Six Principles of Christian Catechesis after Rwanda

Written in 2002, used by permission of the author.


The author suggests six basic principles to guide Christian behavior in a violent world.

The genocide which occurred in Rwanda during 1994 was the one of worst outbreaks of violence in the 20th century. Many members of the ethnic group known as the "Hutus," spurred on by the government, massacred approximately 800,000 "Tutsis" in less than a year. At its most frenzied, the pace of the killings exceeded the destruction of the Jews by the Nazis. 1994 was the high point among many other episodes of violence in Rwanda and neighboring countries before and since then, which included massacres of Hutus by Tutsis. If you are not familiar with this situation, I recommend Philip Gourevitch's excellent journalistic account We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998).

One of the most jarring aspects of the genocide in Rwanda is the fact that due to the ostensible success of Christian missionary efforts in that country during the 20th century, it had become one of the most thoroughly Christianized countries in Africa. Estimates before the genocide put the number of Christians in Rwanda at almost 90% of the population. The idea that a nation comprised largely of Christian people would become a killing field where neighbors are slaughtering each other in huge numbers, where grown men who attend church regularly would pick up machetes and hack to death entire families, including the children, should strike us as utterly bizarre. How could people who are supposedly followers of Jesus, attending church, listening to sermons, and receiving Christian education, act in this way? There is a gap here between the designation "Christian" and the behavior of the individuals so described that is so huge as to constitute a chasm. It is obvious that the efforts of the missionaries did not include a catechesis in basic Christian ethics that was effective in precluding the possibility of such massacres. What would such a catechesis look like? This is the question I seek to address.

What are the basic principles that need to anchor Christian behavior in a violent world? These are my suggestions:

1) "We must obey God rather than men." Acts 5:29 One must take one's orders from God, not from earthly authorities, if those authorities are asking one to commit crimes. While the institution of government has a role in God's ordering of the world, that does not mean that every government that exists is an expression of God's will. It can and quite often does occur that a particular government's policies contradict God's will, which seeks the protection and enhancement of human life. When a government gives its citizens orders that are immoral, then those orders must not be obeyed by Christians. A key test that can be used if you are unsure whether or not a government order is immoral is to ask if this order is one that Christ would approve of.

2) "Do not fear those who kill the body." Matt. 10:28 If the authorities are threatening to kill you if you do not obey them, be willing to give up your life. Realize that for a Christian being a martyr is preferable to being a murderer. One's life on this earth is not an absolute value, only a relative one. By extension, realize that God does not want you to kill other people's children to save your own. The foundation on which your life as a Christian must be built is not fear but faith in God.

3) "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Matt. 22:39 Make the great commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," the basis of how you relate to your fellow human beings. This entails seeing all people as the neighbor whom God calls you to love. Put the other way around, you must be the neighbor to those who need your help, just as the Good Samaritan acted as the neighbor of the man lying by the side of the road. Loving your neighbor is the exact opposite of killing your neighbor. You should live in the way Christ commands you to live, not in defiance of that way.

4) "There is neither Jew nor Greek ... for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Gal. 3:28 Realize that labels such as "Hutu" and "Tutsi" (and their correlates in other cultural situations around the world) are human constructs that can become idols or anti-idols. (Idols are products of the human imagination that are worshiped in place of God; anti-idols are products of the human imagination that are feared, hated, and attacked.) Always remember that all human beings are creatures of God. When your social environment is encouraging you to make these labels the basis for loving some people and hating others, criticize your social environment and seek to change it.

5) "And they cried out again, 'Crucify him'." Mark 15:13 Remember that there have been many situations in human history in which a crowd mentality seized people and they began to behave unethically. Remember the crowd that cried out for the crucifixion of Christ, and be sensitive to the temptation presented to you to join such a crowd. When you feel that temptation, have the courage to separate yourself from the crowd and live as an individual who has a spiritual and ethical backbone.

6) "And they came to Jesus, and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind." Mark 5:15 Christ's ministry is a healing ministry that works effectively to help people become sane. If your social environment has gone insane and become a scene of rampant paranoia, do not simply jump into the rushing waters and join the paranoia. Be a beacon of sanity in a sea of darkness. Learn how to recognize paranoia, resist it's temptation, and be a co-worker with Christ in helping your fellow human beings to regain their sanity.