Rwanda Redeemed: Faith After Genocide

Can the Rwandan church still be a force of peace and reconciliation after its participation in the bloodshed that scarred its nation?

THE LIGHT STILL SHINES: The sun sets over the Murambi Genocide Memorial in Rwanda on July 9, 2011. (HDR photo by Tyler Hutcherson)

Five months after being immersed in the study of the Rwandan genocide, I still don’t know what to say about it.

I went to Rwanda last summer as part of a study abroad program with my university. I visited genocide memorials and saw the remains of victims, heard the testimonies of survivors and watched Rwandans passionately cry out to God in churches.

By the time I got back, my brain was overloaded with stories of genocide — images of machetes, babies slammed against walls, people hiding in cramped spaces praying they wouldn’t be found.

To try to put these stories into words, when I know that any attempt I make could only trivialize what Rwandans experienced, is not possible. It’s a story that cannot be shared lightly, when someone casually asks what Rwanda was like over small talk at lunch. But Rwanda holds a story that must be told—a warning against the dangers of racist stereotypes and propaganda, and proof that a country that has been through devastation can rise again.

This week, the Christianity Today story I reported in Kigali, Rwanda, went online. It’s about the charismatic movement in post-genocide Rwanda, a surge of emotionally expressive worship for catharsis, a turning toward God for healing.

During the month I spent in Rwanda and the weeks I struggled to write about it, I wondered how Rwandan Christians could still have such strong faith after surviving genocide, how anyone could believe in God after their family was brutally massacred in a church.

I poured out my questions in a post for UrbanFaith, and was comforted by the insights readers shared. Five months later, I still don’t have all the answers, but I do have some more thoughts.

Why did Christians commit genocide?

It deeply disturbs me that professing Christians took part in the Rwandan genocide. How could someone who identifies as Christian hate another race or ethnicity so much that they’d think of them as inyenzi (cockroaches) instead of children of God, that they’d believe it was their right to rape and murder them? How could some priests lure people into churches with false promises of sanctuary before opening their doors to murderers—or, in one case, sending in a bulldozer?

I don’t know the answer to that, but to ask this question without considering why the genocide happened in the first place is too simple of an approach. Genocide never would have happened if it hadn’t been for colonialism. The concepts of Hutu and Tutsi as ethnicities didn’t even exist before then; the names originally referred to social class. It was the colonial government that sorted people into ethnic groups, literally measuring Rwandans and issuing them Hutu or Tutsi ID cards.

Through racist European eyes, the Tutsi were intellectually superior, better fit to rule, taller, and lighter-skinned, supposedly because they had European ancestry going back to the biblical Ham, son of Noah.

NEVER FORGET: Pictures of those killed during the 1994 genocide are installed on a wall inside the Gisozi memorial in Kigali. Donated by survivors, the images honor the 800,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutus who died. (Photo by RADU SIGHETI/RTR/Newscom)

The colonial government and the Catholic Church favored the Tutsi, turning Rwanda into a breeding ground for ethnic resentment. Decades of tensions eventually grew into a genocidal environment under an extremist Hutu regime. Rampant propaganda portrayed Tutsi as “cockroaches,” or enemies set on destroying the country who had to be crushed.

Genocide doesn’t come from nowhere; it’s foreshadowed by ethnic dehumanization — the kind of ideology that will latch on to anything that could lend it power, especially the most powerful of all, religion.

This history by no means justifies what happened in Rwanda, but it does show us the horrifying consequences when people don’t stand up to racism and injustice.

How can Rwandans trust God after genocide?

When I watched Rwandans worship, I couldn’t help but think that you don’t see this kind of dedication in the United States. Some members of a church I visited prayed there for hours every day. How could people who survived such trauma come to God every day and submit their lives to Him without hesitation? And how could they trust Him enough to forgive the people once bent on eliminating their ethnicity?

In the aftermath of genocide, powerful stories of reconciliation between the perpetrators and their surviving victims have emerged. Not only have many Rwandans forgiven, but some have invited the people who killed their family back into their lives—living as neighbors once again, or even becoming family (one woman adopted her son’s killer).

As Bishop John Rucyahana of Prison Fellowship Rwanda told me over the phone, forgiveness is a crucial part of the healing process. Prison Fellowship Rwanda organizes reconciliation programs and works with perpetrators of the genocide to help them repent and ask for forgiveness.

“Those who are forgiving are not forgiving for the sake of the perpetrators only,” Rucyahana said. “They need to free their own selves. Anger, bitterness, the desire to revenge, it’s like keeping our feelings in a container. When you forgive, you feel whole.”

Being in Rwanda is like living in a world of contradictions. Massacres happened on the ground where I stood, and yet when you’re there, you cannot help but stand in awe of the stunning natural beauty.  Rwandan Christians survived horrors beyond any nightmare, and yet they have found the strength to forgive their enemies and passionately worship their Creator.

Before, I asked how Rwandan Christians could possibly trust God, let alone believe in his existence, after surviving genocide. But now, I wonder if they trust because they’ve been through hell and back, and they know Who conquers in the end.

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. I read your CT article and was moved by it. Rw is a challenging place and situation. I’ve been trying to make sense of it since 1997. God is doing much. I and 2 friends in Oz have been creating a curriculum for secondary school students to get them thinking of some of the issues and how they might respond.
    If there is any benefit in conversing, please have a look at the website and get back to myself or Dave the producer or Sally the curriculum developer.
    Amakuru – peace to you

  2. Pingback: Another post to try the theme |

  3. You didnt answer any question?

  4. Although you did give a lot of info.

  5. John – I didn’t see your comment right away, but thank you for reading my CT story. It’s good to hear you were moved by it–I was moved by those stories, too. Your Rwandan Stories web site looks great, and I want to thank you for sharing the many stories Rwanda has to tell. It’s wonderful to hear from someone doing such meaningful work in Rwanda. Ni meza!

    Anthony – They’re not easy questions to answer, but I think the gist of it is that professing Christians committed genocide because they fell prey to the evil ethnic dehumanization ideology of their society–following what society told them to do and using religion to justify their actions, rather than seeking God and following his morality. And I think Rwandans can still trust God after genocide because they perhaps have a deeper understanding of faith and redemption after experiencing such tragedy. But these are simply my thoughts on some very big questions. I think it is more important to listen to what Rwandans have to say.