Waters of justice, waters of renewal

“We killed our people. The physical genocide was a reaction to spiritual genocide, spiritual emptiness,” Emmanuel Kolini, the Anglican archbishop and Rwanda’s most influential Protestant, told me as we talked at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Kigali. “Some people don’t think sin is real. Rwanda is a witness. Sin is real. It is bitter. It’s a fire. Rwanda has helped me understand the depth and weight of sin.” —Christianity Today, Healing Genocide, Timothy Morgan, April 2004.

It’s the tenth anniversary of the slaughter in Rwanda. What slaughter, you ask? There are so many tragic stories about Africa, it’s hard to keep them straight. Remind me again—what happened in Rwanda?

You can be forgiven if you don’t recall what has been called Africa’s worst human tragedy—the story didn’t make much of a splash in the American press. In April of 1994, Bill Clinton’s health care initiative was going down in flames and the White House was in hunker-down mode, ducking allegations of Arkansas financial shenanigans. Yasir Arafat was making a hero’s return to Gaza. The murder of more than a million Rwandans by their own countrymen was covered on page 20, below the fold.

The Hutus and Tutsis had long been at each others’ throats. When the Rwandan president, a Tutsi, was assassinated by Hutu extremists in the spring of 1994, civil war erupted. Armed with machetes and knives, gangs of Hutus roamed the country, beating and hacking to death Tutsi men, women and children, openly pursuing their goal of wiping out the Tutsi race.

The United Nations failed to halt the bloodshed, in part because the United States refused to contribute troops to a peacekeeping force. By August, the tide had turned—the Tutsi’s regained control of the government. Reprisals began, and panicked Hutus fled the country by the millions. Thousands of Hutu leaders and “genocidaires” were rounded up and imprisoned for their roles in the slaughter. Most have yet to be charged and tried.†

A short time after the genocide, Desmond Tutu, then the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, visited Rwanda and publicly called for mercy for the genocidaires. He championed restorative justice as a “third way” between so-called victor’s justice that harshly punishes the guilty and the temptation of national amnesia. &#151Christianity Today, Healing Genocide, Timothy Morgan, April 2004.

Desmond Tutu and other Christian leaders worked to establish a traditional court, known in Rwanda as Gacaca, in which genocidaires and their families would stand together and admit their guilt, repent of the evil they had committed, and promise to make restitution to their victims. If, at the end of this process, the court was convinced that the defendant was being honest and sincere, it could choose to absolve him of all wrong-doing. It was a thoroughly Christian approach to justice, one that had succeeded in healing the deep wounds of apartheid in Tutu’s own South Africa.

I think that if my own child had been killed in such a slaughter, I would find it very difficult to forgive—but that is precisely what is happening in Rwanda today.

I remember hearing a well-known moralist, a devout Jew, discussing forgiveness. She said that if God were to offer forgiveness to those who were responsible for the Nazi holocaust, she would turn away from God. The way she said it, it almost sounded like a threat—watch it, God. Mercy is fine, but you can take anything too far!

In The Difficulties of Genocide, Jeff Sharlet puzzles over the coverage of the Rwanda story. In both the secular and religious press, everyone seems to be framing the Rwanda holocaust as a story of redemption, renewal, of the power of forgiveness. Sharlet is astonished that even liberal voices have adopted this story line. (See Jeff Sharlet’s comments, below.)

Perhaps it’s because Christian forgiveness on such a massive scale is so… astounding. An entire country is finding a way back from unspeakable horror, not through vengeance or public executions or locking prisoners away for the rest of their lives in some hell-hole, but through repentance, restitution, redemption and restoration.

You have heard that the law of Moses says, ‘If an eye is injured, injure the eye of the person who did it. If a tooth gets knocked out, knock out the tooth of the person who did it.’ But I say, don’t resist an evil person! If you are slapped on the right cheek, turn the other, too…

You have heard that the law of Moses says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and on the unjust, too. —Matthew 5:38,39,43-45, NLT (Jesus speaking)

These are hard teachings.

Our society has long embraced a philosophy of punitive justice. In recent decades, we have made some attempts at making our prisons into rehabilitation centers, but for the most part, we’ve failed. In focusing so much attention on the offender, we’ve forgotten the victim. In focusing on repayment of some imagined debt to society, we have forgotten the very real debt owed those who have actually suffered harm.

Perhaps the difficulty with our current model of justice is that society holds a grudge—they aren’t convinced that true justice has been served. Perhaps the offenders themselves are trapped in their guilt and shame because they’ve never had the opportunity to confess and be forgiven. Every trip through our justice system begins with a plea of not guilty—perhaps it is that first act of denial that steers the entire process in the wrong direction.

In Rwanda, they seem to have discovered a better way. Nothing can undo the murder of a million people, but perhaps restorative justice can heal the wounds and create a genuine peace.

(† RWANDA from Encyclopaedia Britannica Premium Service.)

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  1. I appreciate your thoughtful remarks on this subject, but I think you misread my essay, “On the Difficulties of Genocide.” I’m not astonished that “even liberal voices have adopted this story line” (liberals love redemption tales), but that good reporters have embraced this “story line” at the expense of the actual complexity of the situation. Forgiveness is an amazing and wonderful thing — that’s why we shouldn’t cheapen it, and in doing so, dehumanize the Rwandans once again. Also: Justice is an amazing, wonderful, God-given thing, too, which I suspect is what the Jewish thinker you refer to meant.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to read my comments, and for your gentle correction to my misunderstanding of your essay on the Revealer.

    Justice and correction are indications of love, concern, involvement, interest and highly valuing another human being. Sometimes what we call justice becomes, in our hands, retribution instead of love. And in the emotional aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, who could have blamed the Tutsis for giving back an eye for an eye, letting their emotions set the tone for future years.

    Instead, what has happened is justice washed with grace, and I find such a thing quite amazing to see in these times. It is evidence that God is at work in Rwanda and it’s a marvelous thing.

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