Sunday, March 21, 2010

Rwanda, ethnic identity, genocide - what can we learn?

I'm in Rwanda, mostly observing and trying to learn all that I can about the challenges and opportunities for Rwanda in these days with the 1994 genocide of Tutsis now almost exactly 16 years in the past. I've been reading all kinds of accounts of the genocide and watching documentaries and movies and I just can't imagine the horror of it.

How is it possible that any person could do the things that were done? I have no answer for that question, though I know that this was neither the first nor the last time that people will act in such a way. And, to be honest, I have no absolute certainty that I would be incapable of such actions myself. It's clear that simply being a Christian does not innoculate us against participating in evil. After all, Rwanda was, at the time of the genocide, one of the most Christian countries in the world if we are looking at church affiliation and attendance as indicators of faith.

In some ways Rwanda seems to be an example of a country which has, with determination, put the horrific events of those 100 days in 1994 behind it. The government has taken a firm hand and there seems to be a quite remarkable stability here. It's an absolutely stunningly beautiful country, with rolling hills, lush soil, a wonderful climate, and a people working hard to keep a half step ahead of extreme poverty. And yet, it still feels like a fragile and tentative peace.

In fact, just a few weeks ago there were some grenade attacks in Kigali and the military presence now is apparently much more noticeable than is "normal". Still, I feel quite safe. But as I watch and listen, I can't help wondering what we can learn from the Rwandan experience. What lesson is there in all of this for me as an individual Christian, or for the entire family of faith?

The National narrative in Rwanda - that is, the state generated ideology to ensure that such a thing will not happen again (the "never again" campaign) - is espoused in all kinds of ways and in all kinds of places. The explicit claim is that the country is united. People are taught that they are Rwandan, not Hutu or Tutsi (or Twa - the aboriginal peoples). But this raises the question of identity and I wonder if it's healthy to try to eradicate one's ethnic identity...?

Now there are those who claim that the ethnic division between Tutsi and Hutu was quite artificial anyway, so erasing it is an entirely good thing. But I'm not sure that it's that easy to erase an identity, especially once a history and a consciousness has been established and seered into one's very being. Surely it would be good if a person can be Rwandese AND Hutu or Rwandese AND Tutsi or Rwandese AND Twa. We've visited communities that are beneficiaries of Canadian Foodgrains Bank food security projects, where community members (both Hutu and Tutsi, and even Twa) are working together and gradually learning how to trust. But it's not easy.

Sometimes I think we Canadians have put too much emphasis on multiculturalism and pluralism, but as I sit here in Rwanda I have to say that I'm very happy to be part of the Canadian effort to be inclusive and to even celebrate ethnic and religious and cultural and political and linguistic diversity. I know that our acceptance of "the other" among us may not be as deep or as genuine or as optimistic as we might hope, but it seems right that we would allow for diversity rather than suppressing it.

I recognize that our treatment of the First Nations peoples continues to be a signficant stain on our credibility, and an issue whose "solution" continues to elude us, and I know that things are not always what they seem. There are still marginalized and vulnerable people in Canada - lots of them, in fact - but we at least seem to be moving in a positive direction, even if it is painfully slowly for those who feel the sting of racism or other forms of discrimination and stigma.

I guess that the real point of this posting - sorry that I've been rambling! - is that I'm actually quite concerned that the security that we often take for granted in Canada may actually be quite fragile. It's easy to get along when we are enjoying a pretty enviable standard of living and when our economy is holding up pretty well under lots of international pressure. We're not being attacked by foreign armies and our climate, though a little odd at times, is not nearly as extreme as it is in other places. We all like to criticize the government for one thing or another, but all in all, we're pretty pleased with our democratic system - and what we don't like, we're free to advocate to change. We can complain about education but essentially ALL of our kids get to go to school. We may grumble about inefficiencies and delays in accessing our health care, but most of us are pretty proud of our Medicare system. The price of food can make it harder to stretch our food budget, but most of us don't lose a lot of sleep wondering whether or not we will eat the next day or if our kids will die from some complication of malnutrition. Yup - all things considered we have it pretty good in Canada. But that could all change in a heartbeat. I won't bother to spell out the possible scenarios that could turn things upside down - and I'm not being a prophet of doom - honestly!

My point is that we would do well to learn from Rwanda. As Christians, we need to guard our hearts and our minds against all manner of evil, not by making sure that we have everything we need for safety and security, but by living radically counter cultural lives. Being generous, not AFTER we've looked after all of our needs and desires, but off the top. Being an advocate and an encourager for the vulnerable - not just those who are half way around the world, but also those in our own neighbourhoods. Being a person who actively looks for ways to extend peace into our world, even when it's inconvenient or uncomfortable.

Next month is the month of mourning for Rwanda and especially from April 7-15 the country will be commemorating the pain of the genocide. Back in 1994 the world withdrew from Rwanda and left evil to run its course. In the aftermath of the genocide we were shocked, not just by the genocide in Rwanda, but also by our own indifference. The question that continues to haunt me is this: how is my faith equipping me to stand firm in the face of the evil forces which are loose in our world? Or am I choosing to stay clear of evil as best I can so that I will not have to put my faith or my life on the line? Tough questions...

Monday, March 01, 2010

What does Jesus REALLY want from us?

You know the time that Jesus encounters the rich young man - or the rich young ruler, depending on the translation? And remember how this intense young man seeks Jesus out and asks him what he needs to do to make sure that he’s on the right path? It’s a neat encounter. The way I see it, this guy is honestly searching for moral truth. He really wants to know how he can be righteous. And I believe him when he says that he’s kept the commandments. I used to think that he was being na├»ve in that he didn’t really know what he was claiming, but I’m starting to think that maybe, he really DID keep them. After all, they were pretty clear and if you were just going by the letter of the law, maybe it wasn’t actually impossible to keep them. So if we think for now that he is telling the truth – that he HAS kept the commandments – the fact that here he is, asking Jesus what more he needs to do implies that he intuitively knows that keeping the commandments is NOT enough. And, possibly – he wasn’t alone. I bet there were lots of pretty righteous Jews who had grown up in families which took the instructions in Deuteronomy 11:19-20 to heart. Families where the rules were taught, modeled, reinforced – where compliance was rewarded and where kids grew up knowing “right” from “wrong”. So here this guy is – a product of his culture and family – I think he would be a young man with a stellar reputation and perhaps his wealth or his social power would be interpreted as the evidence of a life God blesses. But it’s not enough, and he knows it.

So then Jesus unpacks the commandments and sums them up with one thing that this earnest young man lacks. Jesus tells him to sell everything he has, give the money to the poor and come along with Jesus for the ride. Honestly, I’m surprised by the outcome. Bottom line is this: the rich young man turns down the offer – he goes away SAD because HE IS A MAN OF GREAT WEALTH. Ironic, eh? The very thing which could be seen as the indication of blessing for obedience – the wealth, the social power – Jesus says, just give those things up and come hang out with me. But he can’t do it. In fact, it doesn’t even seem that he gives the idea much thought. He chooses to go back to what he knows – what seems safe and secure and comfortable. He goes back to affluence. He goes back to a way of being that he knows is NOT fulfilling. A way of living which he knows is missing something. An empty righteousness.

I’ve thought about this encounter and I’ve even spoken about it some. I’ve never been satisfied that my interpretation of it has been accurate. I usually qualify the clear instruction of Jesus to this young man by saying something to the effect that it doesn’t necessarily mean that Jesus expects US to actually sell all that we have and give to the poor. I say it’s more about whether or not we would be willing to… whether or not we have made our money and our influence an IDOL, which gets in the way of our relationship with God or with other people. I join the majority view which rationalizes and justifies our affluence and lets us off the hook. I say that of course Jesus doesn’t REALLY think we should sell everything. Surely Jesus knows that if we give ALL that we have to the poor, it’s not really going to make any difference. The poor will always be among us. We can’t help them all. Jesus says so himself.

But what if he really DOES mean it? What if it’s not really about the poor and what our small contributions – even if we give it ALL - can do to make their lives better? Here’s the thing: what if the act of getting rid of our riches is not about what it can do for the poor at all but all about freeing US from the temptation to trust in our wealth, our wisdom and our strength? And in case you don’t recognize that reference, it’s Jeremiah 9:23-24 – the prophet clearly tells us NOT to boast in these things but rather, if we’re going to boast we should boast that we KNOW and UNDERSTAND God, who is a God of justice. So what if our perfectly normal and natural participation in the social and economic structures of our society IS the problem? I know. This sounds WAY too radical. This is the sort of thing you might expect from an overly idealistic teenager. From someone who hasn’t yet figured out that you can actually do more good by going along with the world the way is. You know – get an education, get a good job, make lots of money and then you can enjoy a very comfortable life for yourself and still have some alms to give to the poor. You might even sacrifice some hard earned vacation time to go on a mission trip so that you can see first hand how desperately the poor need your help. I know. I don’t like where this is headed either. But I just can’t shake the thought that maybe Jesus really meant what he said. And as I think about it – holding this thought up to the light – it’s actually totally consistent with lots of other things that he said about justice and faith and warnings about money.

Final comment: even if we can convince ourselves that the idea of giving our material wealth away so that we can follow Jesus is ONLY for those who are too attached to their wealth, do we dare to ask God to clearly show us if that means US? Surely not I Lord…?