Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

The Pattern of This World: A Ugandan Catholic Priest, the Child of Rwandan Parents-One Hutu and the Other Tutsi-Explains How Missionary Christianity Helped Create the Divisions That Led to Genocide

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

The Pattern of This World: A Ugandan Catholic Priest, the Child of Rwandan Parents-One Hutu and the Other Tutsi-Explains How Missionary Christianity Helped Create the Divisions That Led to Genocide

Article excerpt

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If you read Christian mission journals and textbooks from the 1980s, Rwanda is often held up as a model of evangelization in Africa. Nowhere else on the continent was Christianity so well received. Church growth was unprecedented. Seminarians in the United States studied Rwanda, asking how they might use similar strategies elsewhere to share tile good news of Jesus Christ with those living in darkness.

Yet in 1994 an unimaginable darkness descended on Rwanda. The most Christianized Country in Africa became the site of its worst genocide. Christians killed other Christians, often in the same churches where they had worshiped together. Accordingly, this is not a story about something that happened to a strange people in a faraway place. It happened among the body of Christ, of which we are members. Rwanda is a lot closer to Rome and Washington, D.C., than most of us care to think.

The crisis of Western Christianity is reflected back to the church in the broken bodies of Rwanda. Indeed, the only hope for our world after Rwanda's genocide is a new kind of Christian identity for the global body of Christ. The church's mission is to be a new community that bears witness to the liter that in Christ there is a new identity--a unique people from "every tribe and language and people and nation" (Revelation 5:9).

I remember listening to BBC Radio during the genocide and hearing commentators talk about the Hutu and Tutsi "tribes." They lamented the fact that "ancient hatreds" had been reignited and "age-old animosities" had led to genocide. Europeans and Americans love to use the language of tribes when talking about Africa. Yet this language is unhelpful in understanding what is going on because it mystifies the reality of Africa.

FOR CENTURIES, the kingdom of Rwanda was organized under the leadership of a mwami, or king. The mwami and all of his subjects spoke a single language and shared common music, dance, food, and stories. Within the kingdom there were three groups of people: Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa. Though these groups came to represent an economic hierarchy, their origin was in a basic division of labor.

Under the mwami were three chiefs. The military chief could be either a Hutu or a Tutsi. The chief of pasture was usually a Tutsi, and the chief of agriculture was a Hutu. (The Twa, a small group, rarely held positions of power.) Like Cain and Abel in the biblical creation story, Hutu and Tutsi were brothers who divided the tasks of tilling the earth and tending the livestock. Because cows were the main symbol of wealth, the Tutsi, who were fewer in number, maintained a degree of economic power.

Social differences did exist between Hutu and Tutsi, but these were fluid categories denoting more of lineage and class distinctions. Though Tutsis tended to be wealthier and own cattle, a Hutu could trade produce for cattle and become Tutsi. Likewise, Tutsis could lose cattle or "marry down" and become Hutu. No violence involving Hutus-as-a-group vs. Tutsis-as-a-group is recorded in pre-colonial history.

When Europeans came to Rwanda during their so-called Age of Exploration in the 19th century, they brought the idea of race. Hutu and Tutsi, which had been a fluid system of complex relations, quickly turned into a set of simplistic racial categories that defined the Tutsi minority as superior and the Hutu majority as inferior. According to the story that the Europeans told, these two groups were "races" that had always existed. In time, the Tutsi race invaded the land of the Hutu and set up the complex civilization that Europeans found in the region. The same "science" that was used to justify slavery also measured nose width and calculated average height in order to demonstrate Tutsi superiority. All of this was nothing but European anthropology of the worst kind, which Western missionaries simply accepted.

FOLLOWING World War I, Rwanda came under the rule of Belgium. …

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