It is inescapable as these days come together not to see the profound and at times both enraging and healing place of religion in Rwanda.
My family though relatively new to Rwanda has old roots in the Great Lakes Region. We remember Rwanda’s history as the leader of the East African Revival in the 1930’s and 1940’s. We remember a sense of hope in 1993 and early 1994 that the war in Rwanda would come to a negotiated end and generations of refugees would return home. We remember reading and listening to banter in the early 1990’s that we would far too late realize was genocide ideology coming from those who seemed reasonable. We remember not believing the early rumors after 7 April 1994. We remember realizing with shocked horror the rumors were true. We remember the ghastly realization that the genocide took place with complicit churches.
Most of our Rwandan friends are humble, reserved, and understated. Several times I’ve seen them explode with indignation as they processed the horrible history of churches in Rwanda’s history. One Rwandan peer of mine once slipped a remark, “I hate churches.” Another once was giggling with me about young people playing basketball inside the CCR assembly hall. When I remarked that I hoped I had not offended his sense of “a holy place,” he quickly spoke with anger about the horrors he had seen in church buildings. My two friends grew up in God fearing homes, but their youthful ideals were shattered by churches complicit in genocide. Their indignation is not only understandable. Their indignation is justified.
Insanity is the only possible word to describe those who deny Rwanda’s tragic history of religion. Yet at the same time religion is where we find healing and hope. Further, history will show that the faith community is a key component to building an enduring society.
What do we say during a year where our religious and historical calendars collide?
First, we accept both personal and corporate responsibility. The portions of the Bible I find most relevant to contemporary Rwanda are the portions of the Old Testament where Judah returns after 70 years of exile. When exiled Nehemiah realizes the security of Jerusalem is threatened his prayers leave no one off the hook. He took responsibility for it all. His immense sense of responsibility resonates for generations as he prayed, “And I'm including me, my ancestors and me, among those who have sinned against you. We've treated you like dirt (Nehemiah 1:6, 7, The Message.)” Rwanda needs more religious leaders willing to assume responsibility for the failures of generations whom preceded them. We are all human. Our humanity wrestles with lies, hatred, division, and destruction. Seeing our own failings, and even taking responsibility for sins we did not personally commit is a must.
Second, we build. Genocide ideology thrives in a strategy based on non-literacy and poverty. Our strategy must be to build education and business infra-structure.
Third, the old Passion story defines and heals. Palm Sunday is a joy, but it reminds us that religious crowds can be fickle and undiscerning. If our joy has no understanding our passions can be destructive. A few days after Palm Sunday religious leaders crafted a conspiracy of false accusations against Jesus of Nazareth. They were motivated by the fear of a loss of power and control. The final outcome of the religious leaders’ conspiracy was Roman government authorities brutally executing Jesus.
A question we all ask of God during the Week of Mourning is, “Where was He?” The best answer I can find is alongside and with Genocide survivors. They were killed much like Jesus of Nazareth by state apparatus conniving with morally bankrupt religious leaders seeking power and control. The presence of Jesus was with every victim of Genocide.
Yet, one matter still remains in the Passion story – Resurrection. Death stinks – both in our spirits and in reality. It is most awful when it steals away our hope. Jesus had spent three years explaining what was coming, but His followers did not understand. They were scattered and confused. Only a few brave women would even dare risk the association of caring for his body. Those brave women were the first to see Him alive. Then over time over 500 saw him alive. Not only did Jesus resurrection overcome death, it overcame the horrible systems of governance and religion that made His brutal death possible. Our world is forever changed by Jesus’ Resurrection.
So how do we face this strange coincidence of the calendar as the Easter season meets the Week of Mourning? By doing the most basic tasks of humanity – We remember. We grieve. We embrace. We heal. We change. We discover. We hope.