"Kwibuka" — Remembering Rwanda

For Sunday July 20, 2014

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)

Genesis 28:10–19, Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16–19, or Isaiah 44:6–8

Psalm 139:1–12, 23–24, or Psalm 86:11–17

Romans 8:12–25

Matthew 13:24–30, 36–43

           This week marks the 20th anniversary of the end of the Rwandan genocide on July 18, 1994. Philip Gourevitch called it "one of the defining outrages of humankind."

           "At no other time in the history of our species," writes Gourevitch, "were so many of us killed so fast or so intimately: roughly a million people in a hundred days, most of them butchered by hand, by their neighbors, with household tools and homemade weapons — machetes and hoes and hammers and clubs. The killing was programmatic, a campaign prepared and orchestrated by the state to exterminate the Tutsi minority in the name of an ideology known as Hutu Power."

           For the last three months, as it does every year, Rwanda has held public mourning rituals. All around the country banners proclaim a single word — "kwibuka" or "remember."

Nyamata Genocide Memorial, Rwanda.
Nyamata Genocide Memorial, Rwanda.

           Remembering can be difficult. About half of Rwanda's population wasn't even born at the time of the genocide. And as Gourevitch points out, memory is a two-edged sword. Remembering can facilitate national reconciliation, but it can also re-open festering wounds.

           While Rwanda remembers its genocide, most of the world will ignore it, just like it did 20 years ago. Just like it ignores other humanitarian catastrophes in Africa today.

           Like the Central African Republic, where experts fear another genocide.

           Or the civil war in South Sudan that threatens a famine.

           The world's deadliest conflict since World War II in the Congo, with 5.4 million "excess deaths."

           And Boko Haram in Nigeria — the seventh largest country in the world and the largest in Africa, with a population of 174 million.

           Not to mention failed states like Libya, Egypt, Somalia, and Zimbabwe.

           There are some notable exceptions to all the forgetting, like Christians and NGOs that support hospitals, orphanages, schools, and disaster relief. But these are rear guard actions in apocalyptic conditions, and no substitute for civil societies, the rule of law, and stable governments.

           And so the world forgets Africa, which it construes as of little geo-political significance.

Photographs of genocide victims displayed at the Genocide Memorial Center in Kigali.
Photographs of genocide victims displayed at
the Genocide Memorial Center in Kigali.

           In the Christian scheme of things, whereas we forget, God doesn't forget. He remembers.          

           The Old Testament story this week about Jacob's dream reaffirms the global reach of God's redemption. God cares not only for me and my country. He loves every person and all nations.

           When God called Abraham to form a nation for himself, he intended to bless not only Abraham's family, but "all peoples on earth" (Genesis 12:3, 22:18). When he repeated his divine call to Abraham's son Isaac, he repeated the global reach of his love: "in you, Isaac, all nations on earth will be blessed" (Genesis 26:5). And when Isaac's son Jacob used a rock for a pillow and dreamed a dream at Bethel, God repeated verbatim: "In you, Jacob, all peoples on earth will be blessed" (28:14).

           No person or nation is forgotten by God. The only favoritism that God shows is his unconditional love for everyone.

           The God of Psalm 139 cares deeply and tenderly for every human being. He knows every person's fate. The psalmist believed that you could never flee so far that you were beyond the presence of God's Spirit. Whether I "go up to the heavens" or "make my bed in the depths," "even there your hand will guide me / your right hand will hold me fast."

           The darkest day can't extinguish the light of God's love. In some indescribable mystery of intimacy, God knew me before I was born, he fashioned me in my mother's womb, and he lovingly ordains all my days. I might feel this a lot or a little, or maybe not at all, but it's still true. Nothing can separate you from God's love.

           In Matthew 13, Jesus compares his kingdom of life and love to a field of wheat infested with look-alike weeds. That's a decidedly ambiguous and undesirable situation. He advises caution when it comes to premature judgments. But there will be a harvest when noxious weeds are burned, and the true grain is brought into the barns. Justice will be served, wrong will be righted, and suffering will be reversed.

           Similarly, in this week's epistle, Paul acknowledges the obvious. He employs sober language to describe the ambiguous history of all creation. On the one hand, and so true to our experience, he acknowledges cosmic suffering. These sufferings provoke feelings of frustration, futility, weakness, and subjugation. We remain "in bondage to decay." Like a woman in childbirth, he says, all creation groans inwardly and outwardly. The pain can feel unbearable. Paul is brutally realistic about our human condition.

           Paul also exudes confident hope. His vision of God's redemption includes not only all peoples and nations, but the entire cosmos.

Rwandan refugee camp in eastern Congo, 1994.
Rwandan refugee camp in eastern Congo, 1994.

           We live in eager expectation, looking forward to a future glory that will far eclipse present suffering. The ultimate destiny of the cosmos is liberation and freedom, adoption and redemption. The scale and scope of this future hope includes "the whole creation." There is nothing niggardly about Paul's view of the end of history. He never says how or when this will happen, but he never equivocates whether it will happen.

            My mother, who bore six children, once described the pains of child birth as "the hardest to bear, but the easiest to forget." Paul admits that his view of the end of history is an unseen hope. Our penultimate view is cloudy. We see through a glass darkly. Much of what we experience causes us to doubt — like Rwanda's genocide. But at the end of the day, Paul is the ultimate, unflinching optimist.

           By its very nature, you hope for the unseen rather than the seen, the Not Yet as opposed to the Already. Who hopes for what she already has, Paul asks? So, while we hope for what we admit we don't have or can't prove, we do so, urges Paul, with patience and confidence. Because of the character of a good God who never forgets, nothing evil will endure, and nothing good will be lost.

For further reflection, see:

Philip Gourevitch, "Remembering Rwanda," The New Yorker (April 21, 2014), pp. 31-32.

Philip Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families; Stories From Rwanda (New York: Picador, 1998).

From the United Nations Human Rights Council at http://www.unitedhumanrights.org/genocide/genocide_in_rwanda.htm:

"Although the Rwandans are fully responsible for the organization and execution of the genocide, governments and peoples elsewhere all share in the shame of the crime because they failed to prevent and stop this killing campaign.

Policymakers in France, Belgium, and the United States and at the United Nations were aware of the preparations for massive slaughter and failed to take the steps needed to prevent it. Aware from the start that Tutsi were being targeted for elimination, the leading foreign actors refused to acknowledge the genocide. Not only did international leaders reject what was going on, but they also declined for weeks to use their political and moral authority to challenge the legitimacy of the genocidal government. They refused to declare that a government guilty of exterminating its citizens would never receive international assistance. They did nothing to silence the radio that televised calls for slaughter. Even after it had become indisputable that what was going on in Rwanda was a genocide, American officials had shunned the g-word, fearing that it would cause demands for intervention.

When international leaders finally voiced disapproval, the genocidal authorities listened well enough to change their tactics although not their ultimate goal. Far from cause for satisfaction, this small success only highlights the tragedy: if weak protests produced this result in late April, imagine what might have been the result if in mid-April the entire world had spoken out."

Image credits: (1) Wikipedia.org; (2) Wikipedia.org; and (3) Wikipedia.org.