by David P. Rawson
Jesus saw trials awaiting human society as a combination of political, cultural, environmental, and religious elements. That’s what we witnessed in Rwanda.
Our age is characterized by the increasing tempo and complexity of crises. In many countries, the money taxpayers spend on humanitarian assistance, just to help people survive, equals or exceeds the amount they spend on development, to help people improve their lot through sustained economic growth. In Rwanda, during the last fiscal year, American taxpayers spent $183 million on humanitarian assistance and budgeted only $19 million and spent even less than that on capacity building for development. The number of complex emergencies handled by U.S. assistance went from four in 1984 to 26 ten years later.
To Christians, this trend should come as no surprise. The increasing frequency and horror of complex disasters was the burden of Christ’s temple discourse in Matthew 24. Jesus saw trials awaiting human society as a combination of political, cultural, environmental, and religious elements. That’s what we witnessed in Rwanda.
The conflict in Rwanda is in large part political—competition for control of the kingdom. One side was determined to hold on to power at all costs, even the slaughter of innocents, and the other was determined to wrest that power away. Behind the political competition was a long history of authoritarian government, built on 400 years of divine monarchy and 60 years of colonial rule. Who ruled at the center got to determine who got land, who got privileges, who was where on the social ladder of dominance and subservience. The social revolution of 1959 and the move to independence in 1962 simply gave rulership to whoever had sufficient political influence or military force to take power. The disaster in Rwanda is a playing out of that struggle to dominate.
Cultural chaos. In Rwanda, we saw a complete collapse of social order, of the ordinary ways of doing business and building relationships; all that was culturally sacred was violated; all that was customary became alien. Brothers literally rose against brothers and fathers against their children. Rwandans asked, "What is happening to us? Why are we behaving this way?"
Even today, though security seems to have returned, the social order has been overturned, and that complex tissue which made up Rwandan society has been ripped across warp and woof. Two million refugees stay huddled in camps, afraid that if they set plans to go home they will be killed by fellow refugees, or if they do get home they will be arrested or killed by Rwandan authorities. As Jesus predicted, the burden of all this falls most heavily on the women—woe to them with child.
In Rwanda, as elsewhere, complex disasters are accompanied by environmental and ecological trauma. Rwanda was the most heavily populated rural country in the world, after Bangladesh. With rapid population growth, it had used up all arable land. Families of six had less than 1 hectare of land to cultivate. Nutritional levels were plummeting, and over half the population was under 15 years of age, requiring schools, jobs, homes, and fields. Many of these young folks gravitated to the city and became the shock troops of political movements, eventually being turned into the infamous militia who, in the name of political ascendancy, killed hundreds of thousands of innocent children, women, and men.
Displaced persons in the country ravaged available forests for cooking wood. Valuable coffee and tea plots went untended for two seasons. Refugees flowed out to inhospitable environments in Tanzania or Zaire where water, food, and shelter had to be trucked in at tremendous expense. The Virunga volcanoes threaten to erupt around the 600,000 refugees in Zaire. Such was the environmental breakdown surrounding Rwanda’s complex emergency.
Most commentators would agree that at the root of Rwanda’s problem is a profound uprooting of spiritual values. It was certainly true that the church cooperated closely with the formerregime, pursuing common social goals in education and health programs. Leaders in the church used the close relationship with the state to enhance their own power within the church hierarchy. In the time of trial, many turned away from their faith, consciously violating the norms, symbols, and ethos of the church. Many Christians considered their own lives and security more important than the risks of challenging the killing frenzy. It is possible that some churchmen collaborated with the military and militia in identifying victims for the slaughter. Africa’s most Christian nation became a killing field.
These are the political, cultural, environmental, and religious components of what became the most horror?filled complex emergency of this generation, leaving hundreds of thousands dead in places of presumed sanctuary within Rwanda and tens of thousands perishing in refugee camps along its borders.
How did our government respond? We launched a strategic airlift and deployed the logistic expertise of our military forces. We shipped surplus American food to meet the needs of nearly four million refugees and displaced people. We mobilized diplomatic efforts to bring the crisis to an end and to establish a lasting peace. We moved relief quickly to its intended subjects in partnership with private voluntary agencies who knew the environment, had experienced field workers, and could immediately implement relief projects for those in need.
These measures were effective but each has drawbacks. Use of the military in humanitarian relief is an incredibly expensive way to do business. Feeding programs can create dependency on surplus food and undermine local agricultural markets. Our best diplomatic efforts fail when there is no political will among contending parties to seek peace or share power. Voluntary agencies tend to cluster around humanitarian disasters; there got to be over 150 of them in Rwanda, many contending for the same bit of humanitarian action.
Beyond that are the intractable dimensions of Rwanda’s complex disaster. I asked my chauffeur who killed his parents and siblings—the army or the militia? Neither, he said, but rather the people next door who felt authorities had given them the go ahead to kill neighbors and take over their houses and lands. How do you reknit society where that has happened?
In the camps along Rwanda’s borders live some two million people, many of whom either participated in massacres or were silent witnesses to them. Yet, when a relief worker visited them, he found no remorse but the insistent plaint, "What have we done that they would chase us out of our own country?" How do you achieve reconciliation when there is on one side no repentance and on the other no forgiveness?
In refugee camps, relief workers find church leaders’ attitudes hardening. "We won’t go home until there is a political settlement which guarantees our security and our future role in the country." Yet within the country, other church leaders, many of them returned exiles, say those refugees must have guilty consciences, otherwise they would come back to a country where peace has been restored and people so desperately need shepherds. Where is the Kingdom of God in all this?
My wife and I visited a World Relief orphanage at Kibogora over New Years. As we walked among kids brought in from all across the country, some bearing scars from their close encounter with the killers’ machetes, dozens of hands reached up to hold our own. We grasped them all the while knowing that nothing we could bring to those kids??no food, no medicines, no clothing, no schooling??could take away the nightmare they endured, or fill their need for loved ones lost. How do you minister the gospel of love to kids whose parents have been massacred?
Those are the daunting problems we face in Rwanda. Last Sunday I sat on our porch sipping tea with a brother I trust. "What do I tell AmericanChristians?" I asked. "Tell them to pray for us. Tell them to be here alongside us. Tell them to sit down with us and listen." Dealing with complex disasters requires world class logistics, massive amounts of food, medicines, shelter and water, diplomatic skills in conflict resolution, the practical energies of private agencies like World Relief. But ultimately it requires being there.
If you go back to Jesus’ temple discourse, you will find a series of kingdom stories all teaching us how better to cope with a world in which complex disasters are overwhelming us: the faithful steward, the well prepared virgins, the invested talents, and most poignant of all, the story of how, in the final analysis, the king distinguishes between those who unwittingly did good and were invited into the joy of the Lord, and those who thought they belonged but were cast out for ignoring "the least of these."
Who were those ignored? They are the victims of disasters: the homeless strangers, the raggedy, the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned, the sick. What did the blessed do? They came with practical help: food, water, clothes, shelter, and stayed there visiting the sick and imprisoned.
Years ago in his farewell address, George Washington asked this nation to offer to the world a model of justice and benevolence. That challenge now looms before us in meeting ever more frequent complex emergencies around the globe. Through the partnership of tax dollars with organizational skills and dedicated energies of American private groups, like World Relief, we are meeting that challenge. We do it best if, with all our technology and expertise, with all our organization, with all our strategizing, we never forget to be there with "the least of these."
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