The Common Good
July-August 1999

Finding god in Rwanda

by Paul John Schadewald | July-August 1999

No easy answers in confronting evil.

During the spring and summer of 1994, Hutu militants organized the murder of more than 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda. Ordinary Hutus, under government directives, killed their Tutsi neighbors with machetes, spears, and clubs. Despite pledges to prevent another Holocaust, Western leaders ignored the genocide until it was too late. One hundred days after the massacre began, about three-quarters of Rwanda’s Tutsi population had died.

Gary Haugen directed the United Nations’ investigation of the genocide in Rwanda. His book Good News About Injustice: A Witness of Courage in a Hurting World opens with his powerful experiences interviewing survivors and uncovering mass graves. He takes the reader to a Catholic cathedral in Kibuye, Rwanda, where hundreds of Tutsis sought safety during the genocide. And he describes how the governor, militants, and a local mob murdered those gathered in that holy place.

Haugen’s testimony is painful to read. But he wants us to see each victim of injustice not as a flickering image on a television screen, but as a "unique bearer of the very image of God...individually knit within a mother’s womb by the Lord of the universe." Haugen reminds us that God was in Rwanda, alongside the victims lying on the cold stone floor of the cathedral.

Reports of genocide, "ethnic cleansing," and human rights abuses may lead Christians into despair rather than action. The suffering often seems too widespread and too far away for us to make a difference. But Haugen won’t let those excuses make us give up. As the title of his book suggests, he preaches a message of hope and encouragement. He provides several examples from U.S. history of how ordinary Christians have successfully worked for social justice. He then describes how hearing the testimony of the oppressed can expose the deception and coercive power that make injustice possible.

Haugen envisioned the creation of a global network of concerned Christians: missionaries and Christian field workers witnessing and reporting human rights violations, investigators gathering data and finding the most appropriate ways to help the suffering, and local churches supporting social justice efforts through prayer and financial sponsorship. With these goals in mind, in 1994 Haugen helped form the International Justice Mission, a Christian organization based in Washington, D.C., that investigates human rights abuses and intervenes on behalf of the oppressed.

THIS BOOK IS a rich resource for theological reflection on the relationship between Christian faith and social justice. When confronted by the problem of evil, Haugen avoids easy answers. We will never fully comprehend the reasons for injustice, Haugen admits. But our ultimate hope lies in a God who hates injustice, who has compassion on the oppressed, and who suffered for us on the cross.

Haugen’s clear prose and engaging style makes the book suitable for high school youth groups, undergraduate classes in religion and ethics, and adult discussion groups. Discussion leaders may find it useful to supplement Haugen’s work with specific examples of human rights abuses. Case studies from non-Western countries will help Western Christians understand and support indigenous efforts for social justice. And only by learning about the history of places like Rwanda can we dispel the popular misperception that ethnic violence is the result of unsolvable animosities. In fact, Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda lived together relatively peacefully until the 20th century, when European colonialism heightened ethnic tension.

Haugen’s study could be broadened in two ways. First, as the 21st century approaches, we need to consider how the growing global economy contributes to human rights abuses. Multinational corporations, concerned with shareholder profit, often support unjust labor practices. Many non-Western societies, burdened by financial debt and under pressure to develop economically, have become increasingly unstable.

Christian responses to these problems might include consumer boycotts of products made in sweatshops and letter-writing campaigns to force corporations to recognize their "stakeholders"—the workers, communities, and consumers affected by corporate policy. Christian social justice organizations have also called for the forgiveness of Third World debt. The short essays in the Sierra Club’s The Case Against the Global Economy (1996) provide good starting points for thinking about these issues.

Second, no understanding of human rights abuses is complete without an examination of our own sins as U.S. citizens and as Western Christians. A concern for injustice abroad means advocating for political reform at home. The end of the Cold War affords us new opportunities to evaluate our country’s legacy of military and financial support of authoritarian governments. We too have shed innocent blood. And, as Haugen’s book eloquently reminds us, our God demands justice.

PAUL JOHN SCHADEWALD lives in St. Louis, where he is researching the relationship between urban Catholic churches and African-American communities.

Good News About Injustice: A Witness of Courage in a Hurting World. Gary Haugen. InterVarsity Press, 1999.

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