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19 December 2012

Knowing whose you are: Rwanda and reconciliation

Knowing whose you are: Rwanda and reconciliation

by Steve Williams

In summer 2004, I had an unforgettable experience: six weeks in Rwanda on a mission trip. Travelling on dirt tracks in the back of four-wheel drives had the added benefit of giving me a free massage… Sadly, Rwanda is still largely best known for the brutal civil war that devastated the country and its people in 1994.

The effects of genocide were clear in the advice I was given during my visit not to ask anyone whether they were a Hutu or Tutsi. If there was ever a place that needed the reconciling and healing power of the gospel, it was Rwanda. During the East African revival of the 1930s and 1940s, one section of scripture became especially significant. The revival resulted in a group of Christians who were known to be 'walking in the light', a phrase taken from 1 John 1:5-10. This resulted in strengthened Christian fellowship, as groups who had experienced the light shared their testimony across Rwanda. But the violent events of the 1990s threw into doubt whether Rwanda had ever been truly 'Christianised'.

This passage still has much to say in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. It helps us to answer questions such as these: how can you tell whether a Christian is genuine in their faith or not? Is it possible to forgive those involved in the killings?

Traditionally, African identity is rooted in community. As the African theologian John Mbiti once noted: "I am because we are. We are because He is." Christian identity is integral to reconciliation. In 1 John 1:6, the author talks about claiming to be in the light when we are really still in darkness. In many places in Rwanda, Christianity had not penetrated far enough socially to counter the residue belief in traditional African religion. Even revival, with its emphasis on outward sin, such as stealing or violence, could not prevent this. Corruption and other social sin too often lay beneath the surface. This may have been partly caused by church leaders warning their flocks not to get involved in politics. Many areas of Rwandan public life were left untouched by Christians. The roots of this can be traced back to how Rwanda was evangelised by Western missionaries. Often, they did not recognise the power of traditional religion. So many Rwandans continued with the old belief that when the spirits take someone over, they are no longer responsible for their actions. People feared reprisals if they refused to do this. The revival sought to overcome this by emphasising the true consequences of sin – separation from a loving God and each other – alongside the reconciling power of forgiveness.

Rwanda's spiritual amnesia

So why didn't more Rwandan Christians speak out against government actions around the time of the genocide? Rwandan society struggles with the emotional wounds of genocide, just as it has with drunkenness and deception for many years. In the aftermath, people often chose not to make sure the offenders faced justice, instead deciding to leave it to God. In revival, many Christians recognised that they could only be properly reconciled to God by correcting what they had done to others, say by returning stolen items. But since then, forgiveness has been understood as not holding people responsible for their actions. Yet 'walking in the light' means acknowledging the need for justice to enable society to be cleansed and restored. Any Christian examining themselves honestly realises that, without God's grace, they are as capable of murder as anyone.

Responsibility for reconciliation: a future in hope

This kind of radical honesty was said to be lacking in many churches before genocide, as teaching on sin was not always consistent. Some claimed that there were church leaders more interested in abusing their position than being a faithful witness. This demonstrates the need for Christians in Rwanda to be able to understand scripture for themselves. Yet in Africa, illiteracy generally remains high, and many Africans think that a book can only teach a certain amount. However, theologians have pointed out similarities between the original biblical languages and indigenous African tongues. Africa has many storytelling cultures, so perhaps teaching the Bible in this form would be more relevant. What Rwanda needs most of all is gospel teaching being lived out by people with integrity.

Humanly speaking, it's impossible even now for all those affected by the Rwandan genocide to receive full justice and rehabilitation. Reconciliation begins with lifting sin and the needs of the country to God. Then the people of Rwanda can remain in the light of God and spread it further.

Steve Williams blogs on faith, film and many other things at: http://stevemillom.wordpress.com

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