Religious profiling

Religious profiling January 7, 2005

I've started to read Philip Gourevitch's book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With our Families: Stories from Rwanda.

It is the story of genocide, of the killing of somewhere between 800,000 and 1 million people in about 100 days. This mass destruction was carried out without weapons of mass destruction. It was performed by soldiers, militias and ordinary citizens by the thousands wielding guns, machetes and clubs.

When I picked up the book I knew that it's longish title came from a letter written by some of those who were killed. But I did not know the specifics of this letter.

It was written by seven pastors of Adventists churches. They were among the hundreds who had taken refuge in the Seventh-Day Adventist mission hospital in the city of Mugonero. Their letter was sent to Pastor Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, the president and leader of the Adventist church in Rwanda. Here is what it said:

Our dear leader, Pastor Elizaphan Ntakirumana,

How are you! We wish you to be strong in all these problems we are facing. We wish to inform you that we have heard that tomorrow we will be killed with our families. We therefore request you to intervene on our behalf and talk with the Mayor. We believe that, with the help of God who entrusted you the leadership of this flock, which is going to be destroyed, your intervention will be highly appreciated, the same way as the Jews were saved by Esther. We give honor to you.

The church leader is said to have responded, "Your problem has already found a solution. You must die."

Ntakirumana did talk with the mayor, and with his son, a doctor at the hospital. They worked together to coordinate the attack that slaughtered the seven pastors, their families, and nearly everyone else in the mission at Mugonero.

Elsewhere in Rwanda the victims were huddled in churches. Some were in Catholic churches, some in Protestant churches, but all in Christian churches because, you see, Rwanda is a Christian nation.

Gourevitch explores the rise of the Hutu Power ideology as it gathered force in community meetings throughout Rwanda. He traces how the Tutsi "elites" and Hutu moderates were gradually demonized, leading ultimately to the embrace of the final solution that Pastor Ntakirumana described to the condemned in the mission hospital.

Reading this part of the story you reflexively, defensively reassure yourself with all the reasons you can think of that it can't happen here. You do this all the more urgently the more you begin to suspect that maybe it could. You realize that the madness that swept Rwanda did not come about suddenly, but as the result of a thousand small steps in that direction. And some of those small steps seem familiar.

Dave Neiwert makes it his business to notice each of those small steps as they occur. Sometimes when I read his blog, Orcinus, I think that maybe he is a bit alarmist. Or I hope that he is being alarmist. And the more I suspect that he is not, the more fervently I wish that he were. Gourevitch's history — the story he tells of a Christian nation a mere 10 years ago — has me reading Neiwert's important blog with a renewed urgency.

Most people in Rwanda in 1994 were Christians. Most of the victims, as well as most of the killers. Those of us who also call ourselves Christian must somehow account for this.

I can't help but notice that Ntakirumana's Adventist church is the same branch of Christianity that gave us the modern heresy of Darbyism and the premillennial dispensationalism and prophecy mania of Darby's heirs. I have argued previously, many times, that this religious perspective is dangerous and insidious, inspiring a perverse and self-fulfilling hope for cataclysm.

Yet for all that, there is little in Gourevitch's account that suggests that Pastor Ntakirumana and his countrymen were acting from a particularly religious mania. Despite their nominal Christianity, the driving force behind their participation in Rwanda's genocide seems rather to have been their embrace of the Hutu Power ideology that seems to have supplanted their faith.

Ntakirumana's dispensational views may not have caused him to embrace a murderous ideology, but neither did it prevent him from doing so. Like the "two kingdoms" Lutheran theology of early 20th-century Germany, Adventist dispensationalism may have left its adherents ill-equipped to oppose the rise of such evil.

And what of the other Christians of other denominations who participated in and carried out Rwanda's genocide?

One explanation, of course, is that these people weren't really Christians at all. This sounds like a cop out, an easy escape, but it's also exactly what John writes, repeatedly, in his first epistle:

We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him. …

And yet.

And yet they called themselves Christians. They went to church. They prayed the "Our Father" to our Father. And then they picked up guns, machetes and clubs and killed hundreds of thousands of their brothers and sisters.

Gourevitch writes with a bewildered horror and unblinking honesty because this happened. This happened and yet the world has never really looked at it, has never really accounted for it.

Nor has the church.


Browse Our Archives

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment

25 responses to “Religious profiling”

  1. Thank you, Fred. I knew next to nothing about the genocide in Rwanda, except that it occurred, and that Hutus killed an awful lot of Tutsies in a remarkably short time. I’ll have to get the book. I’ve known a few Adventists, and didn’t know that Darby was one and that they believed so strongly in dispensationalism.
    I would add this thought: It is fascinating to me to see what strange bedfellows the religious right have become. Southern Baptists, Opus Dei Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists, Pentacostals, extreme conservative Presbyterians — am I leaving anybody out?

  2. I read Orcinus right before I read this blog. Neiwert is such a great writer, and I was proud to contribute to his list of right-wing election thuggery (a Kerry supporter was mooned and then headbutted – causing a broken nose and mild concussion. First time I’ve ever seen indecent exposure and battery in a non-rape case)

  3. …For Christians, a particularly disturbing feature of the violence in Burundi, as in neighbouring Rwanda, is the fact that 80% to 90% of both countries’ citizens are Christians. How can Christians continue to kill each other in ethnic conflict?
    According to a young Christian leader in Burundi who is head of the country’s Intervarsity movement, part of the answer lies in Burundi’s history. Missionaries brought the gospel of salvation, but the focus was vertical, emphasizing one’s relation to God but not to others. This meant the first generation of Christians focussed on Bible verses needed for evangelization. In general, Christians were taught living a good Christian life meant marital fidelity, attending church and avoiding alcohol. Relating to one’s neighbours was not emphasized.
    “This is why we can be 90% Christian yet kill in the name of ethnicity,” this young Christian says. He believes the Burundian churches need to have broader education of church leaders and to read the Bible also for its horizontal dimension of love and ethics. “If that can happen, the church can save this country.” …

  4. Not only that.
    Reading some stories on the BBC on the anniversary of the genocide, and discussing it with my readers this past year at my message board, I came across the little-mentioned fact – less mentioned than that Christianity did nothing to soften the stony hearts of the killers – that many Moslems in towns defied the ethnic paradigm and sheltered their fellow human beings, regardless of what tribe they belonged to, because they believed all the stuff in their scriptures about God being the God of everyone, not just Hutus, even those who don’t accept Him, that before The One there is neither Hutu nor Tutsi, so to speak, and of those few who were saved many of those survived for this moral resistance to the eliminationist rhetoric.
    Not surprisingly, more than a few of them converted to Islam as a result…

  5. Here’s the link to the BBC story.
    It wasn’t just protestant Christians, either. My church was just as bac. But I have been criticizing the trend to a deliberately anti-rational, emotional strain in conservative Catholicism, embodied most fully in its latest product, The Passion, a “faith” which is not only utterly mirantist (ie obsessed with signs and wonders) but is also typified by what I call a “navel-gazing spirituality,” obsessing on personal flaws of lust, gluttony and even more minor failings while being completely oblivious to the sufferings of the world outside.
    It’s as if Dives weren’t feasting away while Lazarus died in the gutter, but instead were on his knees praying for five hours a day, and maybe flogging himself, too. It isn’t any improvement.

  6. Mere Christianity

    Fred Clarke posts on Rwanda, and doesn’t shy from asking hard questions about his faith and poking holes in certain bits of received wisdom — a noble stance and one which the religious of the world could do with more of. Worth reading, and probably …

  7. “Missionaries brought the gospel of salvation, but the focus was vertical, emphasizing one’s relation to God but not to others. This meant the first generation of Christians focussed on Bible verses needed for evangelization.”
    And the current generation of Southern Baptist 20- and 30-somethings was raised focussed on the Bible verses needed for evangelization. I should know – I was one.
    Feeling something missing from my faith, I went looking towards Catholicism and have settled in the Episcopal Church. I’m currently frustrated by a lack of a satisfactory parish here in eastern Bavaria (closest is Ingolstadt, 100 km away), but I digress.
    The Rawandan/Burundian episodes make me almost believe that narrowly-focussed “soul-winning” is outright sinful. Religious ideology is powerful, kind of like guns. The power can be used for good or for evil, and exercised without due care, can cause evil results.

  8. It puzzles me that anyone could be surprised at the existence of violent ethnic hatred between christians. Aren’t the KKK mostly christians? Wasn’t Martin Luther King a baptist?

  9. The nazis were christians, the anti-semitism they used was a (nearly 1000 year old) christian invention.
    Individual christians I’m fine with, it’s just Organised Christian institutions I feel are inherently the spawn of satan, sure they have a few good ideas and points (cuz you have to be able to attract the pious as well as the perverted i suppose) but any religion that enables people to just declare anyone who does something publicly evil a non-christian without making people say, wait a minute, how come he could even think he was a good christian if he was acting so obviously unchristian?
    There is never any real remorse shown, it’s that simple “nothing to do with us john.” attitude that allows this sort of stuff to happen again, and again and again, without genocide ever being stopped during it’s incubation stage.
    It’s like the catholic church today, the church has apologised for it’s treatment of galileo, for its part in the Holocaust, but it has been spreading patently false pamphlets declaring that condoms won’t stop HIV infection during intercourse in northern and western africa.
    Jesus said some quite specific things about hypocrites, but the institutions who use his name tend to go through periods where they lose those sections of the bible.

  10. Well, as I see it, there are basically two components of religion; A moral code, and a series of rituals designed to comunicate with and influence god.
    Most religions share pretty much the same moral code; No stealing, no killing, Ten Commandments stuff. Additionaly, theses rules are usually waived when it comes to people outside the tribe.
    Anyway, Christianity, if honestly practiced, does not follow the traditional rules; You’re supposed to eschew fame and wealth and love all men, even (especially) those who hate you. This extreme rejection of worldly goods and human instinct is the kind of thing that in other religions would be confined to priests and the especially religious.
    Anyway, my point is that most Christians focus more on the ritual aspect of the religion; Christianity is a way to influence god in your favor, and given the success of Christians, it seems better then the other religions. But most people don’t change their moral code; They remain firmly in the old testament tradition.
    So… that’s my opinion. Evangelism has succeeded in changing the outward appearance of religion in the places where it has spread, but people pretty much stick to the old-style, pre-Christian moral codes.

  11. Let me speak up for at least one Seventh Day Adventist. This Marine became an Adventist, refused an order to pick up his gun, and is now serving time in the brig. His conscientious objector application was denied. This despite his volunteering for non-lethal, yet hazardous duty, such as clearing land mines.
    Guess there’s good crazy and bad crazy.

  12. The PBS documentaries “The Ghosts of Rwanda” and “The Triumph of Evil” brought home to me the immediacy of the genocide like nothing else. Watching the home video shot from the trucks by the white foreigners being evacuated as they rode down the blood-stained streets through crowds of pleading Tutsis…Tutsis who knew their persecutors waited in the background confidently while their only hope abandoned them. The ride through the high stink of the bloodbath. The tears on those faces as they begged.
    The question shouldn’t just be how Christians could do that to each other. Professed “Christians” have been doing that and worse for a thousand years.
    The question is how Christians could so completely abandon their humanity in turning their faces from those who begged them for help.

  13. Christians have slaughtered each other, and all other faiths, in remarkable numbers since at least the third century, when they gained a bit of political power in the Roman Empire. In this they are absolutely no different than the rest of humanity.

  14. A great short little article on the problem of violent Christianity, addressing the non-address/denial of the problem, in the context of a book review on Christian Century. (Which I found by going from here to RLP, reading RLP’s new column there, then browsing around.

  15. http://www.cnn.com/2004/SHOWBIZ/Movies/12/29/review.rwanda/
    Review: ‘Hotel Rwanda’ amazing, gripping
    Standout acting performances in important film
    (CNN) — During 100 terrifying days in 1994, nearly 1 million people died in a horrific genocide in the African country of Rwanda, as the ruling members of the Hutu tribe began a calculated effort to wipe out the Tutsi minority.
    This unholy act of inhumanity was compounded by the fact that the world stood silently by and did nothing to intervene.
    The film “Hotel Rwanda” is based on an actual event that occurred during that terrible time, the attempt of one man — a hotel manager named Paul Rusesabagina — to save as many people as possible. The film is not only one of the best movies of the year; it is also probably the most important movie of the year.
    Rusesabagina, played magnificently by Don Cheadle, managed to save the lives of 1,268 people as he risked everything in an uncommon act of courage. (The hotelier, who’s still alive, served as a consultant to the movie.)…

  16. Rwanda

    Having just watched Hotel Rwanda and looking at Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families sitting on my desk, I must say I was intrigued by Fred Clark’s post on <a title="slacktivist: Reli…

  17. Linking Fool Friday

    We contemplated a sudden switch to a Spanish-language format at noon today, but decided to stick with same old links an’ crap. Those with Virginia ties may find MyDD’s piece on Virginia politics in 2005 interesting. By now everyone has…

  18. The religious angle in the Rwandan genocide was at best secondary and if any religious group ought to do penance its the Catholic Church. And if ya stick with Gourevitch’s story the U.S. certainly comes out smelling of stench but the French ought to be indicted for their complicity in the murders.
    If there is a lesson to be learned from Rwanda its that civility and justice remain little more than a brittle veneer. It needn’t take much to crack and crumble it and expose a host of forces that can compel normal people to engage in unspeakable acts of brutality and destruction.

  19. LISTEN —
    Let us not be preposterous and assume that Christianity is the cause of violence. Read the Bible, my friends and see that Luke3:18 says, “Do violence to no one” – in fact, I know not of ANY religion that advocates violence, Muslim, Buddhism, and Christianity alike. Rather, it is man’s nature to thirst for violence which encourages him to use religious institutions for violent purposes. And religion is not the only instituion used for violence, governments, cultural events and many others have ben utilized to conform to the thirst for violence.
    Frankly, it is too easy, too simplistic to blame violence on Christianity.
    Let me ask you this –
    If you got rid of religion, would violence disappear?
    I’m afraid not.

  20. Elizabeth —
    I’m not sure if you’re responding to the post or to other commenters, but in either case, no one here is assuming that “Christianity is the cause of violence.” (Re-read the post if you thought that’s what it said. It very clearly does not say that.)
    The problem, however, is well summarized by the comment Mark makes above:
    “Christians have slaughtered each other, and all other faiths, in remarkable numbers … In this they are absolutely no different than the rest of humanity.”
    Christianity did not cause the violence in Rwanda. But, since it also did nothing to stop it, that’s hardly something to brag about.

  21. It is very well known that Sadam Hussein kept his people under control with ethnic cleansing or the threat thereof with his weapons of mass destruction and his Army of folowers. He killed off everyone, actually masses of those, who were giving him any trouble whatsoever. He evidently did not even consider whether anyone was innocent within the towns he murdered. If there were dissidents in the towns where there was disobedience everyone died.
    It has been stated, with a great deal of tongue in cheek, that the only solution to the suicide bombers is to put Sadam back in power and let him solve the problems over there. We know that would not really work because he would just kill off all the good Iraqis.
    Here in the United States, where we have allowed freedom of religion from the very beginning of our nation, we are now faced with the very real fact that some religions do not deserve the same freedoms of expression that have so long been no problem. The soldiers in Iraq are experiencing the confusion of identifying the bad guys from the good guys; the enemy looks the same as the good guys. They all have the same religion only some are not as fanatic as others. The only difference between them is that the fanatics believe that the non-fanatics are non-believers or infidels and have no problem with killing them off.
    Take a look back at the 1968n murder of Bobby Kennedy, the Munich Olympic athletics murders, the 1979 takeover of the US Embassy in Itran and th eholding of hostages for some 440 days, the1983 bombing of the Marine barracks, the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985and the killing of a wheelchair passenger, the 1985 hijacking of TWA flight 847 with the murder of a US Navy diver who tried to rescue the passengers, the Bombong of Pan Am flight 103 that crashe din Ireland, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center,, the 1998 bombing of the embassies in Kenya and tAnzania, The hijackingo fo four airliners and the destriction of the World Trad Centers and the Pentagon, Our assistance in the war in Afghanistan, the be-heading killing of reporter Daniel Pearl these were all done by radical Muslim extremists and we still can not allow profiling in the screening of suspects.
    Radical Muslim extremeist are just those who believe that the word of Allah and the Koran must be obeyed and followed if there is any chance of having an eternal life with God or Allah.
    The strict followers of the Koran believe that those who do not follow the Bible or Koran are infidels and not really God fearing people and do not deserve to live amongst those who follow the law of Allah.

  22. It’s a shame so many people commenting on this blog like criticizing adherents of other religions. “Strange bedfellows” one person said, while other posters have criticized Catholics, Southern Baptists, and Adventists. As a Seventh-day Adventist, I can say that Adventists do not subscribe to Darby’s eschatology (which best characterizes the “Left Behind” series), as the the blog states. Funny that the original blog also assigns most of the blame for the genocide on Adventists: “dispensationalism may have left its adherents ill-equipped to oppose the rise of such evil.” Ironically, Adventist influence there is no more than 11%. Still, the point is not to exonerate Adventists of blame. The point is that the genocide was one that went beyond denominational distinctions, having more to do with politics and culture than anything else. Do not kid yourself, even if it might make you feel better…The murderers were of ALL religions. This is especially important to note, because it’s the kind of hostility that people show towards other religious adherents that causes these kinds of atrocities in the first place!