The Deafening Silence

I remember my first visit to Rwanda after the 1994 genocide. It was July 1998. As the small plane started its descent onto the Gregoire Kayibanda International Airport to end the short flight from Entebbe, I thought of the events of 1994. I recalled that it must have been around this same time, 7:30 in the evening, when the plane carrying President Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down somewhere around here as he returned from Arusha. It was this event that set in motion the series of events that resulted in the slaughter of over 800,000 Rwandans in less than a hundred days.1

I stepped from the plane into the cool air of the evening and followed the line of the other passengers as we walked to the terminal building. We walked in silence. Inside the small terminal, the passport control officer checked my passport. He stamped it and handed it back to me without saying anything. I stepped out of the terminal building and immediately recognized the van with the Novatel logo. As I approached the van, the driver welcomed me, took my bag, and opened the door for me to get in. He started the van, and as we pulled out, he asked me where I was from. I told him I was from Uganda. He wanted to know how things were in Uganda. I, in turn, asked him how things were in Rwanda. He told me things were better. I tried to strike up a conversation that went beyond this initial Q&A exchange but could not go very far. He apologized because his English was not good. I apologized because I did not know Kinyarwanda. As we drove in silence I blamed myself for not knowing enough Kinyarwanda, especially because my parents were born and raised in Rwanda; I also blamed myself for not having learned enough French during the six years that I studied in Belgium. We drove on in silence to the hotel.

Over the next three days, as I visited different historical places and genocide sites in Rwanda, I was glad to have Joseph, my guide and translator, along to show me different places, to explain the history of Rwanda, and to introduce me to the social, historical, and cultural complexities of Rwanda. But even though Joseph’s presence allowed me to interact with many people, there was still a silence in and about Rwanda that was striking.

The silence took many forms. First, everywhere we went people were generally quiet and reserved. There was not the usual boisterous interaction that one often finds in African villages and towns. Even the visible presence and proximity to and with one another seemed to be characterized by a sense of distance and aloofness. Second, even as people shared their stories of survival or their memories of “those days,” there was always a point at which they just fell silent—often in the middle of a story. And third, as I visited these places and talked to different people, I had a feeling of being silently watched, examined, and interrogated. It was as if the entire land was enveloped in this mysterious silence that affected, infected, and defined every interaction and every communication. At times, the silence was almost deafening.

That was 1998. I had gone to Rwanda as a researcher and a scholar. I have since returned to Rwanda on numerous occasions, but not as a researcher-scholar. Instead, since 2004 I have been organizing and leading pilgrimages of pain and hope to Rwanda, and although the silence there has continued to strike me as particularly acute, it has taken on a deeper significance. For one, I have come to see that the silence is not so much a failure to communicate due to linguistic limitations; nor is it the silence of one trying to guard or hold onto a delicate secret. But rather, those moments of silence reflect deep lament; they are holy moments of grace.

As a scholar I had been scared by the silence, but as a pilgrim I now approach the silence with sacred awe. Like Moses before the burning bush, I feel myself both invited and yet cautioned about stepping too callously within the holy presence of the burning bush of silence. As a scholar, I had been intent on blasting through Rwanda and Rwanda’s history, looking for explanations and searching for answers, lessons, and solutions. I now see the need to take off my sandals, take a seat, and slow down my quest for explanations, my preoccupation with models, programs, and initiatives for successful mission and reconstruction.

As a pilgrim, as I have been invited to sit in the silence, I have found myself wondering with the psalmist about a very uncertain future: “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Ps. 11:3 ESV). The silence allowed me to see the depth of the pain in Rwanda. Where I previously engaged Rwanda from the outside, as but another case of tragic history, I now began to identify with the pain as my own. As I did this, I was moved to tears and learned to cry with and on behalf of Rwanda:

 You shall say to them this word:

“Let my eyes run down with tears night and day,
and let them not cease,
for the virgin daughter of my people
is shattered with a great wound,
with a very grievous blow. . . .
For thus says the LORD: Your hurt is incurable,
and your wound is grievous. (Jer. 14:17 and 30:12)

The Resounding Success of Rwanda

The more I became a pilgrim into Rwanda’s pain, the more I began to be bothered by the noise that tried to cover up its silence. Where before it was the silence in Rwanda that had bothered me, now it is the noise of, from, and about Rwanda that bothers me. Everywhere I turn, so it seems, there is as a story, an article, an essay, a film, or a book that describes the amazing transformation of Rwanda. There are so many descriptions of the programs, initiatives, and impressive stories of forgiveness and reconciliation that are helping to make Rwanda a success story:

  • Airports are filled with investors making their way to Rwanda to set up micro credit, finance, and telecommunications businesses.
  • All mission roads seem to be leading to Rwanda—churches are sending mission teams in droves to Rwanda, including Rick Warren and his Saddleback-based PEACE program which continues to attract a lot of attention.
  • New ultramodern shopping malls are opening in Kigali that offer twenty-four-hour shopping, ATMs, and Western-style bookstores and coffee shops, and new affluent neighborhoods, like that of Nyarutarama, are being developed.
  • President Paul Kagame seeks to make Rwanda the IT hub of the East African region. Kagame’s extraordinary leadership is behind much of the energy and optimism in Rwanda. Unlike many African leaders, Kagame’s leadership is an example of disciplined focus with zero tolerance for corruption and a mixture of social engineering and innovative social entrepreneurship. Indeed, he has developed a vision of 2020 that particularly emphasizes IT, health insurance, community-based development, and agricultural diversification.

The combined effect of all these developments seem to confirm that fifteen years after the genocide, a new future in Rwanda is already here. The silence of genocide has been transformed into a resounding cacophony of success.

The image of the new Rwanda and this sense of resounding success was brought home to me this past July in Kigali as I attended the concert to mark the end of the nationally instituted one hundred days of mourning. Amahoro Stadium was packed with youthful Rwandans. They swayed, their hands in the air as they sang along with Andrew Palau’s band, which blasted loud Christian music—from “Amazing Grace” to “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.”

We love such celebrations and other stories of success out of Rwanda because they relieve us from the need to engage the silence of genocide. By this silence I do not only mean the silence of Western betrayal during the 1994 genocide, but also the silence of post-genocide Rwanda, a silence that keeps inviting us into its painful but mysterious grace. Entering this space of silence and lament requires us to learn to be pilgrims and not to be either bystanders or agents of salvation. We are afraid to be pilgrims, because we do not know how to enter the silence of our own pain, betrayal, and destruction. We keep hoping that there might be a program, a set of skills and mechanisms—justice, reconciliation, forgiveness—that might transport us into a new future of restoration without the need to sit in and within the silence of lament. And the more we look for such mechanisms, the more we skirt around the need and role of the church. That is why our fascination with the language of reconciliation, forgiveness, and justice in Rwanda ironically both obscures and marginalizes the necessary theological and ecclesiological nature of the church—as a community born in and within the silence of lament. But without such communities and the rich danger of practices that constitute their liturgical life, we face the constant danger of “dealing lightly with the wounds” of God’s people, of announcing peace and a new future where no such future exists (Jer. 6:14).

Discerning the Silence

In the midst of all this success the silence is still there, only now it is more difficult to see, hear, or discern. As we drove from Kigali to Goma during my last visit to Rwanda, Violette, our Rwandan partner with the Great Lakes Initiative, explained to us the hopes of President Kagame’s 2020 vision to transform Rwanda into a modern and self-sufficient economy. At one point in the conversation I asked Violette how the people, especially in the rural areas, were responding to Kagame’s vision, particularly Kagame’s optimism reflected in a phrase that the president often repeats: “Rwandans do not have to walk; we can run.”

Many people are simply overwhelmed, Violette confirmed. It is a lot of change, and it is coming much too fast. However, she went on, this is not our major problem. The greatest problem of this country, she said, is silence. Many people feel that their story has no place in Rwanda, she explained. They follow the government policies, they gather at rallies and sing the government slogans, but they are keeping a distance from everything.

I found Violette’s remarks quite telling, so I engaged her further around the issue of silence and why she thought this was a major problem in Rwanda. “Genocide destroyed us,” she said. “You see the people who killed during the genocide. . . . Many killed not out of hatred—they loved their neighbors whom they killed. Many killed because of fear. Many were led to believe that their own lives were at stake. The heightened propaganda succeeded in bringing many people to a state of hysterical fear: ‘kill or be killed.’ As a result, generally peaceful neighbors killed their neighbors. Christians killed Christians; others killed members of their own families. It is as if a beast that no one suspected lurked within these ordinarily peaceful people and it was all of sudden let loose.”

And then she continued, “The genocide has thrown all of us now, even those of us who never participated in it, into an identity crisis. I do not mean the identity crisis of whether I am Hutu or Tutsi—all of us in Rwanda are Hutsi, both Hutu and Tutsi.” The identity crisis that Violette meant had to do with a sense of uncertainty about one’s identity. “We had always thought of ourselves as good, decent, and peace-loving individuals,” she said. “Now I keep asking myself: ‘Who am I? Can I trust myself to be a decent, good human being? Or is there a beast within me that will one day take over and lead me into the sort of madness that we witnessed during the genocide?’ I find that I cannot fully trust myself, even less my neighbor. I must now live with this permanent cloud of uncertainty.”

“The genocide destroyed that sense of trust in us,” she concluded. And then she added, “it also destroyed something about the sacredness of life.” She shared with us the story of a young girl who, with her mother, had watched many people being killed during the genocide. She later said to her mother, “Mama, I thought that human beings were different. But they are like cows. For I saw that when people were cut down, they fell down just like cows. They are not different!”

I reconstruct this conversation with Violette because it helps to confirm the silence that is an inevitable mark of post-genocide Rwanda. It also shows how this silence is not an empty silence but a silence that bubbles with a lot of unanswered questions about the meaning, dignity, and sacredness of the human person. Who am I? What does it mean to be a human being? Are we indeed different from cows? Is it true that we are created in the image of God? What does that mean? Is that true for the killers as well? Who is my neighbor, and what does it mean to be a neighbor? Whom can I trust?

These questions relate to the very foundation of what it means to be human. Although many of us take these questions for granted, they are the basis upon which our social interactions, religious beliefs and expressions, and our ethical convictions and principles are built. These are the foundations that have been shaken, even destroyed, by the genocide experience. This is what makes it impossible to talk meaningfully about peace, reconciliation, justice, and truth in the wake of genocide. In other words, in the wake of genocide we cannot expect forgiveness, justice, and reconciliation to bear the burden of carrying us from the silence that genocide brings us, into the sunny promises of a new future that we desperately long for. To put the argument more pointedly, there can be no forgiveness, no justice, no reconciliation in the wake of genocide, because the very foundations upon which these notions are built are destroyed by the experience of genocide.2

Lament and Restoration: The Church in the Valley of Dry Bones

Genocide brings us to the end of words, and the only language at the end of words is the language of lament. It is the church’s unique calling and gift to live into and invite others into this space of silence and lament in a way that can be hopeful, which is to say, a way that leads neither to self-destructive nihilism nor total isolation but a way that leads to a hope for healing and restoration. To do this, the church must learn from the prophet Ezekiel what it means to stand in the valley of dry bones:

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off. Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’” (Ezek. 37:1–14)

A brief bio on Ezekiel provides a good profile of why the church, what kind of church, and how the church is best suited to engage the silence of Rwanda. A priest (in Jerusalem) turned prophet, Ezekiel was carried into exile in 597 BC where he prophesied in exile to fellow exiles. More than any other biblical prophet, Ezekiel was given to symbolic actions, strange visions, and trances. He eats the scroll on which words of prophecy are written; he lies down for an extended period. He took the potter’s flask and smashed it (to symbolize Israel’s being scattered). He lost his wife during the ninth year of exile; he was struck dumb for an unspecified amount of time. And he is brought to the valley of dry bones. That Ezekiel was given to symbolic actions, visions, and trances indicates that the language of the church in a post-genocide time is a language of symbols, parables, and sacraments.

Ezekiel shows that prophecy is born of silence. The same Ezekiel who was struck dumb is now the one who is brought to the valley of dry bones. This is of course the valley of death, of silence. Ezekiel must first stand in silence, and then he is ordered to prophesy. The church of Ezekiel is a church that is both invited into silence and yet is also ordered to prophesy. That Ezekiel was able to live in this call of silence and prophesy might be partly due to his double identity as priest and prophet.

Ezekiel also beholds his own death. The prophet exists as the embodiment of the history, suffering, despair, and hope of his people. This partly explains a number of the symbolic actions of the prophet—he is carried into exile; he lies down (symbolizing the death of his people); his wife dies in exile. And the valley of dry bones in which Ezekiel is forced to stand is the valley of his own and his people’s death.

When Ezekiel is asked whether the bones could live, his honest answer is “I am not sure, for they look pretty dead to me.” There is an awareness in Ezekiel’s response that he has come to the limits of his own calling, to the end of ministry. In his repertoire of prophetic and priestly tools, he has no trick, no magic, no word, no formula that could bring about restoration. That is when he is asked—nay commanded—to prophesy.

The nature of Ezekiel’s prophecy is significant. He is commanded to “prophesy to the breath,” which is to say, to summon the wind from the four corners, “to breathe on these slain so that they may live” (Ezek. 37:9). Just as the act of creation in Genesis begins with the wind—the ruah hovering over the formless void (Gen. 1:1) and God’s breath into Adam (Gen. 2:7)—these images in Ezekiel represent the creation (re-creation) underway in the valley of dry bones. Ezekiel’s role in the drama of the valley of death is to summon (invite) the spirit of God’s creation. Then, just as Ezekiel prophesied, there is a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones begin to come together. The restoration comes as a gift from God: “When I open your graves and make you come from them, then you will know that I am the Lord.”

All these elements in the story of Ezekiel point to the critical role of the church and, more specifically, to the practice of worship as the space and place through which the silence arising out of genocide might be engaged in a way that calls forth or summons God’s re-creating spirit within the dry bones. For it is in worship that we not only hear together the story of Ezekiel but also learn to live into its reality. In worship we are brought to silence as we are invited—nay forced—to look into and admit our brokenness and the brokenness of our communities. And in this way we seek God’s mercy and healing.

But in worship we are also invited to shout aloud and sing God’s praises. So in worship we are able to both sit in silence and shout out loud; it is in worship that we are alone and yet together with others in the valley of death; it is in worship that we relieve the past in a way that is already taken up in God’s future; it is in worship that we proclaim that Christ has died and is risen, which is to say that it is in worship that both lament and trust, pain and hope, and the crucifixion and the resurrection come together in a way that breathes new life into our own valley of dry bones. And yet, this is not to say that worship is the trick, the formula that carries us from the valley to the sunny promise of resurrection. For this happens as a gift.

As we come before and in the presence of Christ who is both priest and prophet, as we sing together psalms of our desperation and shattered hopes, and as we celebrate the supper of the lamb who was slain, but now is risen and who invites us to receive him at his banquet, we discover that somehow we have been re-membered, reconstituted, and even reconciled to enemies. As we participate in these practices and movements called worship, we discover that somehow our identity as children of God has been reaffirmed. As we grasp this gift, we discover that we have somehow already received the grace of forgiveness.

I say somehow because forgiveness is not a card that victims hold and which they can pass out at the appropriate time or to deserving perpetrators. Instead, it is more of a gift that we receive and invite others into. But I also say somehow because this gift is never complete; it is never total. This gift is an ongoing journey. And so, through worship, one learns to speak about it in terms of signs. But the fact that forgiveness is never complete does not make the signs any less real. Worship trains us to recognize these signs as sacraments, as real, visible, concrete expressions of something deeper. That is why the space of worship is also the space of parables. If worship invites us into the space and place of lament, it also invites us into a journey of hope, which in and through that same practice we begin to experience as real.

To be honest, I do not know how the notions of justice, reconciliation, forgiveness, and even truth might look for the young girl in Violette’s story in the absence of a sacramentally rich worshipping community. For the time of Rwanda, like the time of Ezekiel, is a time that calls for a space and place for lament. Such a space, as the life of Ezekiel shows, is a place for silence and tears, a place for prophecy. It is a space for summoning God’s re-creating spirit, a time and space for signs and symbols and for hope and visions of restoration. In the absence of such a space for lament and restoration, it seems to be asking too much for a notion (e.g., justice, reconciliation, or forgiveness), or for that matter, a program like the Gacaca courts, to bear the burden of carrying Rwandans from the valley of death to the promise of a new future. But that is what makes the church, even a deeply wounded church like the Rwandan church, a unique gift and presence. Through worship, the church is able to invoke and re-present God’s healing and re-creating spirit in a way that the notions of justice, forgiveness, and reconciliation by themselves are not able to do. Another way to make this conclusion is to note that the church’s worship is the unique context, space, and practice through which the gifts of healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation are received and embraced. And this is true not only in the wake of genocide and other traumatic events but also in everyday situations when we find that we have come to the end of words.


1. This essay is adapted from a talk that was first presented at The Other Journal’s Faith, Film, Justice Forum in Seattle, Washington, on October 16–18, 2009.

2. This is the issue that Simon Wiesenthal wrestles with in The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, Rev Exp Su edition (New York, NY: Schocken, 1998). While imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, Wiesenthal was taken one day to the bedside of a dying member of the SS. Haunted by the crimes in which he had participated, the soldier wanted to confess to—and obtain absolution from—a Jew. Faced with the choice between compassion and justice, silence and truth, Wiesenthal said nothing. But years later he still wondered whether he had done the right thing.