One of the questions people always ask about the ethnic killings in Burundi and Rwanda is how it was that Christians were able to do such terrible things. As you meet people and talk about the conditions that led to ordinary people hacking their neighbors to death with machetes, you learn that a major factor was the role played by political leaders who used underlying group attitudes to their political advantage.
For months they stressed the danger in “those people” who were “not like us.” They were morally inferior. They were not to be trusted. They were liars and cheats and were secretly planning harm once they had power. Something had to be done to stop them once and for all.
This was repeated incessantly over the radio, on television, and in written form. It was spread by word of mouth. Until it became reality.
These ideas were not new, of course. The history ofin Rwanda and Burundi had been one of competition, rivalry, and conflict … of past injustices, jealousy, and insecurity.
And so opportunistic leaders found a ready bed on which to lay their seductive plan for power. All they had to do was stoke the fears and then provide themselves as the key to allaying them.
Playing on Fears
In Rwanda and Burundi, this led to civil disaster — an attempted genocide in Rwanda and 11 years of civil war and unrest in Burundi. Both countries, and neighboring Congo as well, are still struggling to move forward out of the ruins left from the patterns of hatred, violence, and revenge that were set in place more than a decade ago.
And Westerners are left saying, “How could that happen?” as if it could never happen in their country.
That’s why I’ve had to shake my head when I’ve heard candidates saying Barack Obama and East Coast liberals “don’t see America like we do.” Then talk about those other people who apparently don’t love America because they don’t always see it as perfect or because they might criticize it.
And then to see them take it to the next level, saying that Barack Obama somehow is linked to terrorists, tapping into those core fears that exist in our society. Old fears about revenge that black people are certainly hoping to exact on white society for years of slavery and racism. Fears about Arabs and Muslims and what they are secretly planning to do in this country.
I shake my head because I see political leaders doing here exactly what they were doing in Rwanda and Burundi. The message is the same. It’s not a question of different ideas. The argument goes much deeper: These people are not to be trusted. They are to be feared. They will bring us harm.
To his credit, John McCain reacted well when he was faced with the fruit of his own campaign’s actions, taking the microphone from a woman who expressed distrust of Obama, suggesting aloud that, “He’s an Arab.”
McCain, visibly embarrassed by the crowd’s attitude, responded, “No, he’s a decent family man.”
(Has anyone ever stopped to think how it feels to be an Arab or a Muslim listening to this? “No, Obama is not an Arab, he’s a decent person.” Wow!)
Can’t Happen Here?
Civil Rights hero and Georgia congressman John Lewis was later criticized for comparing the McCain campaign’s words to those of then-racist Alabama Gov. Wallace in the 1960s. Well, I’m calling his Wallace and upping him one Rwandan genocide. Lewis was dead-on when he said that McCain and Palin were sowing the seeds of hatred and division.
The point is not that McCain and Palin are racist or wanting to spread hatred like Wallace did. Rather, Lewis knows that the root of hatred and mob behavior begins in painting people as dangerous and evil.
He knows what he’s talking about because he lived it.
Unfortunately, McCain, like most mainstream Western people, thinks that “we” are not capable of the same evil acts as “those other people.” We are decent people, right?
Unlike Rwandans and Burundis? Unlike those Arabs?
But our concern as Christians should not be what politicians are doing. Many people on the left and the right are already crying out about this. Our concern should be about the fact that Christians likely make up a significant percentage of those people in the crowds booing and angrily shouting about Obama.
I can’t prove it. But I do know many Christians who would be ready to scream with these crowds. I read their Sarah Palin fan club site discussions on Facebook. I see what people are saying on blogs. I know that Christians are part of this environment of fear and hate. Just look atsent out by evangelical organizations.
I keep thinking about what Jesus said would be the trait by which the world would know who were the followers of Christ — “By your love.” I keep thinking about Jesus’ words about loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. About loving even our enemies. About how we should treat even those who seek to do us harm.
These are the words of Jesus, those radical words that are at the heart of my missionary work on reconciliation in Burundi. We have met so many people there who are radically ready to love. And in doing so, they are setting an example for their country and their culture.
Bigger Than Politics
It’s time American Christians decide to follow the example and teaching of their Lord instead of their political leaders. Time they set the tone of love rather than following a tone of fear and hatred.
Politicians are doing what politicians do. They seek to win elections. It’s in their DNA.
Christians, on the other hand, claim to have another Spirit working in them. They say that they are not governed by fear. That they are confident because they believe in a God who loves them and who has good plans and desires for his creation.
So they should be able to overcome their very human fears and selfish tendencies. People like John Lewis and I may sound like we’re blowing things out of proportion. Perhaps the U.S. is not on the verge of genocide, but the country could be on the verge of losing much of the ground gained on racial reconciliation over the years.
We could be on the verge of seeing races move further away from a place of true understanding and real healing. Years of progress are in jeopardy.
I don’t believe that McCain is a racist or that he has allowed this atmosphere to intensify on purpose. I give him the benefit of the doubt. But we need to understand in the West, just as in Burundi, that buttons being pushed now could have serious consequences later.
Sound alarmist? Take a trip to Burundi or Rwanda, Kosovo or Kenya. Ask the people in those places whether they had thought it could happen in their country and how it came to pass.
Ask the Christians in those places what they might have done differently had they heard this message before it was too late.