by Gary Scheer
What influence should the church have had?
C-130 transport plane whisked our family out of the violence-wracked city of Kigali. Relief. A woman across from us cried hysterically—she had seen 15 of her loved ones slaughtered. Deep sadness. As the inferno of violence consumed Rwanda, we asked: “What could the church have done to stop it, or turn it aside, or at least dampen it?”
On Sundays in Rwanda we used to see well-dressed neighbors walking to church on every road. Yet, last year these same neighbors slaughtered each other. I don’t assume that all those people walking to church were all walking in the steps of Christ, the Lord. But the committed minority of the church was significant, 5 percent of the population, and the influence of the church was strong in the lives of another 75 percent of the people.1 Why was there no moderation, no dampening — just hatred and fear, farming tools becoming weapons, neighbors cutting down each other as enemies?
Jesus said evil will grow stronger in influence and activity as the end approaches. Does that mean the church is inherently powerless in the face of evil? Or did weaknesses in the Rwandan church keep it from having the impact it should have had?
What influence should the church have had? We expect Christians to have some kind of positive moral influence, don’t we? Rwandans are very gregarious—in the market, ceaseless chatter; on the bus, spirited debate even about spiritual issues.
One in 20 people at the market, at the work place, in the hillside community is a committed Christian. Should not that one life seed the other 20 with Christian perspectives and truth? This is especially true since 15 of the other 19 people acknowledge Christ as good and the Bible as valid and right.
What’s more, in these latter years, Rwanda opened the doors to multiparty democracy. Hawkers of political pamphlets hit the streets. The colorful banners of a dozen political parties flew on poles. The opportunities for Christians to speak out and act on issues of righteousness were immediately multiplied.
So where was the church? Why did there seem to be no force bumping the nation off its course of hatred, fear,and violence? How did so much hatred and fear spread unchecked throughout Rwanda?
I worked with the Rwandan church for 15 years. Following are some things that could have curtailed the impact of the church on Rwandan society. Could these factors have weakened the church and allowed it to be bowled over by the onslaught of evil?
1. An entrenched, self-protective church leadership. In Rwanda a young man who wants to “climb,” to get ahead, will go to Bible school. Pastors have prestige and influence. They gain access to foreign money and government officials. Even those who don’t start out as climbers get caught up in the personal benefits of the office. Many slowly shift from shepherding to climbing. Climbing demands snuggling up to power sources, not criticizing them.
2. A church dependent on the government for its existence. Churches could not legally function in Rwanda without government licensing. Until recently licensing demanded that the churches play the government’s game: “You build hospitals, schools, development projects. We allow you to do your spiritual work on the side.” Staying on the good side of the local mayor became as important as staying on the good side of God (sometimes more so). As the Rwandans put it, you don’t throw stones at the milk bottle.
3. A perspective that said, “Politics is a crude and corrupt game unfitting for Christians.” Even as church leaders nurtured their relationships with the politicians, party politics was seen as too dirty for Christian hands. Political parties were legalized in 1991. They’ve operated without any significant evangelical influence. Rather than denouncing party platforms or methods, the Christian community denounced political parties in general.
4. Fear that political parties could divide the church. Loyalties in Rwandan culture were personal, not ideological. People wore their party colors out of loyalty to tribe, clan, or region. Many followed the charisma and power of the leader. Ideology meant little. Those allied with a given party saw themselves as part of a brotherhood, rather than a diversity of people sharing a common ideology. Parties were more like gangs. They divided the church.
5. Truncated concept of spiritual life. Rwandan spiritual development rarely progressed much past the initial point of conversion. The saved were called to be saved Sunday after Sunday. Preachers attacked the big three: drinking, smoking, and adultery. Enthusiasm covered up the failure to get serious about sin and the lack of spiritual discipline.
6. Failure to get rid of the demonic baggage of their pagan past. Initiation rites, charms, spells, healing by sorcery—most Rwandans have passed through experiences that put them in contact with demons or demonic forces. The presence or influence of the demonic does not necessarily leave a person because he or she becomes a Christian. Christians must deal with the demonic residue of their pagan past—personally, consciously, and authoritatively. This was rarely done—mostly in the cases of known mediums or witches. This put many Rwandan Christians within easy touch and influence of demonic forces.
7. Christians tainted by tribalism. Most Christians did not escape being touched by tribalism. Most Hutu Christians fellowshiped warmly with Tutsi brothers and sisters, but they were afraid of the Tutsis as a people. Likewise, most Tutsi Christians shared the basic premise of the rebel cause—Hutus were not as fit to govern as Tutsis.
The churches in Rwanda are the children of the mission organizations. Most churches were still under their “parents” during the Rwandan crisis. How many of the above characteristics did the parents pass on to their children? Which of these characteristics helped, which harmed the children?
The pope is the spiritual father, or shepherd, of the Catholic Church in Rwanda. He had the boldness and honesty to declare that the fighting involves “a real and true genocide for which, unfortunately, even Catholics are responsible.’2 We Protestants also established churches in Rwanda, nurtured them, taught them, trained their leaders, showed them what the Christian life was all about. Are we, too, responsible?
A young woman in Rwanda told me, “You must visit the churches here and see how they use them.” She spoke with scorn mixed with pain. I knew what she meant. I didn’t want to see it with my own eyes—churches knee deep in bodies, blood spattering the ceilings.
Scorn and pain—that is how many thinking, feeling Rwandans now view our churches in Rwanda. Do we have answers, or just excuses? I’m not sure what should have been done differently, but my list of church characteristics is a place to start. We have to question, meditate, examine, struggle, and wrestle with the church and what happened in Rwanda. It is our church, and its weaknesses are ours. It is Christ’s bride, and his deep love makes her disgrace bite more deeply into his heart.
1. David Barrett in the World Christian Encyclopedia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982) p. 588; Patrick Johnstone in Operation World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993) p. 472); and the 1991 Rwanda census all report about 80 percent affiliated Christians. The 5 percent figure is a rough estimate based on the above three sources, plus my knowledge of the church situation in Rwanda.
2. National Catholic Reporter, May 27, 1994, p. 9.
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