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Bodies, Murambi Genocide Memorial
This is a book about bodies.
Anyone who watched the news reports from Rwanda in 1994 will remember the images of bodies. Bodies stacked in open graves. Bodies floating down rivers. Bodies hacked to pieces by machetes. We cannot remember Rwanda in 1994 without talking about bodies.
The movie Hotel Rwanda tells the story of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who sheltered hundreds of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda's capital, Kigali. In the movie, Paul leaves the hotel-turned-refuge early one morning to make a supply run before the killers awake to set up their daily roadblocks. Driving along, he stares anxiously into misty fog, trying to stay on the road and get back to the hotel as quickly as possible. But the fog is so dense that as he feels the tires beneath him bumping on uneven ground, he is sure he has driven off the road.
Paul opens the driver's side door to get out and assess the situation. But stepping out of the vehicle, he realizes that he has not driven off of the road. Instead, the road is covered with bodies. It's an image that captures both the tragedy and reality of Rwanda in the spring of 1994.
A book about the Rwandan genocide must be a book about bodies.
But this book cannot just be about the hundreds of thousands of Rwandan bodies that were mutilated in the spring of 1994. Of course, each one of those bodies is precious to God. Each bears the very image of God. But we cannot begin to understand the life and death of these bodies until we consider another body - the body politic.
The genocide of 1994 did not erupt out of nowhere. It has a political history. It happened in a nation called Rwanda, with certain borders and laws and economic policies that had been in place for some time. The killers and the killed in Rwanda were Rwandans - which is to say, they shared a political history where the labels Hutu and Tutsi meant something, not only about who you were but also about how you were supposed to relate to those who were not like you. When Hutus were told to kill their Tutsi neighbors in 1994, they either did or they were killed. Rwanda's genocide is not just a story about the bodies of some who were victims and others who were killers. It is about the ultimate manifestation of a body politic that was sick from the time it was conceived.
If we are to take seriously the political history that led to 1994, I must also say as a Christian writing to fellow Christians that this is a story about another body - the broken body of Christ. The history of Rwanda's body politic is one undeniably shaped by Christian missions. If ever there was a "Christian nation," Rwanda was it.
If Christians in Rwanda had been slaughtered by non-Christians, it would have been tragic - but perhaps easier to comprehend. However, Christians killed other Christians, often in the same churches where they had worshiped together. Accordingly, this is not a story about something that happened to a strange people in a faraway place. It happened among the body of Christ, of which we are members. Rwanda is a lot closer to Rome and Washington, DC, than most of us care to think.
Ultimately, these three senses of the word body help us see that the Rwanda genocide is a story about all of us because it poses a significant question about our bodies. What is the relationship between the mutilated bodies of Rwandans, the body politic, and the broken body of Christ? What is the relationship between my own body, the body politic of the nation to which I belong, and the body of Christ? In the end, these are questions about identity. When I describe myself as black or white, Hutu or Tutsi, Ugandan or Rwandan or American, how is this related to my identity as a Christian? No doubt, these are questions about ultimate allegiance. To whom does my body belong? And to whom do I and my body owe allegiance?
As I have considered prayerfully the genocide that happened in Rwanda in 1994, it has become for me a mirror to the church in the world. But since I live in the West, and this book will be read mostly by Western Christians, the Rwanda genocide poses a particular challenge to Christians in the West. I want to suggest that the crisis of Western Christianity is reflected back to the church in the broken bodies of Rwanda.
Western Christians cannot look into this mirror without coming face-to-face with betrayal, idolatry, and death. So I want to say from the beginning that this is not an easy book to read. But at the same time, I want to insist that this is a hopeful book. I write because I believe in a Lord who took on human flesh - a body - walked among us, suffered the worst kind of mutilation, and then appeared to his disciples again in a resurrected body. I dare to begin with bodies because I have put my hope in Christ.
Indeed, I want to say the only hope for our world after Rwanda's genocide is a new kind of Christian identity for the global body of Christ.
Living in the Midst of Tension
If this is a book about bodies, then I suppose it makes sense to begin with my own body. I was born in Uganda, the son of immigrants from Rwanda. My father was a poor Tutsi in Ruhengeri who grew up working on the homestead of a wealthy Hutu man. One has to know something about the history of this Northern Province of Rwanda to understand how the stereotypical images of Tutsi (as rich) and Hutu (as poor) were reversed in Ruhengeri.
My father was not raised as a Christian. His family, like many Tutsis, resisted the European missionaries. But my father fell in love with one of the daughters of the wealthy Hutu Christian he worked for. He asked if he might marry the girl, and her father asked, "Where will you get the cows to pay for the bride price?" (A bride price is money or goods that a prospective groom pays to the bride's parents in exchange for her hand in marriage.)
My father said he would find a way, so he went to Uganda in the early 1940s and found a job on a coffee plantation. When he had saved enough money, he returned to Rwanda, bought some cows, and presented them to the wealthy Hutu man (who would become my grandfather) as a down payment for his daughter. He promised to return with final payment and left again for Uganda.
While my father was gone the second time, a wealthy young Hutu man brought cows to present my grandfather as a bride price for my mother. Of course, this young man was a much more suitable match for my mother. He was young, rich, a Hutu, and a Christian. So my grandfather found himself in a moral quandary. Should he accept the offer of the rich young Hutu? Or should he honor the down payment of the poor Tutsi young man?
In the midst of this dilemma, my father returned with enough cows to complete the bride price. So my grandfather had to make a decision. He told my father that he could not let him marry his daughter because he was not a Christian. But my father was determined. He said he would go to the local priest and do whatever he had to do to become a Christian. After he was baptized, my grandfather gave in, returned the other young man's cows, and allowed my parents to get married. Then my father took my mother with him to Uganda.
When I was a young boy, I visited Rwanda once with my parents and two of my brothers. But my father died young, when I was only twelve, and we did not travel to Rwanda any more after that. I do not remember my parents talking about being Hutu and Tutsi. To be sure, my family didn't talk much about Rwanda and Rwandan politics. It was, I think, something they preferred to forget. We were not Hutu or Tutsi, but rather we were Rwandans living in Uganda. That by itself made us strange enough.
But we were also a family that took Christianity seriously. I knew from early on that this too could make us strange. If my father initially converted in order to marry my mother, once a Christian he developed the zeal of a true convert. My parents woke us up early each morning to say our prayers, and they took us to church every week, always making sure they introduced us to the priest and other leaders in the parish and encouraging us to become altar servers at mass.
My parents loved to tell us stories of the Christian saints, particularly those of the Ugandan martyrs. When Christian missionaries first arrived in Uganda, they asked the king to allow them to share their message in his land. The king agreed, and some of the first Christian converts were among the young pages who served in the king's court. This caused some tension fairly quickly. Young boys who had put their faith in Jesus stopped making the traditional sacrifices and began refusing the king's sexual advances. The king asked, "Who is king now?" and, with the support of his counsel, decided to reverse his earlier decision and forbid Christianity in his kingdom.
When all of the missionaries were forced to leave Uganda and return to Tanzania, the converted pages decided they could not renounce their new faith. So they defied the king's orders. The king issued an ultimatum. With all the people of his court gathered together, he drew a dividing line and said those who were with him should stand on one side, while those who were going to follow Christ should stand on the other. Whoever wanted to follow Christ would be burned alive, the king announced.
My parents particularly loved to tell me the story of Kizito, a fourteen-year-old boy who told the king it was better to die for his faith in Christ than to deny it. Kizito became the youngest of the Ugandan martyrs. As I listened to my parents tell his story, Kizito became my hero.
Looking back, I realize that I became a priest and a teacher in the church because of the evangelical Catholic faith that my parents passed on to me. But just as I grew up with the tension of being a resident alien, I've also found that my life in the church has been a journey with tensions. Growing up as an immigrant can be a blessing. It teaches you to ask about the history of accepted boundaries and question the assumptions that most people either take for granted or cannot see. It has helped me to see that Christian faith is fundamentally about identity - who we are as embodied people.
In Africa as in America, there is a multitude of powers and stories that try to define who we are: the color of our skin, the nation of our birth, the history of our culture, or the characteristics of our tribe. But when I baptize someone into the church of Jesus Christ, I see that God is making a claim on their bodies. Are they still black? Are they still white? Are they still Rwandan? Are they still American? Perhaps. But there is a real sense in which our identity gets confused (mixed up) with Christ's identity in baptism. Who we are becomes (or at least ought to become) confused and confusing to others.
So who has a claim on our bodies? This is the question Rwanda teaches all of us to ask. If our kings drew a line in the sand and asked whether we were going to follow them or follow Christ, what would we say? After we were finished talking, which side of the line would our bodies be on?
Facing the Contradictions
We cannot look into the mirror of Rwanda without noting its deep contradictions. The slaughter that lasted for a hundred days in the spring of 1994 began on April 7, the Thursday of Easter week. In a country that was over eighty-five percent Christian, almost everyone gathered on Easter Sunday to remember the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Just a week before the genocide began, Rwandans celebrated Maundy Thursday. Maundy comes from the Latin maundatum, which means "command." On the Thursday before Jesus was crucified, Christians remember how he gathered with his disciples in the upper room, washed their feet, shared a meal, and gave them a "new command." Jesus looked at his disciples and said, "Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:34-35).
That is the new commandment Christians remember on Maundy Thursday - the command to love one another, even to the point of laying down our own lives. But one week later in 1994, Christians in Rwanda took up machetes, looked fellow church members in the face, and hacked their bodies to pieces.
It is strange enough to think that the 1994 genocide began during Easter week. But it is yet another contradiction that it happened in Rwanda. If you read Christian mission journals and textbooks from the 1980s, Rwanda is often held up as a model of evangelization in Africa. Nowhere else on the continent was Christianity so well received.
A revival movement spread throughout Rwanda in the latter half of the twentieth century. Church growth was unprecedented. Seminarians in the United States studied Rwanda, asking how they might use similar strategies elsewhere to share the good news of Jesus Christ with those living in darkness. Yet in 1994 an unimaginable darkness descended on Rwanda. The most Christianized country in Africa became the site of its worst genocide.
I want to note a third contradiction for those who have never been to Rwanda. It is an important one to keep before us as we consider the great evil that is possible in God's good creation. Rwanda is a beautiful country - one of the most beautiful countries in Africa. This "land of a thousand hills" is lush with fertile soil, beautiful flora, and breathtaking landscapes. There is a saying in Rwanda that "God travels the world by day, but he rests at night in Rwanda." God makes his home in Rwanda because no other place exhibits so well the glory of his creation.
From my visit to Rwanda as a child, I remember the house of my grandparents, situated on top of a hill. Looking down from the house, I enjoyed a panoramic view of rolling hills, the slopes of which were covered with banana plantations and other crops. In the valley below a river flowed, tracing the curves of a beautiful landscape.
I have been struck by this same intense beauty every time I visit Rwanda. Yet in the midst of such beauty the unimaginable happened. St. Augustine said that evil is like a parasite - it can only exist where there is something good for it to feed on. Where there is greater good, there is also the potential for greater evil. In the midst of Rwanda's extravagant beauty we encounter a story of extreme horror.
Augustine helps me make sense of the peculiar nature of evil, but as I have dwelt on the contradictions of this Easter week of bodies, I find myself asking the question the apostle Paul put to the Galatians: "You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?" (Galatians 3:1). While I trust that there is something to be learned from the scholar in me who wants to tell the story of how the Rwandan genocide came to be, the contradictions we find in this story ultimately lead me to believe there are powers at work beyond the rational progression of history. I cannot explain Rwanda without acknowledging that it has, in some sense, come under a spell.
I don't think this sense of spells is some sort of African animism slipping into my theology. Rather, I believe that Paul is right when he says that "our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" (Ephesians 6:12). We are not called to fight against bodies but against spiritual forces that lay claim to our bodies.
Rwandans are not the only ones susceptible to powers and principalities. When the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw Nazism come to power in Germany in the early 1930s, he wrote a letter to his brother asking, "How can one close one's eyes at the fact that the demons themselves have taken over rule of the world, that it is the powers of darkness who have here made an awful conspiracy?" If we say the same when we look at Rwanda in 1994 - and I don't see how we can keep from saying something like this - then we have to name and confess the way those powers extend their conspiracy far beyond Rwanda - indeed, how their conspiracy came to include Rwanda through an interwoven history of colonialism and evangelization.
Excerpted from Mirror to the Church by Emmanuel Katongole Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove Copyright © 2009 by Emmanuel M. Katongole and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Excerpted by permission.
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1 An Easter Season of Bodies 9
2 What Happened 27
3 The Story That Made Rwanda 49
4 The Stories That Form Us 73
5 Postures of Christian Social Engagement 91
6 Interruptions 113
7 Making a Prophetic Posture Possible 131
8 Resurrecting the Church 159
Posted February 15, 2014
The author, a Rwandan Catholic priest and theologian teaching in the USA blames the historical and contemporary western church for the Rwandan genocide. While the author is, from an intellectual perspective, credible, from a moral perspective, I am tired of Africans not taking responsibility for Africa. He makes it sound like Africans are ethnically, and therefore genetically, inferior to Caucasians. While I do my best to not be a bigot, his writing is so lopsided that I can't stand reading it because he makes it sound like it is the white man's fault for ingraining false intellectual concepts into Rwandans. This, he essentially claims, drove Rwandans to genocide. For someone so intelligent, that is stupid!
Posted March 9, 2013
Lest we think that the genocide in Burundi and Rwanda was "over there", we need to examine our own Christian church and discern how tribalism and politics invades our pews. Duke University Theologian Emmanual Katongole urges readers to enter into a Christ-like reconsideration of the devisiveness in our own communities and to make peace creatively with compassion.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.