THE LIGHT STILL SHINES: The sun sets over the Murambi Genocide Memorial in Rwanda on July 9, 2011. (HDR photo by Tyler Hutcherson)
Five months after being immersed in the study of the Rwandan genocide, I still don’t know what to say about it.
I went to Rwanda last summer as part of a study abroad program with my university. I visited genocide memorials and saw the remains of victims, heard the testimonies of survivors and watched Rwandans passionately cry out to God in churches.
By the time I got back, my brain was overloaded with stories of genocide — images of machetes, babies slammed against walls, people hiding in cramped spaces praying they wouldn’t be found.
To try to put these stories into words, when I know that any attempt I make could only trivialize what Rwandans experienced, is not possible. It’s a story that cannot be shared lightly, when someone casually asks what Rwanda was like over small talk at lunch. But Rwanda holds a story that must be told—a warning against the dangers of racist stereotypes and propaganda, and proof that a country that has been through devastation can rise again.
This week, the Christianity Today story I reported in Kigali, Rwanda, went online. It’s about the charismatic movement in post-genocide Rwanda, a surge of emotionally expressive worship for catharsis, a turning toward God for healing.
During the month I spent in Rwanda and the weeks I struggled to write about it, I wondered how Rwandan Christians could still have such strong faith after surviving genocide, how anyone could believe in God after their family was brutally massacred in a church.
I poured out my questions in a post for UrbanFaith, and was comforted by the insights readers shared. Five months later, I still don’t have all the answers, but I do have some more thoughts.
Why did Christians commit genocide?
It deeply disturbs me that professing Christians took part in the Rwandan genocide. How could someone who identifies as Christian hate another race or ethnicity so much that they’d think of them as inyenzi (cockroaches) instead of children of God, that they’d believe it was their right to rape and murder them? How could some priests lure people into churches with false promises of sanctuary before opening their doors to murderers—or, in one case, sending in a bulldozer?
I don’t know the answer to that, but to ask this question without considering why the genocide happened in the first place is too simple of an approach. Genocide never would have happened if it hadn’t been for colonialism. The concepts of Hutu and Tutsi as ethnicities didn’t even exist before then; the names originally referred to social class. It was the colonial government that sorted people into ethnic groups, literally measuring Rwandans and issuing them Hutu or Tutsi ID cards.
Through racist European eyes, the Tutsi were intellectually superior, better fit to rule, taller, and lighter-skinned, supposedly because they had European ancestry going back to the biblical Ham, son of Noah.
NEVER FORGET: Pictures of those killed during the 1994 genocide are installed on a wall inside the Gisozi memorial in Kigali. Donated by survivors, the images honor the 800,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutus who died. (Photo by RADU SIGHETI/RTR/Newscom)
The colonial government and the Catholic Church favored the Tutsi, turning Rwanda into a breeding ground for ethnic resentment. Decades of tensions eventually grew into a genocidal environment under an extremist Hutu regime. Rampant propaganda portrayed Tutsi as “cockroaches,” or enemies set on destroying the country who had to be crushed.
Genocide doesn’t come from nowhere; it’s foreshadowed by ethnic dehumanization — the kind of ideology that will latch on to anything that could lend it power, especially the most powerful of all, religion.
This history by no means justifies what happened in Rwanda, but it does show us the horrifying consequences when people don’t stand up to racism and injustice.
How can Rwandans trust God after genocide?
When I watched Rwandans worship, I couldn’t help but think that you don’t see this kind of dedication in the United States. Some members of a church I visited prayed there for hours every day. How could people who survived such trauma come to God every day and submit their lives to Him without hesitation? And how could they trust Him enough to forgive the people once bent on eliminating their ethnicity?
In the aftermath of genocide, powerful stories of reconciliation between the perpetrators and their surviving victims have emerged. Not only have many Rwandans forgiven, but some have invited the people who killed their family back into their lives—living as neighbors once again, or even becoming family (one woman adopted her son’s killer).
As Bishop John Rucyahana of Prison Fellowship Rwanda told me over the phone, forgiveness is a crucial part of the healing process. Prison Fellowship Rwanda organizes reconciliation programs and works with perpetrators of the genocide to help them repent and ask for forgiveness.
“Those who are forgiving are not forgiving for the sake of the perpetrators only,” Rucyahana said. “They need to free their own selves. Anger, bitterness, the desire to revenge, it’s like keeping our feelings in a container. When you forgive, you feel whole.”
Being in Rwanda is like living in a world of contradictions. Massacres happened on the ground where I stood, and yet when you’re there, you cannot help but stand in awe of the stunning natural beauty. Rwandan Christians survived horrors beyond any nightmare, and yet they have found the strength to forgive their enemies and passionately worship their Creator.
Before, I asked how Rwandan Christians could possibly trust God, let alone believe in his existence, after surviving genocide. But now, I wonder if they trust because they’ve been through hell and back, and they know Who conquers in the end.
Catherine Claire Larson with Devota, a Rwandan woman whose story is told in Larson's book, As We Forgive. Devota survived machete wounds to her neck and body, as well as fire burns, yet she found strength to forgive her attackers.
Usually it’s the book that inspires the movie, but in the case of author Catherine Claire Larson’s As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda, it was the other way around. The book, a gripping exploration of the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the miracle of forgiveness, is a literary extension of Laura Waters Hinson’s award-winning 2008 documentary of the same name.
Last month marked the fifteenth anniversary of the Rwandan massacre. By the time the one hundred days of horror had passed, nearly a million people were dead. Then, in 2003, President Paul Kagame announced that 40,000 perpetrators of the genocide would be released back into the communities they had ravaged, due to overcrowding in the prisons. The survivors braced themselves for the inevitable. There would be no way of avoiding their one-time attackers in a country as small as Rwanda. Forty thousand criminals would be there to remind them of the trauma each day, drawing water from the same wells, going to the same markets, working in nearby sorghum fields. But something unexpected has happened since the prisoners’ release.
Today, Rwandan wounds are still deep. But there, amid the pain, small miracles are taking place. Survivors are forgiving those who killed their families. Perpetrators are truly repenting and doing practical acts of reconciliation to demonstrate their remorse, like building homes for those whose families they killed. Says Larson, “If forgiveness can happen in that country after such unthinkable crimes, surely it can also happen in the comparatively smaller rifts we face.”
She adds: “In their hope, we can find hope.”
Larson spoke to UrbanFaith about the journey of writing As We Forgive and the lessons it offers us about true reconciliation.
URBANFAITH: What led you to write this book?
LARSON: For the past five years I’ve worked for Prison Fellowship as a writer and editor. Prison Fellowship is the largest prison ministry in the world. We come alongside prisoners through in-prison programs, mentoring, aftercare, and outreaches aimed at helping prisoners’ children. Prison Fellowship International is in 110 countries around the world, doing similar work, and sometimes also working with crime victims.
When I came to Prison Fellowship, the very first story I was assigned was to cover what was happening in Rwanda with our work there with prisoners, in this case former participants in genocide, and with survivors. What I heard as a result of those interviews really blew my mind and just never left me. Now fast-forward a few years later, when a friend of mine, Laura Waters Hinson, decided to travel to Rwanda to film a documentary about forgiveness occurring there. Because of my previous exposure to what was going on in Rwanda, I really wanted to help her promote her film. Originally, I thought I’d write a few articles. But the more I researched it, the more it became apparent to me that no one was really examining what is going on in Rwanda today through reconciliation efforts. All the focus was on the genocide itself. And yet, it seemed there was a tremendous phenomenon occurring in this post-conflict society, a phenomenon which I thought deserved further probing. That’s when I bought my plane ticket.
Many of us have read the history and seen films like Hotel Rwanda about the genocide. But, based on your research and personal experience with this topic, what have we missed about this human tragedy?
I think a lot of Americans when they heard about the atrocities in Rwanda in 1994 chalked it up to tribal warfare. In their mind’s eye, they imagined people from a primitive culture acting out in primitive ways against one another and dismissed it as something that could not happen in a civilized society. While they may have felt fleeting sorrow for the dead bodies they saw on the nightly news, the whole issue was really far removed.
The truth of the matter is quite different, however. Historically, the difference between Hutu and Tutsi was more like a class difference than it was a race difference. You could move between the two groups, for instance, by acquiring a certain number of cattle. It wasn’t until the early 1900s, when the Belgian colonizers decided to solidify these differences and attach their own racism to the distinctions, that the real animosity began. The colonizers theorized that people with longer and straighter noses, the ones they called the Tutsi, had descended from Davidic ancestry. The ones with flatter noses and shorter stature were, they thought, descendants of Ham, and therefore should serve the others. They issued identity cards, and gave Tutsi political and economic advantages which they denied the Hutu. Even after Rwanda gained its independence, these animosities had become so built-in that the groups were increasingly polarized.
I find it fascinating that the diseased and sinful philosophies of the West would eventually work themselves out into one of the worst genocides in the past century. Far from being the problem of some so-called “primitive” society, Rwanda’s problems were a grotesque display of Western racist ideologies carried to their extreme conclusions.
What role did the Rwandan church play in this tragic history, and what can the church as a whole learn from it?
This is one of the saddest parts of Rwandan history, in my opinion. At the time of the genocide, Rwanda was nearly 80 percent Christian. It was held up as a model of evangelization. And yet, people left their churches on Easter Sunday in April of 1994 and went out and killed others who proclaimed the name of Christ. It is unbelievable. As Emmanuel Katongole explains in his chilling book, Mirror to the Church, a certain story within their culture had more power over these Rwandans than their own Christian identity. This should make us look hard at ourselves. Katongole suggests that the Rwandan genocide should be a mirror to the church in the West. What stories do we cling to more tightly than our Christian identities? Where in our experience, he asks, does the blood of tribalism run deeper than the waters of baptism?
Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but what could the Rwandan church have done differently to bring a more positive result?
Bishop John Rucyahana of Rwanda says that the church in Rwanda failed in its prophetic role before the genocide. By that, he doesn’t mean seeing into the future, but rather the role of the church to preach — to speak out against injustices that are evident in society. It isn’t enough to simply preach about the love of God and neglect the church’s role of admonition. I think this is also an important point for us.
We live in a society where you are not supposed to believe in truth, much less bring words of rebuke or reproof to someone. But look back through the prophets of the Old Testament or Jesus’ own words to the Pharisess. So many of these are calls to repentance, calls to change. The Rwandan genocide should be a warning to us of what happens when Christians fail to speak out against evils within the walls of their churches — and within their society at large.
What can American Christians learn about reconciliation from the lives of the Rwandans that we meet in your book?
A couple of things came clearly into focus for me as I wrote the book and over the past several months as I’ve been speaking about it. First and foremost, I honestly believe after hearing survivors of some of the worst crimes imaginable share their journeys to forgive, that if forgiveness is possible in these situations, then, by the grace of God, it is possible in whatever situation we find ourselves in. That gives me extraordinary hope.
I want people to be confronted with that hope and with that challenge through these stories. But I also want people to consider forgiveness in a way that I think we’ve lost sight of somehow in our modern American context. I think most Christians today “get” the aspect of forgiveness in which we release something to God. It’s very similar to the popular conception of forgiveness that you find talk show hosts like Dr. Phil espousing: “Forgiveness is a choice you make to release yourself from pain, anger, and bitterness.” But this definition misses the mark in some really fundamental ways. Forgiveness is fundamentally a social action. It is meant to, whenever possible, restore the possibility for a continued or renewed relationship. It isn’t meant to be just an internal act, or just something that happens between a believer and God. What is so vivid in the stories that I share from the Rwandan context is how that internal choice to forgive is translating into external restoration and renewal of relationships in some cases.
Miraculous Embrace: In her book, Larson tells the story of Claude (right), whose grandmother was murdered by his neighbor Innocent (left). Claude forgave Innocent and the men have now reconciled.
Forgiveness is at the core of loving our neighbor, and of our salvation through Christ. But it often seems a lot easier to say we forgive than to actually do it.
That’s because, in our modern therapeutic approach to forgiveness, I think Christians have cheapened forgiveness. We’ve made it all about us. When forgiveness is seen as primarily a choice to release oneself from pain, bitterness, and anger, it misses the point that forgiveness is one of the most sacrificial of all human actions. I’m echoing Miroslav Volf’s explanation of Bonhoeffer when I say that when we suffer a wrong, that is a passive form of suffering; it is a suffering that happens to us. But when we forgive a wrong, we are choosing an active form of suffering. We are offering a gift to the person in our lives who perhaps least deserves it. And in so doing we have one of the best opportunities to mirror the power, the grace, and the glory of the Gospel.
After reading your book, what would you like people to do with the experience? As Christians, what should be the “next step” for us in terms of responding to these stories?
I hope that the next steps will happen on two levels. First, I hope people will wrestle with the issues brought up by this book and seriously ask themselves where God may be calling them to take steps of confession, of forgiveness and reconciliation. If they don’t do that on some level, I’ve failed my job.
The other level at which I hope this book provokes involvement is simply in helping Rwandans in their ongoing work of reconciliation. Each story in the book ends up highlighting various organizations involved in this restoration work in Rwanda. I list several of those amazing groups in the back of the book and on my website, these are groups like Prison Fellowship International, CARSA, the Sonrise Orphanage, the Living Bricks Campaign, Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee, and many others. If these stories have moved readers, I hope they will consider how they might help see this healing continue to spread by reading up on these groups and picking one or more to support prayerfully and financially.
How has the experience of writing this book changed you?
You can’t write about stories like these without being personally affected. For me, writing this book has been an experience of entering into the pain and hope of others. It has taught me a lot about seeing Christ not simply as my sin-bearer, but also as my pain-bearer. It has also been an encouragement when old wounds resurface to remember that forgiveness is an ongoing commitment, not just a one-time act. I think I’m not only more acutely aware of our own capacity for astonishing evil, but also more breathlessly expectant about God’s ability to redeem even the darkest of situations for His glory.
What’s next for you?
I hope to continue promoting the work of reconciliation in Rwanda, bringing help to those God has allowed me to meet. I also hope to continue writing the true stories of God’s work in the world today in a way that is winsome and accessible to all kinds of people, particularly those who may need a glimpse of the one true God in a way they’ve never experienced Him before.
For more information about Catherine Claire Larson and her book, visit www.AsWeForgiveBook.com.