Rwanda Revisited: Where Was God?

During the Rwandan genocide, Christians slaughtered other Christians by the thousands, all in the name of ethnic superiority. Seventeen years later, difficult questions remain.

MEMORIES OF DEATH: Genocide memorial site guardian Danielle Nyirabazungu lingers near the skulls of people killed at the Ntamara Church in Nyamata during the genocide. Photo: Newscom.

The most beautiful place in the world is a valley in Gikongoro, Rwanda. Everywhere you look, you see hills full of palm trees and winding red paths. The light of a setting sun graces the hills with a golden hue. You cannot imagine a place more perfect, more pristine.

And yet that word, pristine, would be the wrong one. These hills are not unspoiled beauty, because they were once tainted by blood. This valley is home to the Murambi Technical School where 45,000 Tutsi people were massacred during the 1994 genocide.

When I studied abroad in Rwanda this July, I went to the Murambi Genocide Memorial and saw the remains of countless bodies—person after person, yet only a fraction of the people who were killed at this place. I saw heaps of the victims’ dirty clothing laid on benches inside the Nyamata Catholic Church where thousands were slaughtered, and I saw rows of their skulls and bones stacked underground in remembrance of their terrible murder.

I walked on the same ground the killers and their victims did 17 years earlier, and I imagined what it must have been like for the Tutsi people to be forced into hiding, fervently praying for their family’s survival. The idea that professed Christians systematically killed the Tutsi people solely because of their ethnicity, sometimes singing worship songs or pausing to pray in the middle of their sickening task, is more than I can believe. I keep thinking, How could anyone believe God would approve of ethnic hatred and genocide?

The genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda was government-sanctioned, and to many, it appeared church-sanctioned, too. In the decades leading up to the genocide, the church supported the extremist Hutu government and failed to denounce the ethnic persecution of the Tutsi. And in 1994, churches were the main site of massacres. According to a 2002 government report, about 11.6 percent of victims were killed in churches, often with the help of priests who themselves lured victims there with false promises of sanctuary.

Stories of the genocide make me wonder, where was God when a place of such breathtaking beauty seemed to turn into a living hell where evil walked, where so-called Christians chopped down their brothers and sisters in Christ without the slightest qualm? Where was God when people justified this violence with ethnic ideologies? Couldn’t God shake them out of their cold, complacent hatred?

THE MOST BEAUTIFUL PLACE IN THE WORLD: The sun sets over the Murambi Genocide Memorial on July 9, 2011. Photo by Catherine Newhouse.

The thing about gruesome violence like this is that it never makes sense. It’s so extreme and disturbing that the immensity of it all seems enough to overload a person’s brain, but instead life goes on—the beauty remains, and so does the echo of the voices of children who play in a village down the path.

It doesn’t seem right. It seems like this place should be forever somber, weighed down by the tragedy that happened. How are we supposed to make sense of such senselessness? Who would want to destroy the beauty of this place, spilling the blood of murder in the valley between these red hills?

Who would torture and kill someone just because they are Tutsi? Who could believe their ethnicity not only made them superior to others, but gave them the divine right to kill?

And how are we supposed to trust God after He let this genocide run unchecked for 100 days? In the Nyamata Catholic Church Genocide Memorial, you can see the rosaries that belonged to the Rwandans who died there. I wonder how many Christians reached for these rosaries and desperately cried out to God in the moments before their murder. Why didn’t God save them? The usual theological explanations for why terrible things happen just don’t seem to cut it for this.

In the aftermath of genocide, many Rwandans wondered where God was during the darkest chapter of their history. Could it be that he was silent, dead, absent, or sleeping?

Some believe God suffered along with his people in Rwanda — another victim of the evil choices that humans made. In Genocide: My Stolen Rwanda, survivor Reverien Rurangwa shared how he made this sudden discovery:

This Christ, disfigured, bruised, hacked away, pierced, cut, looks like me. … He looks like a young Tutsi from the Mugina hillside, dismembered on April 20 1994 by men who should have been his brothers. He looks like the victim of the Tutsi genocide. He looks like all victims of all genocides, of all massacres, of all crimes, of all wrongs. Is he the victim?

Perhaps God was present during the genocide, feeling the full-blown pain of the victims, mourning the loss of his beloved children, aching with Rwandans when killers violated the sanctuary of his church and his Earth.

In the end, I still don’t have all the answers, but that’s part of why I went to Rwanda this summer: I’m searching. I still don’t understand how people can have faith after living through genocide, why God can’t intervene to stop the worst violence, and how professed Christians can kill someone based solely on ethnicity. But I know that if we’re going to prevent future genocides, we have to be ready to stand up for the inherent worth of God’s children, seeing Jesus in the faces of the poor, tortured and killed (Matt. 25:34-40), and rejecting ideologies that try to warp religion into ethnic dehumanization.

And perhaps, hidden somewhere in Rwanda, there is something more: a piece of wisdom I cannot see yet, a clue to trusting God even amidst the most horrifying of horrors, a hope for the redemption of even the most twisted killers, a belief in a Christianity that will stand against genocide.

About the author, Catherine Newhouse

Catherine Newhouse is an UrbanFaith blogger from the Chicago area who attends the University of Missouri, where she is majoring in journalism, religious studies and international studies. She has written for Christianity Today, the Columbia Missourian and The Chicago Reporter, a newsmagazine that investigates race and poverty in the city. She blogs at ponderingpeace.tumblr.com and can be contacted via Twitter and email.
  1. Well stated, Catherine. Questions that I think everyone who has visited Rwanda asks, but never gets answers to. Just reading this blog post brings back the feelings of being there, of being in Ntarama, Nyamata, Kibuye, etc. again. Of trying to understand something that is beyond the grasp of human understanding. There are no words to express the feelings of being in those churches and memorials, but it is something you experience very deeply.

    Like you, I (along with my wife) travelled to Rwanda last December searching for answers. While some questions may never be answered, what I took from the experience is that no matter how terrible life is it can miraculously change for the better. How those wonderful people in that beautiful country picked themselves up and rebuilt their country has become my narrative of Rwanda. That anything is possible.

  2. Thank you Catherine, thank you Thomas. All you have said is true. What has happened in Rwanda during that period is beyond understanding. Mere absurdity. Personally, I was born and grew up in Rwanda. A Rwandan saying goes that “Imana yirirwa ahandi igataha i Rwanda” (i.e., God passes the day elsewhere but He passes the night in Rwanda). Difficult to know where He was at that time. As about churches, maybe there is need for other forms of teachings. Others have been too shallow. To my mind, people have not been taught what we really (humans) are. As about to how such things could happen in the way it did, it is necessary to have a long and deep study of the historical, political and contextual background of the country at that time. necessary.

    Willy.

  3. Bruce, thank you so much for posting the link to this heart-wrenching story – it surely puts all our petty differences into true perspective. It is not only the Holocaust of the last century that used ‘ethnic cleansing’ (a euphemism for brutal, cold-blooded murder committed because of racial prejudice). Once again Christian leaders have stood by silently instead of condemning the massacre – and some have even contributed to it.

    We live in a beautiful world, yet evil abounds even among those who profess Christianity. How often do we crucify the Son of God afresh by making a mockery of God’s gift of free will. And when will we get our priorities right, stop slinging mud and focus on that which is truly important. I would encourage everyone on this page to read this article and allow its significance to permeate their being and change religious thinking into compassionate action.

  4. Dear Catherine, I read with appreciation your comment and question about the genocide against Tutsi. Despite what happened in the Churches, No priest, no christian killed Tutsi on the name of God nor Jesus. Maybe this is why for main Tutsi, God remains the only source of comfort.

  5. Thomas – Thanks for your support and your thoughts; it’s a relief to know that I’m not alone in wrestling with these questions, that others who’ve been to Rwanda have had these thoughts, too. It was a struggle for me to write this post because I felt that the genocide was so far beyond words — that any words I could grasp would only trivialize what happened in Rwanda in 1994, because they would fall so short of the horrible truth. But you’re right–Rwanda really does show that anything is possible, and I love how you word it. It’s hard for me to understand how someone can survive a genocide and still find it within their heart to forgive the people who killed their family, tortured them or raped them. But you hear these kind of stories all the time, and you look at what Rwanda is now, and it’s a beautiful picture of redemption–one of the safest countries in Africa, culturally vibrant, making headway economically, improving gender equality. That, at least, is cause for hope.

    Willy – Thank you for your thoughts. I had run across that proverb and was thinking about it as I was writing, wondering where God was during the genocide and how He could let this happen. You make an excellent point about church teaching–I wonder if people were perhaps so used to obeying religious figures (even when they were wrong) that they never truly understood what it meant to be Christian. You’re also right that a deep understanding of the historical/political context is crucial–this genocide was caused by racist ideologies introduced by the colonial government. I can’t imagine genocide ever would have happened, otherwise.

    Ann – Thanks for reading and sharing this. You have some wonderful thoughts. This one, especially, makes me think: “How often do we crucify the Son of God afresh by making a mockery of God’s gift of free will.” Humanity’s decisions can bring so much suffering to God’s children, and this is just one example. I pray that we can channel “our religious thinking into compassionate action,” as you say, to prevent tragedies like this from happening again.

    Manzi – Thank you for your comment. You bring up an interesting point. I think you’re right that people weren’t directly killing in the name of God (so far as I know), but I’ve also heard stories about killers pausing to pray or singing worship songs, which seems to suggest they thought God approved. I find comfort in your thoughts, though, because it seems that social pressure and ethnic hatred compelled the killings, not religion. In cases like this, I wonder if people latch on to religion because it’s a convenient tool they can warp to justify their deeds.

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