There is a sense in which, particularly in the summer, all roads lead to Africa. Visitors are not just rich Americans on Safari to visit Africa’s wild life or luxuriate in the stunning and exotic beauty of Africa’s landscapes and game parks. Instead, travelers include health workers going to live in an African village, World Vision teams visiting projects in various countries, and young college students, some traveling for the first time to Africa, as part of missions organized to bring the Gospel to Africa and to serve Africa’s poor.
The renewed interest in Africa has been shaped by both evangelical and humanitarian trends. Whereas there has always been an evangelical impulse to spread the gospel to Africa, what we witness in the recent past is a renewed interest in that commitment, led by mostly white American evangelical churches. Every year, particularly during the summer, American Evangelical churches send mission teams to Africa to preach the Gospel, to plant churches and set up bible colleges. All meant to ensure that Africa is saved, spiritually saved, that is.
But there is also another trend, a humanitarian trend, focused on responding to Africa’s endemic needs of poverty, which has, in the recent past, attracted a lot of visibility. In 2002, President Bush committed 15 billion dollars to fight AIDS; Bono has continued to sing about the future of Africa and to mobilize governments and companies to help end poverty in Africa; the G8 are talking debt cancellation; Bill and Melinda Gates have invested millions in a malaria vaccine; Jimmy Carter continues his Habitat for Humanity work in Africa; and Bill Clinton is setting up a reconciliation initiative. A mood of optimism about Africa seems to be in the air, and not only Washington and the likes of Bono, but also scholars and economists are beginning to pick up the mood. Jeffrey Sachs, a leading economist has offered an apocalyptic prediction for ‘The End of Poverty’ (Penguin 2005).
More recently, Evangelical Churches have also picked up this humanitarian interest, and so are combining the traditional fervor to preach the Gospel with a humanitarian commitment to end poverty in Africa. Nowhere is this coming together of evangelism and humanitarianism more evident than in Rick Warren’s plan for Rwanda (“Purpose-Driven in Rwanda,” Christianity Today, October, 2005 – more on this see below).
As an African theologian, I should be excited about this outpouring of spiritual and humanitarian largesse into Africa from Western churches. What the renewed interest in Africa points to is an interest in the renewal and social reconstruction of, and, indeed, the resurrection of the social sphere in Africa. But that is where I find myself deeply concerned about not only the excessive optimism that drives many of the programs for renewal in Africa, but more specifically by their inability to address one of the most urgent problems in Africa today. The most urgent problem facing Africa is the reality of violence and the fact that Christianity itself has been drawn into the unfolding drama of violence in Africa. Accordingly, any meaningful mission in Africa cannot begin with a consideration of programs, mobilization and numbers, but with the humble realization that the church has been and remains deeply connected to violence in Africa. Given this fact, how can we think about reconstruction, social renewal, or indeed resurrection in Africa? This is the question that must be at the heart of every church planning or humanitarian mission in Africa. For, when it comes to Christianity and Mission, Africa is not a tabula rasa, a virgin missionary territory waiting to be discovered and onto which new, powerful, well thought out plans and programs can be written ab initio. The gospel is not new to the continent. Africa has already had a Christian past. Remembering this past, lamenting this painful past, owning it, and critically searching for a more hopeful future out of it, is what Christian reconstruction in Africa should be about.
In this essay I would like to map out this alternative starting point of mission, grounded in memory and lament, and committed to find ways of interrupting the social history in which violence seems to be increasingly accepted as inevitable and part of the normal way of things.
1. Rwanda 1994: An Easter week of Bodies
A Christian discussion about mission in Africa begins with the humble and painful realization that the church has been and remains deeply connected to the performance of violence in Africa. That is why 1994 Rwanda offers a natural and productive starting point in thinking about social reconstruction and renewal in Africa. In fact, every time I think about resurrection of the social body in Africa, I think about Easter of 1994. In 1994, within a period of less than a hundred days, close to 1 million Rwandans were killed by their countrymen and women. What makes this event particularly chilling for Christian reflection on peace is not simply the fact that Rwanda was and still is a predominantly Christian County – with over 90% of Rwandans claiming to be Christians. This in itself is a chilling fact, but the fact that church personnel were actively involved in the genocide is even more frightening. For as Longman notes:
Church personnel and institutions were actively involved in the program of resistance to popular pressures for political reform that culminated in the 1994 genocide, and numerous priests, pastors, nuns, brothers, catechists and Catholic and Protestant lay leaders supported, participated in, or helped to organize the killings…. In most communities members of a church parish killed their fellow parishioners and even, in a number of cases, their own pastor or priests. (Longman, “Christian Churches and Genocide, 140)
The story of the Rwandan genocide becomes more unsettling when one realizes that the notorious events of those 100 days of murder began during the Christian Easter season. April 3rd 1994 was Easter Sunday. Rwandan Christians joined Christians everywhere to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. On the evening of April 6th, President Habyar’Imana’s plane was shot down as he returned from a meeting in Tanzania.
Throughout that Easter Octave (the whole week is but one Easter Day), and for the next 100 days, all one saw in Rwanda were mutilated bodies. What irony that the celebration of the Risen and Glorified body of Christ, as “…the first born from the dead;” “the one who has torn down the wall of separation…”, thus creating out of a people who once lived as enemies a reconciled community “in whom there is no more Greek or Jew, male or female…” should simultaneously be marked by the butchering of Christians by other Christians in the name of being Hutu or Tutsi!
2. Lament: On refusing to be Consoled
Christian social ethics in Africa must begin with this historical and deeply painful memory. To do so, is to begin where the Gospel of Matthew begins, in lament. After Herod had ordered the slaying of the innocent children, Matthew simply notes, that the words of the prophet Jeremiah were fulfilled:
A cry is heard in Ramah
Wailing, bitter weeping
Rachel, weeping for her children
She refuses to be consoled,
For her children , who are not (Jer 31:15)
Beginning with the memory of 1994 not only allows lament of the many innocent Rwandans killed, it also allows Christians to lament the violence that Christianity has unwittingly performed in Africa. For what the ironic contradictions of Rwanda 1994 helped to reveal is the fact that genocide was not an event that happened outside the peaceful ways and message of Christianity. The genocide happened at the very heart of a Christian story in Rwanda. Thus lament allows Christians to begin to own the story of Christianity in Rwanda as not only the story of Easter, but also the story of an endless Passion, of a never ending Good Friday. Moreover, the more one reflects on this fact, the more one realizes that Rwanda 1994 is, in the words of Mahmood Mamdani, but a “metaphor for post-colonial political violence” (Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers, p. xi) The Rwanda Genocide might have been an extreme, but not a unique or exceptional performance of violence within Christian Africa.
That is why, like Rachel in Jeremiah, a Christian social reflection on Africa, indeed any programs for social renewal, must resist an easy consolation that would distance the 1994 genocide and label it as unique; the peculiar story of a distant, far removed, tragically beautiful country. It is not. It is our Christian story.
Grounding a Christian social reflection in a notion and discipline of lament also helps us to name and thus resist other consolations, like the too often sunny projection of the growth of Christianity in the South. Whereas there is no doubt that the number of Christians in Africa is growing and that the future of Christianity might actually lie in Africa and the South, I do not find these projections of the growth of Christianity in Africa in and of themselves consoling. For before the genocide of 1994, missiologists were writing self-congratulatory essays and newsletters about the growth of the Church in Rwanda, and about Rwanda as a model of ‘successful’ mission and church planting
One must also resist the consolation of those well designed programs, heavy on numbers, Western dollars, and mobilization, that seek to move on too quickly towards reconstruction without attending to the past. Rick Warren’s program to transform Rwanda into a ‘purpose driven nation’ (Purpose Driven in Rwanda, Christianity Today, October 2005, 32-7) seems to suffer from this danger. The well renowned author of The Purpose Driven Life and pastor of the influential Saddleback Church in California has designed a comprehensive plan to transform Rwanda. He calls it the PEACE program, which stands for: Plant churches; Equip Leaders; Assist the Poor; Care for the Sick; Educate the next generation (p. 35). To be sure, there is much that is fresh in Rick’s vision. It is refreshing to find within the tenets of the PEACE program the directive that the program itself is to be spearheaded by lay mission teams from Warren’s Saddleback Church. We find here critical evidence that Evangelical Christians are moving beyond the traditional focus on saving souls and are connecting the message of the Gospel to issues of justice, education, and the physical needs of the poor.
The problem (one of many) is that such an attempt to provide a quick fix for Rwanda does not sufficiently own or deal with the past. Thus, Warren’s advice to the pastors: “if the devil gives you problems about your past, remind him of his future,” (91) falls far short of the desperate need for Rwanda and all Christians to recognize the role they played in the story of genocide. However, Rick Warren is not alone in this desire for a quick fix. A similar posture of ‘reconstruction without memory’ characterizes many forms of Christian mission/NGOs who genuinely seek to make a difference in Africa. In this way, one does not face the fact that the Christian story and mission might be part of the problem. By not owning and engaging the past as part of the Christian story, one might easily think that Christian mission only brings to Africa the Good News, Easter, and Resurrection.
Cultivating a discipline of lament is thus a way to re-establish a link between the hope for the future and the memory of a painful past, a past which Christians must learn to name as ‘our’ past and whose pain we can claim as ‘our’ pain not simply because we are its victims, but its perpetrators. Lament thus cultivates the anger necessary to see that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way the Christian story has been easily conscripted in the performance of violence. It is thus through lament that one may begin to appreciate the extent to which violence has become a seductive temptation and a powerful spell for Christians. In other words, cultivating a discipline of lament helps Christians to face Paul’s angry rebuke to the Galatian Christians: “You stupid Galatians, after you have had the picture of Christ crucified right before your eyes the ‘Who has cast a spell over you?” (Gal 3:1)
3. Who has cast a spell over you? Violence as inevitable.
Whereas the particular circumstances that evoked Paul’s rebuke of the Galatians might be different from the situation of African Christians, the fact that Paul refers to their betrayal of the Gospel as a ‘spell’ is quite provocative and has implications for Christianity in Africa. For spells are not easy to discern. It is hard enough to know that one is living under a spell, let alone to discern the particular type of spell. And yet such knowledge is necessary if one is to have any hope in overcoming or exorcising the spell. What this means in terms of the challenges and task of Christian social reconstruction in Africa is that such mission cannot be driven by a prescriptive agenda (offering programs, guidelines and an agenda of what the church should do), but must be, first and foremost, about description- which is to say about naming both analytically and descriptively, the spell(s) that have led African Christians to assume the inevitability of violence in securing or maintaining the social order.
That by 1994 violence had come to be assumed as ‘inevitable’ by Rwandan Christians requires no elaborate argument. For how else can one explain the willingness by which Christians slaughtered other Christians; priests betrayed their parishioners; parishioners killed their priests; husbands betrayed their wives and wives betrayed their husbands and children? Nevertheless, it might still be useful to highlight this fact through an example.
Augustine Misago is the Catholic bishop of Gikongoro, in South West Rwanda. When the killing started, a number of Christians took refuge at his Cathedral. At first, they were very well taken care of. When the killings intensified, Bishop Misago, together with the local leaders, requested the refugees to leave the church compound and instead gather at a nearby school compound, where they would presumably get better protection. As it turned out, they were just handed over into the hands of the Intarahamwe militia. In all, around 8000 people were killed at the school in Gikongoro.
After the genocide, survivors accused Bishop Misago of collaborating with the militia in organizing the massacre. He was imprisoned for two years, and has since been released for lack of evidence. He is back to his duties as bishop.
My reason for telling the story of Misago here is not to determine his innocence or participation in the genocide. It is to highlight his response when asked about the Tutsi school children who were massacred at Kibeho, a school run by the diocese, and why he had failed to use his influence as a bishop to protect them.
“What could I do? … I do not have an army. What could I do by myself, Nothing. That is elementary logic…. When men become like devils, and you don’t have any army, what can you do? “(Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform you that Tomorrow, 138-139)
Misago’s statement appears genuine because it points to the ‘realism’ through which many of us have come to assume violence as inevitable – and perhaps as part of the normal way we expect societies to operate. However, what Misago’s apparent ‘helplessness’ points to are the limits of the Christian imagination. That, in fact, is why Misago’s response is very instructive. In making reference to the army and his lack thereof, he rightly points to an institution of modern nation-state politics through which the domestication of the Christian imagination takes place.
A number of points are significant here: First, that politics and imagination belong together, and that what is going on in politics is the shaping of a particular imagination. For as Bill Cavanaugh rightly notes:
“How does a provincial farm boy become persuaded that he must travel as a soldier to another part of the world and kill people he knows nothing about? He must be convinced of the reality of boarders, and imagine himself deeply, mystically, united to a wider national community that abruptly stops at the boarder.” (Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination, 1).
Secondly, the shaping of the political imagination does not take place in isolation but through the key institutions of nation-state politics: the army, the police, schools, the market or shopping malls etc. Thirdly, by locating her mission neatly within the framework of nation-state politics, Christianity allows her own imagination to be shaped, determined and domesticated by the dominant political imagination. Lest this sound both abstract and overly theoretical, let me explore these claims in relation to Africa, with a particular reference to Rwanda.
4. Politics and the Imagination of Violence: the church and nation-building
One key lesson I learned from Anthony Gidden’s, Nation State and Violence, is that modern nation-states are built on an imagination of violence and the threat of war, an external threat of war. Where African nation-states might be different from their Western counterparts is in the fact that unlike Western democracies, the imagined ‘enemies’ of the national project are not outside, but within nation-state boundaries. This difference itself has a lot to do with the colonial imagination of African societies and the way the category of ‘tribe’ and ‘tribalism’ was employed with the colonial regimes. The colonial policy of divide and rule not only required the existence of many tribes, which could be played off one against the other, but with the help of colonial anthropology and history, the imagined animosity, conflict and warfare between the ‘tribes’ could now be read back into the past as what has always prevailed in Africa before the coming of Western civilizers. Given this age-old animosity between tribes, this perpetual warfare, colonialism and its successor institution of nation state could happily announce itself as the ‘salvation’ whose chief task was to ‘pacify the tribes’ or help African societies to move from this barbaric state of warfare to the civilization of modern nations.
True, there were variations in how the story of ‘perpetual warfare’ was used by the colonial regimes to shape the politics of various nations. In the case of Rwanda for instance, Hutu and Tutsi categories, which pre-existed colonialism and operated as complex social, political, and economic relations of a fluid nature were read as fixed identities of ‘race’. With the use of a powerful mythology, the two races were described (and with the help of science ‘confirmed’) not only to be radically different in capabilities, but in their origins – and thus, always in perpetual struggle and conflict between the (Tutsi) non-indigenous/conqueror on the one hand, and the (Hutu) native/subjugated on the other. It is this mythology and the attendant view of the Tutsi as inherently superior that guided the colonial reforms of the 1920s, and thus served the bases of modern Rwanda. While the 1959 Hutu Revolution was able to turn the world designed by the Belgian colonialists upside down – and thus transfer power from the Tutsi elite into the hands of the Hutu elite, it never questioned the underlying imagination of Hutu and Tutsi as racially different and as ‘always at war with one another’. Thus, throughout the Independence period, including the so called ‘peaceful’ times of Habyar’Imaana’s Second Republic, the imagination of perpetual warfare between Hutu and Tutsi served as the foundation of Independent Rwanda, and expressed itself now and again in periodic outbursts of violence.
During this time the church in Rwanda, the Catholic Church in particular, grew in numbers, in strength and power, and became fully incorporated in the nation-state project. True, the church adopted different postures within this project. It encouraged Christian conversion; it built schools and hospitals; it called for and supported development, and even periodically spoke out against government excesses and made appeals for more democratization. Throughout, however, her self-understanding was neatly located within the nation-state project.
Having nicely located its work and self-understanding within this powerful narrative and having invested deeply in the project of building the nation, the church lost any skills of discerning the spell that the mythology of ‘perpetual warfare’ was casting over Rwanda. When the politics of the day called for revolution, the church went along and became part of the so called revolution; when it called for development, the church put her support behind it; when it called for popular democracy, and when it called for the ‘final elimination’ of the enemy, the church readily obliged. By then, it had lost any skills to name the spell within nation-state politics, and the will to say NO or to imagine alternatives to violence.
The claim I am making by telling the story of Rwanda is not simply that violence and conflict is part of the story of nations. I am making the stronger claim that for Christians, ‘nation-building,’ is a spell, a dangerous spell precisely because we do not recognize it as such. Lamenting over events like the 1994 genocide in Rwanda helps Christians to face the truth of that realization. It also forces them into a humble search for hopeful alternatives. Given the story of nations that Rwanda nicely exemplifies, the alternatives in question will have to come by way of skills and postures by which Christians can learn to interrupt the imagination of violence. But that in itself calls for nothing short of re-imagining the church’s role and posture within nation-state politics. In this respect, Christians have a lot to learn from the Muslim community in Rwanda.
5. Interrupting Violence
Contrary to the mass participation of Christians in the Rwanda Genocide of 1994, one community that was able to provide a bulwark against barbarity for its adherents was the Muslim community on the outskirts of Kigali.
There are many testimonies to the protection that members of the Muslim community gave each other, and their refusal to divide themselves ethnically. This solidarity comes from the fact that ‘being Muslim’ in Rwanda, where Muslims are a very small (0.2%) proportion of the population, is not simply a choice dictated by religion: it is a global identity choice. Muslims are often marginal people and this reinforces a strong sense of community identification which supersedes ethnic tags, something the majority Christians have not been able to achieve (Prunier, The Rwanda Crisis, 253).
What is striking about this example is not the fact that this was a Muslim community, but also the name of the village where this community is located: Nyamirambo. In Kinyarwanda Nyamirambo means a place of dead bodies. It is not clear to me why the place was given this name, but given its surroundings, it is not hard to imagine this dirty slum on the outskirts of Kigali near the central prison as a place that might have been viewed by many as a mortuary – a place of violent crime and lawlessness. Yet it is here, in the place of death, that the minority Muslim community found a home at the margins of Rwandan social, political, and economic life. And, it is here that they were able to provide an alternative to barbarity and violence of Easter Week. It was here – and not within the Christian churches – that the true sense of Resurrection came to be embodied.
What made it possible for the Muslim community of Nyamirambo to resist the barbarity of tribalism? Prunier recommends that it had something to do with their being a ‘minority’. They understood themselves as living at the margins of the dominant political culture. If this posed some challenges to them, as I am sure it did, it also gave them opportunities and possibilities that were not available to Christians. Among other things, their marginal existence meant that they did not assume that it was their responsibility to make Rwanda work. This is also what gave them the possibility of discovering ways and an identity that defied the dominant self-understanding of being Hutu or Tutsi.
Conclusion: the Resurrection of the Body (Politic)
But what has all this to do with Christian social reconstruction and renewal in Africa? A great deal. First, it shows the urgency of dealing with the issue of violence in Africa as part of the crucial task of social reconstruction. Unless the various programs and agencies interested in the social renewal of Africa face this issue, they may easily find their program thwarted and even conscripted within this enduring legacy of violence. Secondly, our theoretical exploration confirms that the genocide was not an isolated expression of violence but reflects the assumptions of violence and conflict that are at the heart of nation-state politics. Accordingly, any programs for renewal, be they efforts to end poverty or to fight AIDS, will always somehow fall short of the requirements for renewal, unless these programs are able to confront the underlying issues of the political imagination that shapes African societies. Thirdly, our analyses also reveals the extent to which Christianity itself has been unwittingly drawn into the imagination and performance of Africa, and unless this fact is confronted, any Christian initiatives and programs for renewal in Africa will not only remain shallow, they might just be a form of activist consolation.
Lastly, if the mass participation of Christians in the Rwanda genocide during Easter provides an opportunity for lament, the example of the Muslim community of Nyamirambo offers a glimpse of a deeper sense of Easter- namely the resurrection of the body (politic) amidst an ongoing social history of violence. The lessons from this case are numerous. Among others, the most urgent task facing Christian agencies in Africa is not humanitarian intervention, but community building. Moreover, the task is not simply one of church planting, but of building up local ecclesial communities characterized by disciplines of memory and lament. This task is not a short term or parachute mission, it requires a long term, in fact, a lifelong commitment to and presence in a place, a village, or community. Such presence may of course not seem spectacular or newsworthy, but it has the enduring power of witnessing to an alternative of peaceful presence – an alternative that is able to interrupt, through its exemplary ordinariness, the ongoing performance of violence. This is the kind of presence, the kind of resurrection, and the kind of interruption that the life of Toni Lacotelli bears witness to, and calls Christian mission into.
Across the Nyabalongo River to the South East Kigali lies the small town of Nyamata, with a Catholic parish that was run by Belgian missionaries. During the genocide of 1994, UN forces forced their way through the militia blockades and airlifted the three Belgian priests and a nun out of the violence. Immediately afterwards, the militia descended on the people who had taken refuge in the church compound and killed everyone. Over 10, 000 people in all. One can still see the bullet holes and the blood on the ceiling in the church, as well as the mass graves to the back of the church. The most telling – and ironically- perhaps only hopeful sign about this place is the sole grave to the side of the church. It is the grave of an Italian social worker, Toni Locatelli, who had lived at Nyamata for over 20 years. When the RPF invaded Rwanda in 1990, systematic killings of Tutsis started around Nyamata. Lacotelli protested to the local police and alerted the international media about the sporadic but systematic killings that were going on around Nyamata. As a result, the international media descended on Nyamata and reported the killings. In 1992, the police commander, angered by the presence of the international media, shot Tonia Locatelli. When I think about the challenges of social reconstruction – of resurrection in a place like Nyamata, I cannot but think about Toni Lacatelli and the interruption that her life, her presence, her life-long commitment to Nyamata, and her death embodies.
Paul had preached to the Galatians a message of grace and of freedom made possible through God’s new creation (Gal (6:15). Shortly after his departure from Galatia, some Jewish Christians arrived teaching the Gentile Christians that they were obliged to observe the full requirement of the Mosaic law, including the requirement of circumcision (5:2); the keeping of the Jewish dietary laws (2:11-14) etc. Paul writes this angry letter in which he exposes the lies behind the claims of the Judaizers in order to bring back the Galatians to the original gospel.
Cavanaugh, T William, Theopolitical Imagination: Discovering the Liturgy as a Political Act in an Age of Global Consumerism (At&T Clark, London 2002).
Giddens Anthony, The Nation-State and Violence (University of California Press, 1987).
Gourevitch, Philip, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow we will be Killed Together with our Families ( Picador, New York, 1998).
Longman Timothy, Christian Churches and Genocide in Rwanda,” in In God’s Name: Genocide and Religion in the 2oth Century. Ed. Omer Bartov & Phyllis Mack (New York, Bergham Books, 2001), 139-179
Mamdani Muhamood, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism and Genocide in Rwanda (Princeton, 2001).
Prunier, Gerard, The Rwanda Crisis (Columbia University Press, 1995)
Warren Rick, The Purpose Driven Life (Zondervan, 2002).