The Common Good
April 2006

Can These Bones Live?

by Janet L. Parker | April 2006

What the church must learn from Rwanda.

In just 100 days between April and July 1994, an estimated 800,000 to 1 million people were brutally slaughtered in Rwanda. Most were Tutsis, a minority group, targeted by Hutu extremists for extermination in a genocidal campaign with meticulous planning and sophisticated use of hate propaganda.

I came to Rwanda a decade after the genocide, and I saw a beautiful land and a lovely people, whose smiles almost hid the haunted look behind their eyes. But as they opened their hearts to me and shared their stories, as they took me around the countryside, I glimpsed the horror that still stalks this wounded nation like a wraith.

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry” (Ezekiel 37:1-2).

I visited Rwanda in December 2004 to participate in a World Council of Churches consultation. On the first day we drove into the countryside to the Catholic church of Ntarama. There, on April 15, 1994, 5,000 men, women, and children were massacred while they prayed to God for deliverance. It never came.

When I visited, the site was lovingly festooned with purple and white ribbons, a symbol of the care lavished upon the church now as a sacred resting place for the dead and a memorial for the living, lest we forget.

As we walked in we faced shelves holding row upon row of skulls—hundreds of them. Children’s skulls, adult skulls, whole skulls, and partial skulls. One had a nail still sticking out of the top; another had been draped with a crucifix and a rosary by some stricken witness.

In the main sanctuary were rows of worn wooden pews and a dirt floor littered with debris. Warned not to walk on the floor, some of us stepped from pew to pew to look more closely. What we saw was heart-stopping. Pieces of vertebrae, finger bones, ribs, children’s shoes and cooking implements, articles of clothing. Most of the bones had been gathered and heaped in a shed behind the church. But enough had been left on the floor to assure anyone that here, indeed, a great evil had been committed. Perhaps most horrifying, a skull had been placed upon the communion table and remained, watching us.

The church caretaker and two survivors of the massacre told us their stories. The story of one of the survivors, Dancilla Nyirabazungu, is also in the book A Time to Remember: Rwanda, Ten Years After the Genocide. She wrote:

On 15 April, we were all out in the open cooking porridge for the kids....I was pregnant with my son Eric and I also had a toddler. My entire family was here....The attackers [came and] started shooting, hacking, throwing grenades....They came with guns, clubs with nails in them, grenades and axes....People scattered and I ran into the church. Then they broke holes in the walls and started throwing grenades inside the church. When this happened, we all scattered again....After that I kept running....I kept hiding—in holes, bushes, anywhere—until God rescued me.

Dancilla was among the very few Ntarama massacre survivors. What happened to her was repeated throughout Rwanda. When the genocide started, people fled to the churches, thinking they would be safe there, as they had been during previous sporadic massacres since 1959. This time, not only did the killers fail to respect God or the church, but some church leaders actively betrayed people to their deaths. A few heroes sheltered the victims, sometimes giving their own lives as a result. But other priests, nuns, and pastors, sometimes willingly, sometimes bowing to coercion and fear, assisted in the genocide—or simply stepped aside. During the genocide, Christians and church leaders were no better, and no worse, than anyone else.

IF YOU CANNOT comprehend what I am telling you, you are not alone. Rwandans themselves do not fully understand what happened to them. Again and again they said that the genocide was “insanity,” that “it didn’t make sense,” and “cannot be explained.” Most poignantly, Violette Nyirarukundo, a survivor and a Presbyterian church leader, thanked us for our presence and said, “Please, tell us the truth. We need to better understand ourselves.”

I felt moved and humbled. What truth could a small international gathering of Christians offer to Violette and the other survivors? Now, home in my comfortable apartment, the irony of her statement cuts even more deeply. We should have asked our Rwandan friends the same question. As representatives of an international community that failed to respond to the unfolding genocide, we might ask Rwandans and the other neglected victims of violence in the world, “Please, tell us the truth. Help us to understand ourselves so that we might respond differently next time.” Perhaps the truth can only be found when we sit in the same room and “hear one another into speech,” to borrow Nelle Morton’s famous phrase.

Listening to our hosts, we learned that the animosity between the Hutus and the Tutsis began during the colonial era, when the minority Tutsis were selected by the Belgians to rule over the majority Hutu. The colonizers, including priests, actively cultivated a mythology of Tutsi superiority. Tom Ndahiro of the Rwandan Human Rights Commission told us that the roots of the genocide began with verbal “murder” after the Hutus gained control following independence. Tutsis were called inyenzi—cockroaches—for years before 1994, and labeled “the enemy within.” A genocidal ideology is progressive, slipping in under people’s defenses, inflaming grudges, arousing paranoia, and relying on rewards and punishment to motivate participation in genocide. We heard stories of the complete breakdown of human civilization.

The experience of the Rwandan people might be likened to that of Ezekiel when he was confronted with the valley of the dry bones. Reading Ezekiel 37 in context reveals that the prophet was facing not just a random pile of dry bones but the dismembered corpses of his own people, who had been slain and left to rot by a foreign enemy. Surrounded by these bones, the evidence of a massive crime against humanity, he is asked a seemingly irrational question by God: “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel’s wise reply to God was, “Oh Lord God, you know.”

In the face of mystery, we cast aside our certainties and defer to the wisdom of God. How long did Ezekiel stand in the valley of dry bones? How many moments elapsed between God’s question, “Can these bones live?” and God’s answer—the resurrection of the dead and the restoration of the people and land of Israel? What empowered Ezekiel to stand in the gap and serve as a witness to the human capacity for evil? And what role was he called upon to play in God’s work of resurrection?

Then God said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 37:4-6).

Bones everywhere...bones without sinew, without breath, without faces, bones that used to be part of living bodies now scattered to the four winds. In the face of evil, God compels us to witness, to remember, to lament, to hope, and then to act in faith. This was Ezekiel’s calling; it is the calling of the people of Rwanda today and the sacred vocation of the universal church. As the body of Christ, we are called to witness every crucifixion and to see therein the suffering of Christ. When Christians are complicit in the ongoing crucifixions of the world, our witnessing must include confession, repentance, and a commitment to remember.

As His Holiness Aram I, head bishop of the Armenian Apostolic Church, said, “Only when we become aware and accept responsibility can we move to repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. With genocide this process is crucial. Wipe out the memory and you wipe out the possibility of justice. Leave the story untold and you will never stop the cycle of violence.”

The Rwandan people are working hard to face their demons and to preserve the memory of the genocide so that it never happens again. The government formed after the genocidal regime was overthrown is committed to power sharing between Tutsis and Hutus. A new constitution eliminates any reference to ethnicity and bans the incitement of ethnic hatred. The people we met indicated that the society as a whole is striving to replace ethnic identities with a unifying, national Rwandan identity.

The deep scars caused by genocide remain, along with poverty and destitution. But for me, witnessing Rwandans’ efforts to rebuild and heal was like watching the sinews and flesh being stitched back upon dry bones. Many Hutus and Tutsis live side by side, taking tentative steps to rebuild friendship. The churches are alive again with song and praise, as people seem to find it within their hearts to forgive even the church for its crimes. Rwandans have clearly learned from their tragic past and are determined not to repeat it.

But can the same be said for the rest of us? What have we learned, as an international community, and as the global church, from our failure to intervene in Rwanda? Are we doing any better now with the continuing genocide in Darfur? How are we addressing what Jan Egeland, the United Nations’ emergency relief coordinator, has called Africa’s multiple tsunami of AIDS and disease, ongoing conflicts, lack of good governance, and chronic hunger? And how do we come to terms with the words spoken by Nick Nolte’s character in Hotel Rwanda, the U.N. colonel who explained the failure of the world to come to Rwanda’s aid by saying, “You’re dirt, Paul. You’re dung....You’re black....You’re an African.”

Political realists would explain the disregard of the West for the suffering of Africans with a simple geopolitical answer: It is not in our national self-interest to expend our resources on Africa. I believe there is a simpler answer: racism. The belief that people with a lighter shade of skin are more valuable than people of darker hue. The decision of the Western powers to evacuate all the whites from Rwanda while leaving Tutsi children behind to be slaughtered throws into the starkest possible relief the prioritization of white bodies over black and brown bodies that occurs every day in the United States and Europe. This is the way of the world. This is the world that Christ came to redeem. This is the world that the church is called to transform through its witness to the love of Christ.

A beloved hymn asks, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” In the church in Rwanda, in the body of Christ throughout the world, the circle has been broken by unspeakable crimes that have killed so many children of God. Who can restore the circle? Who will breathe life back into Christ’s wounded body?

God can and God will, with our help. But much will be required of us. The first step is confession. We must sing the Kyrie Eleison together, and then face the world again.

Janet L. Parker was associate pastor for parish life at Rock Spring Congregational United Church of Christ in Arlington, Virginia, when this article appeared. She traveled to Rwanda as part of an advisory team to the World Council of Churches’ Decade to Overcome Violence initiative.

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