MEMORIES OF DEATH: Genocide memorial site guardian Danielle Nyirabazungu lingers near the skulls of people killed at the Ntamara Church in Nyamata during the genocide. Photo: Newscom.
The most beautiful place in the world is a valley in Gikongoro, Rwanda. Everywhere you look, you see hills full of palm trees and winding red paths. The light of a setting sun graces the hills with a golden hue. You cannot imagine a place more perfect, more pristine.
And yet that word, pristine, would be the wrong one. These hills are not unspoiled beauty, because they were once tainted by blood. This valley is home to the Murambi Technical School where 45,000 Tutsi people were massacred during the 1994 genocide.
When I studied abroad in Rwanda this July, I went to the Murambi Genocide Memorial and saw the remains of countless bodies—person after person, yet only a fraction of the people who were killed at this place. I saw heaps of the victims’ dirty clothing laid on benches inside the Nyamata Catholic Church where thousands were slaughtered, and I saw rows of their skulls and bones stacked underground in remembrance of their terrible murder.
I walked on the same ground the killers and their victims did 17 years earlier, and I imagined what it must have been like for the Tutsi people to be forced into hiding, fervently praying for their family’s survival. The idea that professed Christians systematically killed the Tutsi people solely because of their ethnicity, sometimes singing worship songs or pausing to pray in the middle of their sickening task, is more than I can believe. I keep thinking, How could anyone believe God would approve of ethnic hatred and genocide?
The genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda was government-sanctioned, and to many, it appeared church-sanctioned, too. In the decades leading up to the genocide, the church supported the extremist Hutu government and failed to denounce the ethnic persecution of the Tutsi. And in 1994, churches were the main site of massacres. According to a 2002 government report, about 11.6 percent of victims were killed in churches, often with the help of priests who themselves lured victims there with false promises of sanctuary.
Stories of the genocide make me wonder, where was God when a place of such breathtaking beauty seemed to turn into a living hell where evil walked, where so-called Christians chopped down their brothers and sisters in Christ without the slightest qualm? Where was God when people justified this violence with ethnic ideologies? Couldn’t God shake them out of their cold, complacent hatred?
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL PLACE IN THE WORLD: The sun sets over the Murambi Genocide Memorial on July 9, 2011. Photo by Catherine Newhouse.
The thing about gruesome violence like this is that it never makes sense. It’s so extreme and disturbing that the immensity of it all seems enough to overload a person’s brain, but instead life goes on—the beauty remains, and so does the echo of the voices of children who play in a village down the path.
It doesn’t seem right. It seems like this place should be forever somber, weighed down by the tragedy that happened. How are we supposed to make sense of such senselessness? Who would want to destroy the beauty of this place, spilling the blood of murder in the valley between these red hills?
Who would torture and kill someone just because they are Tutsi? Who could believe their ethnicity not only made them superior to others, but gave them the divine right to kill?
And how are we supposed to trust God after He let this genocide run unchecked for 100 days? In the Nyamata Catholic Church Genocide Memorial, you can see the rosaries that belonged to the Rwandans who died there. I wonder how many Christians reached for these rosaries and desperately cried out to God in the moments before their murder. Why didn’t God save them? The usual theological explanations for why terrible things happen just don’t seem to cut it for this.
In the aftermath of genocide, many Rwandans wondered where God was during the darkest chapter of their history. Could it be that he was silent, dead, absent, or sleeping?
Some believe God suffered along with his people in Rwanda — another victim of the evil choices that humans made. In Genocide: My Stolen Rwanda, survivor Reverien Rurangwa shared how he made this sudden discovery:
This Christ, disfigured, bruised, hacked away, pierced, cut, looks like me. … He looks like a young Tutsi from the Mugina hillside, dismembered on April 20 1994 by men who should have been his brothers. He looks like the victim of the Tutsi genocide. He looks like all victims of all genocides, of all massacres, of all crimes, of all wrongs. Is he the victim?
Perhaps God was present during the genocide, feeling the full-blown pain of the victims, mourning the loss of his beloved children, aching with Rwandans when killers violated the sanctuary of his church and his Earth.
In the end, I still don’t have all the answers, but that’s part of why I went to Rwanda this summer: I’m searching. I still don’t understand how people can have faith after living through genocide, why God can’t intervene to stop the worst violence, and how professed Christians can kill someone based solely on ethnicity. But I know that if we’re going to prevent future genocides, we have to be ready to stand up for the inherent worth of God’s children, seeing Jesus in the faces of the poor, tortured and killed (Matt. 25:34-40), and rejecting ideologies that try to warp religion into ethnic dehumanization.
And perhaps, hidden somewhere in Rwanda, there is something more: a piece of wisdom I cannot see yet, a clue to trusting God even amidst the most horrifying of horrors, a hope for the redemption of even the most twisted killers, a belief in a Christianity that will stand against genocide.
UNDER ARREST: Terror suspect Anders Breivik (left) is taken away by police in Oslo after the Friday bombing and shooting rampage that took as many as 76 lives. Photo: Newscom.
What a tragic irony it is, Mark Steyn implies at National Review, that racist, Muslim-hating terrorist Anders Behring Breivik murdered 76 of his fellow Norwegians in pursuit of cultural and racial purity.
If a blonde blue-eyed Aryan Scandinavian kills dozens of other blonde blue-eyed Aryan Scandinavians, that’s now an “Islamophobic” mass murder? As far as we know, not a single Muslim was among the victims. Islamophobia seems an eccentric perspective to apply to this atrocity, and comes close to making the actual dead mere bit players in their own murder.
But Steyn’s attempt to divorce the killer’s action from his motives rings hollow. At Religion Dispatches, Sarah Posner examines what drove the killer.
Breivik claims to protect a “pure” Nordic race, and apparently sees himself as launching a modern-day crusade … In the “Conservative Revolution” section of [Breivik’s] manifesto he lays out his views on “Solutions to prevent the extinction of the Nordic tribes and for implementation of conservative principles,” and opposition to “race-mixing” (in which he also decries what he calls “race-mixing,” either through marriage or adoption, by Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, to name a few). …
He “offers clues as to why he targeted fellow Norwegians, even though he claims to love his “Nordic tribe,” and in particular government buildings and the young people he massacred at the youth camp. … 90% of the category A and B traitors in my own country, Norway, are Nordic, Christian category A and B traitors.
At CNN’s Belief Blog, Dan Gilgoff unpacks why the “Christian Fundamentalist” label that was bandied about by media outlets over the weekend is inaccurate. “From what the 1,500-page manifesto says, Breivik appears to have been motivated more by an extreme loathing of European multiculturalism that has accompanied rapid immigration from the developing world, and of the European Union’s growing powers, than by Christianity,” said Gilgoff, who interviewed several scholars to make his point. Among them was Anders Romarheim, a fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies. Romarheim told Gilgoff that Breivik used Christianity as a vehicle to assign religious moral weight to his political views. “I would say they are more anti-Islam than pro-Christian,” said Romarheim.
At the Washington Post’s On Faith blog, Mathew N. Schmalz, Professor of Religious Studies at College of the Holy Cross, argues that Breivik sees himself as a “cultural” rather than “religious” Christian.
Breivik calls himself a “cultural Christian.” Religious Christians, he observes, have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, which he himself does not have. For Breivik, “Christendom” is a vehicle for preserving European self-identity and is not necessarily opposed to elements of “paganism” such as Breivik’s own “Odnistic/Norse” heritage. …
The Christian history that Breivik seeks to reenact is not the passion of Jesus Christ, but the narrative of the Crusades. … Although he wishes that Benedict XVI would call Christendom to crusade, Breivik argues that the Roman Pontiff has been too accommodating to Islam and has thus betrayed the Church and Europe as a whole. The new Crusade will thus have to be initiated outside the authority of decadent institutional churches….
Schmalz concludes that Breivik’s manifesto exposes “a dark side of Christendom as abstract fantasy and nightmarish nostalgia.”
In the comments section of her Get Religion post called “Guilt by Footnote Association,” journalist Mollie Hemingway debates Jeff Sharlet about whether or not the writers Breivik quotes bear some responsibility for his rampage.
Sharlet: “It’s silly to say that any writer is responsible for the actions of others — Breivik pulled the trigger, not Robert Spence — but it’s an oddly relativist argument to suggest that we don’t ponder the ingredients Breivik used to make his toxic stew. As the conservative saying goes, ‘ideas have consequences.’ ”
Hemingway: “I’m just saying that the argument needs to be made, not just asserted via guilt by association.”
At Slate, William Saletan takes the irresponsible rhetoric discussion one step further and asks anti-Muslim activists like Pam Geller (who led opposition to the Park 51 Islamic Center that is scheduled to be built in lower Manhatten) how it feels to have their own arguments turned back on them.
When the terrorist is a Christian—in his own words, a “Crusader” for “Christendom”—and when the preacher to whom he has been linked is you, you suddenly discover the injustice of group blame and guilt by association. The citations you didn’t create, the intermediaries you didn’t recognize, the transactions you didn’t know about, the violent interpretations you didn’t condone—these exonerating facts suddenly matter.
Saletan goes on to say he is tempted to blame Geller and “her ilk” for the attacks, but references the Qu’ran in concluding that “no one should be held responsible for another person’s sins.” He says this belief is the “moral core of the struggle against terrorism” and wishes activists like Geller would “show Muslims the same courtesy.”
Finally, in light of the fact that a lone gunman was able to shoot and kill 68 people unimpeded, The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf asks if we need to “reburden” ourselves with the responsibility to confront mass murderers, as the victims of 9/11 Flight 93, Columbine, and Virginia Tech did in the midst of terror. Said Friedersdorf:
“We forget. That there isn’t always someone to call. That sometimes we’re confronted by horrors even if we didn’t volunteer for them. That we each therefore bear ultimate responsibility for defending ourselves and our communities. It is our inescapable burden.”
What do you think? Does the news that this mass murderer rooted his evil in Christianity rather than Islam change the way you think about labeling terrorists? Should we, as Saletan argues from the Qu’ran, hold only individuals responsible for their actions and, as the Bible instructs, do unto others as we would have them do unto us? Do we bear the responsibility to act in the face of terror, as Friedersdorf argues, or does turning the other cheek lead to peace?