface, stoked into full flame by calculating leaders, spreading lies and fears, suspicion and schemes until erupting into murderous frenzy that was not spent until much of the country was turned into a cemetery. After all these years, in numerous locations, many of them churches, the clothing, skeletal remains, and sometimes even corpses of the dead remain preserved, frozen in time, as a memorial to what happened. Every April throughout the country people affirm, “Never again!”
Last fall Lavone and I joined many friends in Rwanda who were celebrating 75 years of ministry and service as Eglise Methodiste Libre au Rwanda. While there a pastor friend told us about the deep wounding that still plagues their nation. On the surface all is well, he said. But underneath there remain anger, bitterness, hostility and fear. In any given social setting, he noted, there could well be a mixture of perpetrators and victims in the room, or the children of either or both. In any given situation, there could be sufficient tinder to spark new outbreaks of genocidal rage and retaliation. Some careful observers believe it is only a matter of time before atrocity once again visits.
Our friend told us this as background for understanding the significance of his recent appointment to a ministry of healing and reconciliation for his church and nation. It has been 24 years, but still the makings of genocide lurk beneath the surface in many a person’s heart, taint the relationships they have, and threaten the future of a beautiful people and land. What can be done?
Our friend testifies to his own experience: the grace of Jesus can comfort us, forgive us, free us, then empower us to release the past including its perpetrators and murderers into the care of God, and then dare to reconcile. This is his own experience. He knows many who continue to struggle with guilt, rage, fear, and vengeance, all of which are perfectly understandable as well as predictably debilitating and dangerous. Only “the grace of God,” he says, can heal the heart, cleanse from rage, and reconfigure our desires and affections so that enemies reconcile and become friends.
When we were Rwanda, celebrating this grand anniversary for a great church and listening to our friend tell us about his new mission of reconciliation for his nation still reeling 24 years after the genocide—at the very same time, white supremacists marched in Charlottesville and black lives were threatened. And since then we have seen a worsening, devolving climate of fear, anger, and hatred moving from all directions to all directions. Sadly, I cannot say I always see a clear difference between those who claim to belong to Jesus and those who do not. In fact, some of my brothers and sisters in the faith are angrier than ever, more fearful than ever, and more vulnerable than ever to the allure of genocide.
I am not saying they would ever use a machete to hack another person to death or would join others in a shooting rampage against those who look, speak, and act differently than they do. But I sometimes think some (of us?) might not lose much sleep if someone else did.
A sad fact about the Rwandan genocide is that 24 years ago, on the eve of the worst atrocities, the country was overwhelmingly Christian in its culture and faith tradition. Overwhelmingly Christian, yet with many hearts filled with anger, bitterness, and pain. Then, a perfect storm struck and human history will forever bear the scars.
This should give us pause and drive us to plead for mercy and grace for ourselves and our nation. Everywhere it seems there is anger, fear, resentment and worse. Everywhere under the surface anger takes root and grows. Everywhere … in human hearts … the makings of genocide.
Jesus probes the human heart to expose the root from which murder and mayhem flow. He noted it would never be enough to prevent murderous acts when anger within us remains and rages on. He called his own to pay special attention to the heart from which comes all that corrupts humankind and human community. He calls us to turn from the self as center of universe, to walk with him to a cross, and to join him in dying to the old ways of being and doing, to put to death those ways—yes, nailing anger, rage, and vengeance to his cross—in order then to walk in new ways. He teaches us to expect a freedom to see others with his eyes, to cherish them with his heart, and to love them with his love. His loving—dying and rising, entering and reordering our lives—offers healing for all of our genocidal hearts.
Our prayers go out to our friends in Rwanda, and in so many other places where similar genocidal dynamics threaten. But we ourselves, in our own nation, stand as much in need of prayer as any others. As we pray for others let us also pray for hearts that are cleansed from anger and rage, filled with patience and kindness, and eager to share God’s healing shalom the world over, beginning at home.