by Tokunboh Adeyemo
10 specific things the church learned from the devastation.
The world was stunned in April and May of 1994 when war and genocide broke out in Rwanda, claiming a million lives. Church leaders could scarcely explain how this could have happened, considering that 85 percent of Rwanda’s 8.2 million people were Christians; Rwanda had been the birthplace of revival in East Africa about five decades earlier; it was the site of large evangelistic crusades with record conversions between 1991 and 1993.
What went wrong? Did God turn his back on Rwanda, as Time magazine (May 15, 1994) suggested? What lessons has the church in Africa learned from the Rwanda tragedy?
Rwanda has a population density of 272 people per square kilometer and an annual population growth rate of 3.7 percent. To a casual observer and until the outbreak of the genocide, however, this crowded nation was one people bound together with strong cultural ties and speaking the same language.
Actually, the people of Rwanda originated from three groups: the Twa (about 3 percent); the Hutu (80 percent); and the Tutsi (15 percent). The Twa were the first to settle in the land. They are a pastoral and therefore nomadic people, much like the Maasais of Kenya and Tanzania. The Hutus arrived next, about 500 years ago. They are a Bantu people and prefer a settled life as agriculturists and traders. They soon became the land owners. The Tutsis arrived last, about 300 years ago. They are Nilotic and are traditionally warriors and shrewd businessmen. They came to dominate the national army, and from their numbers came the professionals who took over the government at the time of independence from Belgium in the 1960s.
The massacre of 1994 was triggered by the assassination of two Hutu presidents, Habyarimana of Rwanda and Ntaryamira of Burundi, in a plane crash on their way back from peace talks in Tanzania. The Hutus saw this as the work of the then-rebel Tutsis, and they went on the rampage. This left about 1 million dead and more than 2 million Rwandese (mainly Hutus) living as refugees in Zaire, Tanzania, Burundi, Cameroon, and Kenya. The Tutsi-led minority emerged as victors, and they now run the government in Kigali.
What about the Rwandan church? According to one church historian, though Rwanda experienced massive “religious conversions” between 1910 and 1930, primarily into Roman Catholicism, “Many people were converting into the new religion of Christianity but still holding on to their traditional religion.”1 In 1928, two Ugandan churchmen working at an Anglican mission center in Rwanda came under the conviction of the Holy Spirit and realized their need of salvation. Both were led by a missionary to receive Christ as their personal Savior. These two began to preach publicly about repentance and the need to be born again. This became part of the seed that led to the revival movement that erupted in December, 1933.
The fire of revival spread throughout Rwanda and spilled into the neighboring nations of Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, and southern Sudan. Though it started in the Anglican churches, it quickly spread into other denominations—except for the Roman Catholic Church, which rejected it as a Protestant movement and because it emphasized personal salvation.
Today, the Christianity of Rwanda remains predominantly a syncretistic form of Roman Catholicism, while among the Protestant churches there has been very little solid biblical teaching to sustain the revival. Instead, church leaders have often been caught in political power struggles and ethnic rivalries.
Speaking to church leaders in Rwanda in July, 1995, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “The problem of Rwanda is that there are just Hutu and Tutsi. And to now, one group has been top dog and the other, underdog. The top dogs have usually exploited the underdogs, and the underdogs have looked for the opportunity to get even with the top dogs. When they have been successful, they become top dogs, and theothers,underdogs. This has continued vice-versa for years.”
LESSONS FROM THE TRAGEDY
Africanchurch leaders have drawn several lessons from the tragedy that befell the “Christian” nation of Rwanda:
1. Quantity must be matched by quality. Numbers are not enough. Conversion must include the fruit of repentance (Luke 3:8). Christ did not commission the church to make converts but to make disciples who would observe his ways and teachings (Matt. 28:19-20).
2. We should avoid extreme separation of church and state. The church must serve as the conscience of the nation. The church should not seek to give directives to the state, but it must give direction in matters of justice, righteousness, and peace. As salt and light, the church executes a threefold role vis-à-vis the nation: prophetic: condemning its evils; priestly: praying for it; pastoral: caring for and teaching its people.
3. The church must seek unity. There must be neither Jews nor Greeks (no racism, tribalism, or sexism). There must be neither bond nor free. Homogeneous church growth formulas, like the old missionary comity arrangements, should be discouraged. Such methods only reinforce tribalism.
4. The church must speak with a common voice on critical issues of life and death—especially on matters where the Bible is loud and clear, such as: the oneness of the human race (Acts 17:26); the dignity and worth of each person as an image-bearer of God (Gen. 1:26-27); and justice and fairness for all (Amos 5:24; Isa. 58; Matt. 23:23).
5. The church must go beyond social concern to social action. While feeding the poor is great, dismantling the instruments of oppression that keep them poor is greater. Christians can and should influence the decision-making mechanisms of the state that affect the distribution of national resources for the creation of wealth. Christians should seek elected office. Where Christians already hold political power, their fellow believers should correct them when in the wrong and support them when in the right.
6. Leadership training for the church is imperative. The numerical growth of the church must be matched with competent, well-trained leaders, able to correctly “divide” the Word of truth.
7. The church should support programs that promote national reconciliation. An example of how this can work is the Programme Kundane, a three-year reconciliation effort for Burundi jointly sponsored by the International Bible Society and the Association of Evangelicals in Africa. This program brings Hutus and Tutsis together for prayer, Bible teaching, forgiveness, healing, conflict-resolution, and community care. Its goal is to train 5,000 leaders who, in turn, will train 2.5 million people in Burundi.
8. Leaders should prepare new Christians for suffering and persecution. They must understand that the invitation to follow Christ includes cross-bearing.
9. We must rediscover the church as the community of Jesus where East and West meet, and North and South embrace. The late Bishop Festo Kivengere used to say: “At the foot of the Cross, the ground is level.” How true!
10. The international Christian community must see itself as its “brothers’ keepers.” It must use its influence to convince parties in conflict to engage in dialogue and promote forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace. Secular world bodies have promoted the setting up of special criminal courts to settle war-related issues in Rwanda. Yet many have serious doubts as to whether this is the way forward, for in the genocide both sides were guilty. The only thing that can guarantee lasting reconciliation and peace is genuine forgiveness. Only the church—composed of people who have experienced God’s forgiveness in Christ—can truly make this happen.
As Desmond Tutu said, the power-game and killing in Rwanda “won’t end until somebody does something radical. And we can’t ask that of non-Christians.”
1. Afroscope, Association of Evangelicals in Africa, July, 1994, p. 3.
Tokunboh Adeyemo, a native of Nigeria, is international chair of the World Evangelical Fellowship and general secretary of the Association of Evangelicals in Africa. He is based in Nairobi.
Copyright © 1997 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.