Rwanda’s National Mourning Day (Genocide Remembrance Day)

rwandan_genocide_murambi_skullsI was driving up to Eastern Mennonite Seminary yesterday morning to participate in chapel when I heard on National Public Radio that April 7 is a national day of remembrance in Rwanda. For those not familiar with world events, in the year 1994 ethnic and tribal tensions in the central African country of Rwanda spilled over into a horrendous systematic genocide perpetrated by the majority tribe (the Hutus) mainly against another tribe (Tutsi), though other minority tribes (like the Twa) and Hutu moderates were killed as well. Over the span of approximately 100 days, about 1,000,000 (yes, six zeroes) people were killed, largely by the Hutu militias hacking them apart with machetes.

This was a sad, horrendous time in Rwanda, but it was also a sad, horrendous time in the world. The U.S. called Rwanda a “local conflict” and refused to use the word “genocide” because it may invoke moral responsibility on their part. President Bill Clinton later publicly expressed contrition for standing idly by during this time. In addition to U.S. non-action, significant charges have been made that the French government supported the Hutu perpetrators by both encouraging the Hutu death squads and turning a “blind eye” to the systematic killings when their troops were the only foreign forces in the country in June 1994. A damning report was released in August 2008 by a Rwandan commission of inquiry. According to journalist Linda Malvern,

The report – the fruit of two years’ work that includes the testimony of 638 witnesses, including survivors and perpetrators of genocide – is damning. It says that certain French politicians, diplomats and military leaders – including President FranÁois Mitterrand – were complicit in genocide. The French authorities knowingly aided and abetted what happened by training Hutu militia and devising strategy for Rwanda’s armed forces. Training and funding was also given to Rwandan intelligence services on how to establish a database later used to draw up a ìkill listî of Tutsi.

The most shocking allegations come from survivors who allege that French soldiers participated in the massacres of Tutsi. These soldiers were a part of Operation Turquoise, a French military intervention in June 1994, an ostensibly humanitarian mission that had the backing of the UN Security Council.

So from a world that uttered the phrase “never again” following the Holocaust in the 1940’s, passive ignoring and active assisting were the policy in the Rwandan “Holocaust.” This is one horrendous perspective of reflection on Genocide Remembrance Day. But I’d like to offer another that the typical journalist wouldn’t offer.

We Christians like to talk about “missions” a whole lot, and we like to talk about Matthew 28, Jesus’ “Great Commission,” where he said to “Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Many Christians have left the comforts and relationships of home to go to foreign lands, spurred on by this call to proclaim the name and mission of Jesus to the world. And when they have done so, they’ve met mixed results. In Africa, specifically, Christians often lament the big obstacles that meet them there; extreme poverty, tribal religions that maintain holds on the people, and other religions (especially Islam).

But with all of the struggles of Western mission in Africa, Rwanda was considered one shining example of success. Of all the nations in Africa, Rwanda had the highest conversion rate, and eventually the country could claim about 80-90% of its citizens as confessing Christians. Yet in 1994, in the most “Christian” country of Africa, one tribe of Rwandans slaughtered one million of their own people. For persons who care about the gospel (which should be all Christians), that leads to a big question,

What in the world happened here? How can such a success story become such a tragic story of hatred and murder?

And what investigators have suggested is that the gospel that was preached to Rwandans by Western missions groups was one that focused salvation on life after death, essentially, “Jesus died for your sins so you could be forgiven and go to heaven and not go to hell when you die.” This gospel, because of its focus on the afterlife, didn’t address its hearers’ (and eventual converters) everyday existence. Specifically, it had very little to say about social class, tribal, ethnic, racial, and familial relationships other than sexual behavior and marital boundaries. As a result, when a powerful racial hatred story came along (Hutu power), there was no counter-story in the “Christian” people of Rwanda to nullify the Hutu power story. To make this message come a little closer to home, this Rwandan gospel is the gospel most American Christians proclaim, which makes this more than a Rwandan problem; it makes it a global-church-wide problem.

To state this situation differently, it raises another important question. Is what the Rwandans received “the gospel”? And if it is, does this gospel have anything substantial to say about distinctions between people that lead to bloodshed? And specifically for the readers of this post, Does what you believe is the gospel only focus on the death of Jesus and its forgiveness of sins for eternal life, which means only heaven and hell after natural death?

If that is your gospel (and I wouldn’t be surprised if it is, because most of the Western world believes it is), I contend, Biblically, you’re missing the point of the gospel proclaimed by Jesus. And when you proclaim such a gospel in the world, it has disastrous results on the people hearing such a message.

I’m literally saying here that the Western church bears significant responsibility for the genocide in Rwanda. I’m not saying this to say the church is completely twisted and never has done anything good. I’m simply saying that when we miss the point of the gospel, and preach our missing-the-point as “the gospel,” it has consequences. Sometimes disastrous ones.

I saw the most recent example of the “gospel” we believe in when watching a video of a panel ostensibly put on to make Tony Jones look like a heretic (judging from the other panelmates) that ended up with statements from Tony, his “more orthodox” friend Scot McKnight, and his “definitely orthodox” (by American evangelical standards) panel-member Kevin DeYoung making statements about the gospel. I quote their three statements in full. In light of Rwanda, tell me which “gospel” wouldn’t significantly challenge the way of life of the Rwandan people and which ones would present to them a transformative message.

Jones: “The gospel is that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. That none of us should be lost. He’s given us the ministry of reconciliation, therefore we are ambassadors for Christ. That’s the gospel. God is the protagonist. God does the work. We put our faith in God through Jesus Christ and that our job then is to take the message of reconciliation out to the world.”

DeYoung: “The most important thing is…to be absolutely solid on what the gospel is. The gospel is not first of all what we need to do for God, to go out and change the world or bring about shalom. The gospel is first of all about what God has done for us…The beginning point, the ending point, the thing that holds it all together is that Jesus Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures and rose again on the third day and without that we are lost in our sins and we are facing eternal punishment.”

McKnight: “Here’s how I define the gospel… I think it’s the work of the Triune God (Father, Son, Spirit) through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit to restore cracked eikons (which is what I call human beings) to union with God, union with others, for the good of others and the world. And the same apostle Paul called the gospel “the gospel of peace.” Shalom is the word he would have used there.”

What do you think?  Regardless of the way you may respond to each statement, which one do you think most Western Christians would say is the gospel?  And how might the story of Rwanda change the way you think about the gospel?

When our “gospel” is primarily focused on life after death, something powerful will occupy that vacuum of how to find meaning in this life.  I saw another example of how that something powerful co-opts and changes Christian symbols on the back of a Ford Explorer today too.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, the gospel that we preach must be Biblically-rooted, must never take away from God’s dream for the world, and must lead to transformed patterns of living in this world that extend out through eternity. the world must see a visibly distinct group of people in the world to have something either to hate or model their lives after.  A people pursuing God’s justice and God’s shalom.  Anything less than that and we are setting our sights far too low.  

Rwanda reminds us that lives hang in the balance.


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