This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide, when one April in 1994, one ethnic group attempted to racially cleanse another in response to being oppressed and harshly treated for more than a generation under Dutch Colonial rule and even for decades after. Over the course of an approximately 100 day period, nearly one million people were killed in the country’s genocide. This is an oversimplification of the events of this one hundred days, to say the least, yet it goes to the core of what can happen when political (and any other type) goes wrong.
On Sunday, The New York Times Magazine published a series of touching and gut-wrenching photographs displaying a national effort toward reconciliation spearheaded by the AMI, or the Association Modeste et Innocent, a nonprofit organization. This organization brings together a small group of Hutus and Tutsis, the two largest ethnic groups created by the Dutch Colonists (based on physical attributes, and these two groups were butted against one another in the 20th centuries predominantly, causing ethnic and tribal tensions, leading to the 1994 genocide), who are counseled over many months. At the end, the perpetrator is potentially offered forgiveness, and if forgiveness is granted by the survivor (as opposed to calling them a victim) of ethnic violence, the perpetrator of the offense and his/her family and friends brings the survivor a basket of offerings (typically of food and beer). This whole ordeal is sealed with a meal and dancing.
AMI stresses that given the geographic locale of Rwanda and the political environs and situations of the surrounding nations, it feels the need to seek peace and reconciliation twenty years post genocide. “These people can’t go anywhere else – they have to make peace. Forgiveness is not born out of some airy-fairy sense of benevolence. It’s more out of a survival instinct,” one AMI counselor and worker states. It isn’t enough to simply offer forgiveness and move on – forgive and forget. Rather, to offer genuine and authentic forgiveness and to insist upon reconciliation in the most practical of natures requires emotional strength only these Rwandan survivors possess, and these photos show it. Women photographed beside men who tried to kill them and burn down their homes. Women gently holding the shoulders of the men who murdered their husbands decades ago. Courage, strength, a heart of love and grace, are not words strong enough to describe these humans who were willing to extend forgiveness both ways. Forgiveness for the one who had hatred in their hearts based on physical traits assigned by a colonial power prior to their births, generations prior. And yet, they knew it was what was necessary, meaningful, to extend a hand of forgiveness, of apology, of reconciliation, to continue living side by side for the sake of future generations. For one survivor, forgiveness equals mercy, and for the perpetrator, her forgiveness signaled a pure heart – not his own, but hers. Her whole life was not punctuated by one hundred days of complete and utter hell; “When someone comes close to you without hatred, although something bad has happened, you welcome him and grant him what he is looking for from you. Forgiveness equals mercy.” This woman is pictured above, with the man who perpetrated harm upon her.
As a church, as a collection of future pastors, pastoral caregivers, whatever our calls might be, reconciliation will be something we will council others on, and we also will need to offer to others at some point. It is doubtful that we will be subject to what those in Rwanda faced some twenty years ago, but crisis and harm will occur in some form, if it hasn’t already occurred. My heart breaks for the genocide in Rwanda, as the harm has been done, lives have been taken, and the wounds for many are irreparably deep. But as this New York Times piece proves, reconciliation and forgiveness is not entirely impossible. These men and women model for the world that forgiveness in its most pure form is still possible, if we are willing to lay down our axes, our burdens, our grudges, the most impossible of things to put down.
Wounds hurt. They are raw, stingy, and painful, especially if the very thing that caused the wound in the first place continues to irritate it day after day after day. For the survivors of the Rwandan genocide, offering reconciliatory forgiveness allows for freedom, an unburdening, but it does not erase the memories of the past entirely. They cannot erase memories of the nearly one million people who were slaughtered because of their Colonially-assigned ethnicities. But these people chose love. After harm, after violence, many chose to love and forgive.
It is Christ-like, it is faithful, and it is truly amazing. It is something that we as a church can learn something from. Because the assumption that reconciliation and forgiveness is not necessary in the church, or that it can be done at the drop of the hat is false. It is difficult, nitty and gritty. And will require just as much work if not more than what has been done prior, will require the holding of hands, the shedding of tears, and the sharing of baskets filled with food and beer, followed by a meal and dancing. I wonder whether the Rwandan survivors have something in their core that might predispose them to offering forgiveness in ways that we don’t as modernized and so-called sophisticated Americans don’t. This is something to ponder on and pray about going forward. For all of us to do so.
If you are interested in seeing more of the New York Times photos of reconciliation from Rwanda:
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Photo Credits: New York Times Magazine (4/6/14)