We Don't Want to Go There (or, What I Learned in Rwanda)

Yesterday I publicly spoke up, denouncing the white nationalist marches and violence in Charlottesville as what it is: racism pure and simple. I also added that these attitudes are not birthed from the Spirit of God, but from the pit of hell. Strong words to some and I lost a “friend” over my words.

However, I stand by them. Some argued theoretics, wanted to blame liberals or Obama or whomever,  or talk about what other groups do, but I can’t discuss politics in the midst of this. To politicize a tragedy is wrong and so I try not to go there. The Bible tells us to “Weep with those that weep” and so today I do that. 

I weep with my Jewish friends who had to see the Nazi flag fly in the U.S.A. and hear anti-semitic chants on the streets of their beloved country, I weep with my black friends who often feel enough fear already without seeing white men march with torches that call us back to the day of lynchings and cross burnings, I cry with my hispanic friends and Muslim friends who may now feel unwelcome - and unsafe - in a country they dreamed would give them opportunity and freedom as well as refuge, a place they call home. I weep with my Japanese friends who perhaps remembered internment camps and the hate they experienced simply for being Japanese.

And I weep for my white friends, because while this is not a belief we all espouse, it is a belief we all must stand against. It belittles all of us and if we do nothing, say nothing, we give the impression that we share the belief that we are somehow better, superior. I weep with my country because I had hoped we were better than this - we are, after all, “the land of the free and the home of the brave”. 

I have traveled to twenty countries. I have friends of many nationalities and races and skin tones and backgrounds and religions as well. I have learned from them all, been blessed by them all. I cannot begin to share all the lessons I have learned from people that are different than me, that have been raised in cultures different than my own. I often say that while I am not sure how my teaching and sharing impacted those I worked with, I am certain that my encounters and experiences enlarged me and taught me very powerful lessons. 

In my travels and work I have visited three countries (at least) that have a history of genocide. If you are not familiar with the term, it is simply put, the systemic and deliberate extermination of a particular national, racial, cultural or political group. And it is evil. And guess what? It always starts with the idea and belief that one group is superior to another, and anyone different is a “scourge” on society. When any group of people “dehumanizes” another, it is a step in the wrong direction, a slippery slope. 

We Americans are perhaps most familiar with the one that occurred in Germany and swept across Eastern Europe, the Holocaust. Obviously I did not see this first hand but my grandfather fought in WWII and was a POW in a German prison camp. I understand, as much as I am able, the price paid to turn back this tide. I did, while in Munich, visit Dachau, a death camp run by the Nazis in WWII. 

Now, even 60-70 years later, it smelled like death.  I could not even go into the area with the ovens and gas “showers”, it was if the angel of death still hovered over it, my spirit and heart could not bear it. I stood at the door and wept. My skin crawled. My heart hurt. I felt a physical reaction to being there. Later I visited all the chapels that have been erected there and prayed in each one, I admired the incredible art and music and poetry forged EVEN THERE in the midst of a living hell. I wondered at the resiliency and beauty of the human spirit in the midst of acute suffering.  

It is my understanding that the Nazi salute and symbols are absolutely forbidden in Germany now. Six million people are estimated to have died, and they understand the price their country paid for this time in their history. Each school year students visit the camps and learn so that “never again” will this be allowed to happen in their country. It is not theoretical to them, the price of “nationalism” and “white supremacy” is a reality in Germany. It cost them almost everything. 

I also worked in Guatemala many times. The genocide that occurred there in the 80’s, with origins in the Civil War in the 60’s. This is often called the “Silent Holocaust” and was the systemic campaign of repression by the Guatemalan government against the Mayan Indians in the villages. The government destroyed 626 villages using a “scorched earth” policy and killed over 200,000 people and displaced an additional 1.5 million. Because of the “scorched earth” tactics, after it was over there were no villages to return to, no family left. The effects of this era are still felt in Guatemala today. And while this was obviously not a “white nationalism” issue, it was a racist issue. 

My most vivid personal experience in seeing the effects of genocide, however, came from working in Rwanda. I was privileged to work in “the land of a thousand hills” eight different times and made many deep friendships during this time. Since the Rwandan genocide occurred more recently, in the spring of 1994, many of the friends I made were genocide survivors or had family members that were. In the Rwandan genocide, they estimate between 800,000-1 million people were killed in just 100 days - the race issues were between two tribes, the Hutu and the Tutsi, where the Tutsi were targeted by extreme Hutu nationalists, but they also targeted moderate Hutus who did not go along with the killing. 

That number is staggering. Mind blowing. One million people in a hundred days. And they weren’t just killed. They were tortured in brutal ways that are hard to even hear about. They were dumped in mass graves still being discovered today. Limbs hacked off, raped, people killed by machete in ways that seem to leap from the scenes of a horror movie. Yet this is real life. 

I have sat with survivors that ran for their lives. Questioned at checkpoints, wondering if they would get through to safety, turned in by neighbors or fellow church members. I sat with sweet Anna and heard her story, she who watched every member of her family slaughtered in front of her eyes, while, for some reason she was allowed to live because she was “too small of a cockroach to bother with”. I am friends with Asnath whose family escaped in one moment to run and live in fear during these days. I sat in the homes of many in the villages who had neighbors kill their husbands, brothers, sons - and they still live side by side. I taught conferences where many attendees were genocide survivors and watched them weep and wail out loud as they tried to move forward from the fear and trauma of their past. I’ve worked in villages with prisoner work areas and watched the genocide perpetrators walk right beside me. And I visited the Genocide Memorial more than once. Mass graves. Photos of innocent children deliberately slain. Rows and rows of skulls and bones. Seeing where priests were complicit, having their own churches bulldozed while their Tutsi or moderate Hutu congregation huddled inside, praying with their rosaries, seeking refuge in their place of worship. I cried, I shook, I threw up as I saw it all. Indeed, may we never forget.

Today, it is illegal in Rwanda for an employer to ask if a potential employee is Hutu or Tutsi. In fact, most people would not tell you if you asked. The standard answer now, in a time of rebuilding and healing is, “We are all Rwandan.” There are annual days of mourning. They have taken many steps in order to heal their country and to assure that this horror will never visit their land again, including requiring a certain percentage of women in parliament since they saw that only 2% of genocide perpetuators were female. They are committed to never going back.

And, finally, obviously there has been systemic oppression of people right here in the good ole U.S. of A even if we - thank God - have not had our own genocide. But slavery and lynching are not too big of a step from an all out genocide, are they? We have certainly had the seeds of hate and oppression in our country that we need to guard against, and not encourage for sure. We should know better. 

Evil is too light of a word even to describe what I learned about as I worked in Rwanda, what I saw left behind in Germany and Guatemala. I have tried to come up with an explanation, tried to understand what in the world drives an entire group of people to behave so utterly crazed and inhumane. Demonic is the only word that comes close. Birthed in the depths of hell. And it begins with racism, clothed in the excuse of “ethnic pride” above all else, accelerated by fear perhaps as well. It begins with belittling someone for who they are, what color their skin is, their origins, religion, focusing on what is different.

So perhaps some might say that what happened in Charlottesville was simply free speech, not hate speech. “There’s no need to get upset. What about this, or that? Isn’t that wrong too?” I’ve even lost friends due to my stance on this. But while I have not lived through genocide that began with racism, I have looked at the remains with my own eyes. I have looked into the face of many who have lived it, survived it. It is not a place we want to go as a nation, or as individuals. I have seen the end result. It is hellish.

I will say it again. Racism has no place in Christian theology, it is pure evil and is a tool of the devil himself. Partake of enough of that rhetoric and it will corrupt your heart, history has taught us this lesson.