Remembering Rwanda

by David P. Gushee

David P Gushee is Graves Associate Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, and author (with Glen Stassen) of the forthcoming Kingdom Ethics (InterVarsity).

This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 20, 2004, pp. 28-31. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Ninety percent of Rwanda is Christian, yet all the clerical garb and regalia, the Christian vocabulary and books, schools, seminaries and parishes, Bible studies, religious titles and education degrees, did nothing to stop genocide in that country.

April marks the ten-year anniversary of the beginning of the genocide in Rwanda, a catastrophic mass slaughter which claimed 850,000 lives in three months. Ten years later, Christian reflection must focus on the role Rwandan Christians played in the swiftest and in some ways most brutal genocide of the 20th century.

Rwanda was the most heavily Christianized country in Africa. Some 90 percent of the people identified themselves as Christians. The Roman Catholic Church, to which 65 percent of the population belonged, played a huge role in Rwandan society. Christian churches, seminaries, schools and other institutions were sprinkled throughout the land. And yet all of this Christianity did not prevent genocide, a genocide which leading church officials did little to resist, in which a large number of Christians participated, and in which, according to African Rights, more people "died in churches and parishes than anywhere else."

How could this be? Christianity should produce justice and love; it should certainly not produce genocide. So I believe and so I have taught.

But a study of the Holocaust, and now of the Rwandan genocide, has led me to realize that the presence of churches in a country guarantees nothing. The self-identification of people with the Christian faith guarantees nothing. All of the clerical, garb and regalia, all of the structures of religious accountability, all of the Christian vocabulary and books, all of the schools and seminaries and parish houses and Bible studies, all of the religious titles and educational degrees -- they guarantee nothing.

Careful examination of the role of the churches in Rwanda as well as in Nazi Germany reveals some heartbreaking truths.

First, it cannot be assumed that the Christian faith is taught in such a way as to emphasize love of neighbor (all neighbors) and respect for human life. No agency on earth has ever been able to control what is actually taught in a local church on a given Sunday morning. A variety of bastardized versions of the Christian message, including hateful ones, have been and continue to be communicated in congregations all over the world. This is true both in churches where authoritative (and sometimes authoritarian) church hierarchies supposedly have great power to control what happens in the local church, and in decentralized communions in which the local minister has the final say. Either way, the teaching of the Christian churches lands all over the map, from richly faithful to blandly mediocre to dreadfully immoral.

Second, it cannot be assumed that the people gathered to hear the Word proclaimed and to participate in the sacraments are serious about the Christian faith. People come to church for a wide variety of reasons. They bring widely varying levels of receptivity to the truth that leaders communicate from the pulpit and the altar. They bring widely varying moral and spiritual capacities. Jesus himself said that the seed of the gospel is scattered on all different kinds of ground; only one of the four kinds of soil that he mentions has the quality needed for fruitfulness (Mark 4). In light of Auschwitz and Rwanda, that sounds about right. Narrow is the road that leads to salvation; few there are who enter it.

Third, it cannot be assumed that all of the self-identified Christian people (baptized, born-again, converted, members -- whatever criteria or name you want to use) gathered in these churches are subject to the influence of the Holy Spirit. I cannot believe that what the Bible says about the work of the Spirit of God is erroneous. But what must be admitted is that there is quite a gap between the list of "Christians" on church rolls or in church pews and the much smaller list of Christians in whom the Spirit of God is working.

This is not a novel idea. The ancient concept of the true church within the visible church seems irrefutable in the shadow of Rwanda’s killing fields and the crematories of Auschwitz.

Fourth, it cannot be assumed that Christian faith is the only or even the primary factor affecting the attitudes and behavior of those who claim Christian identity. In fact, Christians, like everyone else, are subject to being blown about by ferocious ideological, economic, social and political crosswinds.

In that light, the teachings of the Christian faith are often more like a candle flickering in a tornado than the sure anchor of the soul -- the dominating factor in a Christian’s thinking and behavior -- that we often assume them to be. Or, to switch images, Christian teaching provides one set of inputs into human consciousness, but other inputs are always cycling through that consciousness as well.

Christians often speak of the terrific struggle of the soul before a profession of initial faith in Christ; but now we see that this terrific struggle of the soul for faith (and especially faithfulness) continues long after faith commences. The spiritual journey is never over, and the Christian is never free from the possibility of careening over the cliff into moral disaster, until he breathes his last breath.

We must move beyond the general to the particular. Certainly there were specific historical factors in Rwanda that contributed to the disastrous involvement and complicity of the churches in the 1994 genocide. The most significant appear to be the following:

The historic participation of the Rwandan churches, especially the Roman Catholic Church, in reinforcing ethnocentric thought and behavior both in public life and in the church itself. This weakened the church’s ability to resist the quasi-fascist genocidal racism that emerged in a sector of Hutu society in the late 1980s and early 1990s and eventually led to genocide against their Tutsi compatriots.

The cozy relationship enjoyed by the leaders of the Rwandan Catholic Church and of several Protestant denominations with the Hutu government. This led church leaders to identify their interests with the interests of the then-current government and its leaders. In the end, the outcome was a hesitation on the part of church leaders to stand up for innocent Tutsis (and moderate or resistant Hutus) and say a clear no to genocide.

The traditional teaching of the churches that the Bible mandates unquestioning submission to both churchly and governmental authority. This teaching left Christians very poorly prepared to resist the genocidal commands of local and national leaders.

The historic social power of the missionaries and churches that brought about the nearly universal "conversion" of Rwandans to Christianity. This nearly universal assent to Christianity, we can now see, was clearly more of a veneer than a living reality in people’s hearts, as observers of Rwanda have noted.

It is striking that each of these problems was also apparent in the German churches (and throughout Europe) during the Hitler years.

German Christianity did not produce racist, pseudoscientific Nazi anti-Semitism any more than Rwandan Christianity produced racist, pseudo-scientific Hutu anti-Tutsism. But a misunderstanding of Christianity in Germany (and throughout Europe) that tied it to ethnic identity through historic anti-Semitism weakened the resistance of Christians to the allure of a much more vicious and hateful genocidal mentality when it emerged.

The cozy marriage of church and state that had existed throughout much of Europe was a prize that both Catholic and Protestant church leaders were loath to give up. In Germany, this left them susceptible to the false promises of a Hitler who at first promised a return to "positive Christianity" in Germany. Here was a conservative leader who would restore traditional German Christian values! It also left them indisposed to resist the unjust decrees and behaviors of the Nazi regime, for fear of weakening their already uncertain influence with the government as well as their institutional independence and social power.

The Authoritarian understanding of power and the requirement to submit unquestioningly to it in all of its forms was, if anything, worse in Germany than in Rwanda. It certainly inhibited resistance to Nazism and to the Holocaust. Indeed, the same misunderstanding of scripture as mandating total and unquestioning obedience to government (based on a misreading of Romans 13:1-7) contributed to submission to Nazi mandates among Christians in occupied Europe as well.

The Europe of the 1930s still bore the marks of the culture of Christendom that had dominated for over 1,500 years. Well over 90 percent of Europeans who lived through World War II identified themselves as Christians. When just about everyone is a "Christian," and all agree that they are living in a "Christian" culture, what is the meaning of Christianity? The observation of a Commonweal editorialist concerning Rwanda, that "the pervasive Catholic institutional and cultural presence . . . proved little impediment to such mind-numbing savagery," applies equally well to Germany and German Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic.

Plenty of evidence is in on this point: when a ruling elite decides to destroy a group of people in a society, most of the people who are not targeted will not resist, whatever their religious affiliation. To put it bluntly: politics usually matters more than religion does; or, politics co-opts religion and thus neutralizes it. To put it even more bluntly: people are sheep. Most will go along with what their elites tell them to think and do. Few have the intellectual, spiritual or moral capacity to resist either the genocidal thinking of elites or the genocide itself once it begins.

But still we must affirm the mission and vocation of the churches. Churches are required to be agents of resistance to genocide or any other kind of social evil, as a basic expression of faithfulness to their God, their sacred scriptures and their social responsibility.

Churches cannot, however, start preparing people for resistance only at the point when evil takes the stage. Training in resistance to evil should be a part of the daily teaching, preaching and training that occurs in every congregation. If the lessons of both Rwanda and the Holocaust are taken seriously, the implications are clear:

The churches should attempt to do everything they can to destroy racism where they find it in their congregations. Even "mild," subtle, unarticulated racist attitudes are poison. They are poison because they violate biblical norms. They are poison because they weaken or neutralize resistance to more virulent forms of political racism when these emerge.

The churches would do well to give up, once and for all, any hope of great social and political power, including a comfortable embrace by government leaders. The dream of Christian political dominance is alluring, but must be recognized as a demonic snare. And a cozy relationship with government almost always comes at far too high a price either for Christian integrity or for the victims of government injustice. Christians do nothing to protect the victims because we are too busy protecting our privileged position.

Churches need to teach that government powers, and all other structures of authority, are mandated by God to serve the well-being of people and communities. The mandate of government does not require Christians to offer unquestioning obedience. Government leaders and laws are to be respected, yes, but they are to be obeyed only insofar as they advance the common good and act in accordance with the dictates of justice. Otherwise they are to be cheerfully disobeyed, in the tradition of civil disobedience or even, in extreme cases, justified revolution.

The churches should reconsider what exactly we mean when we invite someone to "Christianity" or call someone among us a "Christian." In both Germany and Rwanda, we now see, Christianity was broad and wide but not deep, like the seed sown on rocky ground that has no root and so endures only for a while, till "trouble" comes (Mark 4:17). How can we read about this veneer-like faith and not shudder as we compare it to the broad, wide and often equally shallow thing that passes for Christianity in so much of our culture and in so many of our churches? What if we understood Christians to be only those who "hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop" (Mark 4:20)? What if we conclude that when Jesus said, "Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of the Father in heaven" (Matt. 7:21), he knew exactly what he was talking about?