What the Rwandan genocide can teach us about Christian hope
The genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994 was rooted in ethnic divisions among the Hutu, the Tutsi and the Twa; and the effects of this divide were felt painfully in the country for many decades leading up to that atrocity. During the genocide—which occurred over the course of about three months, beginning in April of that year—close to a million Tutsis were killed, including my parents and many of my relatives. Afterward, the country was in ruin: dead bodies were everywhere, leaving innumerable widows and orphans; demolished houses characterized every hill. Every Rwandan was wounded, regardless of one’s ethnic affiliation, though wounds varied by degree. Prisons were filled with perpetrators of genocide. In villages, people lived with suspicion; those who had survived were not sure whether they would live to see the next day. We all asked ourselves: Will the sun shine on Rwanda again? (Ese izuba rizongera kuva mu Rwanda?) Where has the God of Rwanda gone? (Mana y’u Rwanda wagiye he?)
More than 20 years later, the country has experienced great healing; and improvements in government, the economy, community, technology and education have given many people reason to hope. So, has the sun shone again on Rwanda? The answer is indeed, yes! We hope that it will continue to shine in the hearts of the people and leaders as we continue to reconcile with one another. But economic success will not be enough if hearts are not healed and remain divided.
So, where did the God of Rwanda go? It is clear now that God never left us! We left God; we realize this ever more deeply as we search for the truth and our faith is deepened.
Over the last 20 years, God has led me through a school of forgiveness. One day I met one of the killers of my brothers and sister. Upon seeing me, he came toward me. I thought he was coming to kill me too. But I could not believe what happened. As if in a movie, he knelt before me and asked me to forgive him. After a time of confusion, asking myself what was happening, and by a force which I could not describe, I took him, embraced him and said: “I forgive you; the Lord has been good to me.” Ever since that moment, I have felt free.
I have realized that forgiveness heals the forgiver even more than the forgiven. My wounds have been able to heal others. I later found myself desiring to give the gift of my very self to the Lord as a Jesuit. The Jesuits attracted me first by the depth of their preaching and conversation at Centre Christus, a Jesuit spirituality center in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. They sounded different; they knew the brokenness of our world and made us realize that the Son of God was broken too. The power of God was manifested through weakness on the cross. “Rwanda can rise again,” they preached.
I thought God could never call me to priesthood, but God works in strange ways. As a Jesuit, I have experienced serenity. I have learned how my woundedness profoundly relates me to God, allowing for God’s grace to be seen. I am able to help others who are wounded in their struggle and their darkness as we all seek reconciliation and salvation. I look to Mary, Mother of the Word, who came to Kibeho, Rwanda, to obtain for us continuous conversion.
Signs of Hope
My experience and encounter with suffering in Rwanda have led me to believe that, whatever our situation, we must continuously look for hope. I believe that the following five points are distinctive markers and credible signs of Christian hope in the face of human suffering.
1) Jesus is our only hope. I was standing in the middle of a genocide memorial church at Nyange, Eastern Rwanda, and I could not contain myself. I felt I was standing in what the German Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz calls “a landscape of cries.” Emmanuel Katongole of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies has written: “On April 12, 1994, three thousand people took refuge in this church. The parish priest and a businessman ordered some workers to use two bulldozers to bring down the church. They demolished the church, killing nearly all the people inside.”
As I visited this genocide site, I was told how the bodies, members of Christ’s body, were buried. Some are buried under what used to be the altar of the church. I knelt there in prayer on what was holy ground that became a place of slaughter. I lamented, “How long, Lord, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our relatives?” How long? “How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save?” (Hab 1:2). I prayed that those below the altar might join me in this lament. “How long will we go with a mock of Christianity that takes the tribalism of our world for granted?”
The longer I cried out to God on top of broken bodies and bones, the more I became certain that Jesus is our only hope. In these dangerous memories and their discomfort, I could only remember the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. I was kneeling where the passion and resurrection of Jesus had been celebrated during liturgy. In fact, Easter Sunday was on April 3 in 1994. The church of Nyange was sadly destroyed at the end of the Easter octave. What my prayer in Nyange helped me see—in the ruins, skulls and bones of that building—is that through the prayer of lament there is indeed hope, but only if we come to the breaking point of crying together: How long? Christian hope joins our voices as one as together we turn toward Christ.
2) We are destined for better things. We are made for something different. Despite poverty, discrimination, racism and genocides, history shows that this is not the end of the story. If humankind agreed all these evils were acceptable, then we should be seriously worried. But in fact, it seems impossible that anyone, in good conscience, could stand up publicly and say, “I support Nazism,” or “I support the genocide in Rwanda.” Instead, there is something in us that thirsts for knowledge and for the discovery of the truth.
During the genocide in Rwanda, people were killed, burned and arrested. Dogs were turned on them. People were shot. Women were raped. Babies were smashed on walls. People were thrown into pit latrines (including my brothers and sister), and mothers were thrown into rivers. But in the end, freedom ultimately wins out. Hitler thought he had a lot of power. Where is he today? Mussolini thought he had a lot of power. Where is he today? Idi Amin and Mobutu Sese Soku thought they had a lot of power, but where are they today?
Recognizing the truth about our goodness matters more than ever. We are made not only like God but also for God. Planted in the center of our being is the longing for the transcendent. Being made for God means that anything less than God will not suffice for us. Furthermore, as Father Metz says, “In the end, our hope is, God will make right even with those who have died.” That is a tremendous distinction and gift of Christian hope. This hope is not only for me but is hope for the salvation of others.
3) Our identity is rooted in love. While history shows that the human person has a remarkable capacity to be vicious, cruel and almost devoid of humanness, at the same time we experience the remarkable and magnanimous capacity of people to forgive those who tortured, oppressed and abused them. That was certainly true in my case, when I met the man who killed my family and then felt some new fresh air in my life. Our Christian hope lies in the courage of that small band of people who understand their Christianity in nonethnic terms, who walk justly and mercifully and courageously and pay a shocking price in physical and material terms for their faithfulness. This hope manifests the church that cannot die. To cite Emmanuel Katongole again:
Across the road from the church that was bulldozed at Nyange is where students refused to separate Hutu from Tutsi in 1994. In 1997, militiamen came by night, surrounded the high school and killed the guard. These men entered a classroom and demanded that students separate themselves along ethnic lines, but the students refused, maintaining, “We are Rwandans.” Frustrated, the militia indiscriminately launched an attack that killed many of them.
They are martyrs to the new identity that bound them together in life and in death. Christian hope forges an identity where waters of baptism become thicker than ethnic blood. I hear these children saying to us Rwandans, “You have messed up Rwanda and we are going to get it right.” These young children are now officially honored as Rwanda’s heroes. Indeed, we are hope-based creatures, and what we believe as our ultimate future determines how we live now.
4) We are agents of transformation. We are agents of transformation who cooperate with God to transfigure his world. Remember the story of God’s conversation with Moses: “I have seen the suffering of my people...” (Ex 3:7). Our God is a God who knows, sees and hears. There is hope that nightmares will end, hope that seemingly intractable problems will find solutions. God has some tremendous fellow workers, some outstanding partners.
I have been privileged to have personal conversation with Paul Farmer, M.D., who has been at the forefront of health care in poor countries. I asked him, “What keeps you going as you help the poor?” Dr. Farmer said, “Our credibility and legitimacy come from how we render service to the people, how we transform their lives. On top of competency, we do it with love.”
I am indebted to people like Dr. Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank and a man of deep faith, who, together with others, helped to transform H.I.V./AIDS from a death-sentence pandemic to a life condition in which people’s lives could be prolonged at a time when everybody was saying that it is impossible to treat H.I.V. in Africa.
In Burundi, where I worked for some time, I met some H.I.V.-positive women who frequently told me, “Father Marcel, if we had not met the Jesuit AIDS Center [Service Yezu Mwiza], we would now be turning into our graves.” Some of these women got H.I.V. through rape, war or domestic violence, but their lives had completely changed because of access to antiretroviral drugs. They are now living with great hopes of seeing their children go to school. I have experienced “the Lazarus effect” in working with people living with H.I.V. and AIDS. All this helps us to hope. In the face of suffering, tears do not replace action.
5) The resurrection of Christ. The resurrection of Christ means that we believe and know that death is not the end. Suffering, hate, death do not have the last word. At Jesus’ death, he felt excluded and abandoned. He was even crucified outside the gate, as a sign that he was excluded from his people. Because God treated Jesus as we deserved, our faith in the risen Christ makes us hope that God will also treat us as he treated his risen Son. This opens a space of commitment in the present, knowing and believing that at the end life shall prevail. Consequently, this eschatological hope implies and does not preclude temporal commitment. This is illustrated in the “resurrection” of the Rwandan people after the genocide, the commitment to education and care for the environment, the thinking of the next generations. Life does not end with us.
The Christian hope in the resurrection, in life after death, in the new heavens and new earth, in the fulfillment of God’s promises makes us live our earthly life in a distinctive Christian way. It makes us commit ourselves to justice and compassion and the peace in living the reality of God’s kingdom within that specific Christian tension of the already and the not yet.
There is a story of a priest in Russia who was confronted by an aggressive young physicist who rehearsed all the reasons for atheism and arrogantly said, “I do not believe in God.” The priest, not put off at all, replied quietly, “Oh, it does not matter. God believes in you.” God does believe in us. That is the fundamental object of our Christian hope, and it makes us strive to make this world a great home.
Christian hope is fundamentally based on the love of God for everyone: rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight, Jew and Arab, Palestinian and Israeli, Serb and Albanian, Hutu and Tutsi, Pakistani and Indian—none are outside the purview of God’s love. Remember what Jesus said: “I, if I am lifted up, will draw all to me” (Jn 12:32). Not some, but all.