Learning from Rwanda

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This is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the massacre in Rwanda, a quarter-century since 800,000 people died at the hands of their neighbours. The Walrus recently ran recollections of survivors, and the tales are harrowing.

Two features of this story give the Canadian Christian particular pause.

The first is the well-known fact that Canadian general Roméo Dallaire was there in the bloody midst of it, commanding the last contingent of United Nations peacekeepers. Having been refused the few thousand soldiers he requested in order to stop the bloodbath early on, he in turn refused to obey the UN instruction to stand apart while Rwandans destroyed each other with machetes, guns, fires, and bare hands. He and his fellow soldiers, Canadian, African, and South Asian, were badly outmanned, but they did all they could to staunch the flow of hatred and death, and they probably saved upwards of 30,000 people.

This is one of the stories that prompted me to transition from a Christian pacifism to the ethical position often called Christian realism. Dallaire was convinced, then and now, that a small number of troops, properly deployed, would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives by stopping the wildfire while it could still be contained. Troops would do it. And Christian prayers didn’t.

How do I know that Christian prayers didn’t? Here’s the second feature. At the time, Rwanda was among the most Christian countries in Africa—indeed, in the world—with upwards of 90% of the population espousing Christianity. So when the butchery began, you can expect that lots of prayers went up. But for all the stories of people being strangely, even miraculously, saved from the slaughter, there was still a slaughter. A huge slaughter.

And how could there be, among Christians?

The Hutu and Tutsi peoples had managed to get along, often amiably, as the Walrus stories show. But simmering antipathies were fueled by both Tutsi exiles and particularly by the Hutu government and its schools. Children were made to stand on either side of classrooms according to their ethnicity. “Cockroach” was a common Hutu epithet for Tutsi countrymen and -women.

So when on the evening of 6 April 1994, the airplane carrying Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down—whether by the rebel Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) or government-aligned Hutu Power extremists opposed to negotiation with the RPF—the genocide began.

Neither prayers nor years of churchgoing (by themselves and by their attackers) availed the victims. God allowed the world to see that the Christianity preached and practiced by the Rwandans was not as deep as ethnic and political rivalry, and not as powerful as tribalism and hatred.

As we Canadians anticipate a federal election, and as our American cousins struggle with their rather desperate political culture, I hope the horrors of Rwanda will haunt us and humble us. For mass murder doesn’t spring up from nowhere, but from soil planted and watered and cultivated to produce it.

May we watch our language, especially in the wildness of social media, so that we aim to produce respect and cooperation, rather than contempt and excommunication. May we insist on treating our opponents as fellow human beings with whom we intend to keep on living, not as insects to exterminate.

And may Christians in particular keep clearly in mind that we have God’s permission to hate precisely no one, and God’s command that we love everyone. May we be good examples to follow, rather than awful ones to avoid, as the tensions in our own lands increase.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).