A Vision of Embrace: Theological Perspectives on Cultural Identity and Conflict

By Volf, Miroslav | The Ecumenical Review, April 1995 | Go to article overview

A Vision of Embrace: Theological Perspectives on Cultural Identity and Conflict


Volf, Miroslav, The Ecumenical Review


A perfect her on earth

"There are no devils left in hell," the missionary said. "They are all in Rwanda." Rwanda -- people hunted down on the streets like animals and killed where they are caught; blood flowing down the aisles of churches made into the preferred places of massacre by a perverse inversion of symbolism; butchered bodies floating down the river -- on their way to Ethiopia, via the short-cut of the Nayaborongo River, where the hated Tutsi "intruders" came from. "The fighting was hand to hand," writes a reporter, "intimate and unspeakable, a kind of bloodlust that left those who managed to escape it hollow-eyed and mute."(1) In only three months a million were dead and more than twice as many driven out of their homes. The protagonists of the genocide were for the most part Christians!

In a sense, it would be less disturbing had the Rwandan genocide just erupted out of the atavistic depths of its protagonists' souls. But it did not. It was carefully orchestrated, a well-planned attempt at a "final solution".(2) If one asks what caused it, one gets the same answer as in the case of so many other ethnic wars. Alex de Waal writes:

The elements of the story can be sought in desperate land pressure in Rwanda,

in rural

poverty intensified by the collapse of international coffee prices and in the

determination of

a privileged coterie to retain their commanding positions in the government

and the army in

the face of political and economic "readjustment" of the state. These have

been fuel for the

fire. But what ignited the genocide is an extremist racial ideology, an

ideology that would

be laughable were it not so demonically powerful.(3)

Mix economic deprivation and lust for power, add to it racist ideology and let it simmer for a while, and you will get Rwanda of 1994 -- a perfect hell on earth.

"There are no devils left in hell; they are all in Rwanda." The words seem to paint just the right image to express the unfathomable. Yet if we leave the immediacy of the Rwandan brutalities and consider the larger world, we sense that the image is skewed on two important counts. First, not all devils are in Rwanda. If the missionary's words were not a cry of desperation, one might even be able to detect in them a tinge of clandestine racism: a little country in black Africa has sucked up all the black devils. But what about Bosnia? What about Nagorno-Karabagh? What about the fifty or so other spots around the globe -- Western countries included -- where violence has erupted between people who share the same terrain but differ in ethnicity, race, language or religion? No devils there? Without intending to diminish the horror of Rwanda's genocide, we must say that the devils of vicious ethnic strife are by no means all there. They are dispersed around the globe, sowing death and desolation, even if less vehemently than the devils of Rwanda.

The second way in which the missionary's comment on Rwanda is skewed is even more disturbing than the first. The global presence of devils notwithstanding, hell has by no means become an empty place. In the dark kingdom of evil potencies, fresh troops are being trained for new assignments. The signs of the coming woes are evident in disturbing developments of global proportions. Rapid population growth, diminishing resources, unemployment, migration to shanty-towns and lack of education are steadily increasing pressure along the many social fault-lines of our globe. Though we cannot predict exactly when and where the social quakes will occur and what their magnitude will be, we can be sure that the earth will shake.(4)

As the image of "fault-lines" suggests, clashes will take place along the boundary lines of social groups. Today, after the breakdown of a bipolar world, social tectonic plates are defined less by ideology than by culture. …

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