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 the 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 fact 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. With the help of the story—according to which the Tutsis were the “natural-born leaders” and the Hutus were inferior—government representatives and missionaries alike committed themselves to transforming Rwanda into a modern, civilized, and efficient state. The Belgians discarded the old three-chief system and said that every chief had to be a Tutsi. Hutus were forced to do “communal work” that largely benefitted their Tutsi rulers.
Meanwhile, European schools were established to educate future leaders. Most of these schools were run by Christian missionaries, but only Tutsi children were invited to hear the good news of Jesus Christ and receive the light of education.
Rwanda began issuing identity cards in 1933, further solidifying its citizens’ identities as Hutu or Tutsi. What had once been a social role and then a racial category was now an essential part of every Rwandan’s identity, frozen in time by a piece of paper that told each person who they were.
Missionary Christianity found itself part of the larger story of modernization in Rwanda. The church did not write the script—but took it for granted and, in fact, found it exhilarating. Church leaders saw their role as one of advancing the project of modernization and helping it succeed. Instead of softening the divisions between Hutu and Tutsi, the church in Rwanda amplified, intensified, and radiated them. The church played a central role in the development of a society where the Tutsi minority ruled a Hutu majority.
IN TIME, HOWEVER, the tables turned, and the church played an important role in this change as well. In Belgium, the aristocratic French had ruled the Flemish harshly for generations until, in the 1950s, a Flemish revolt led to a divided Belgium with separate governments and educational systems. With more Flemish priests sensitive to their people’s struggle serving as missionaries in Rwanda, the social movement for Hutu liberation was fomented. Such priests sympathized with the oppressed Hutu, who were already beginning to rise up and refuse the injustices that Belgian authorities and their Tutsi clients were committing against them.
Eventually there was a “social revolution” in which Hutus took over the Rwandan government and ultimately gained independence from Belgian rule. Much of the energy for this revolution came from Catholic priests and their Hutu students. What followed in 1959 was the first ever large-scale massacre—20,000 Tutsis were killed.
Looking back at the history of Rwanda, it is striking to see how the church could name the injustice of the colonial system without fundamentally questioning its power to determine who people are. In all of this, no one was ever able to say that the racial categories of Hutu and Tutsi were part of the colonialists’ propaganda. Rwandans didn’t even get rid of their identity cards. Hutu and Tutsi had become so fixed—so natural—that people could not begin to imagine how they might live without these categories.
Once this imagination and identity had fomented, Christianity made little difference in Rwanda. Christianity seemed little more than an add-on—an inconsequential relish that did not radically affect peoples’ so-called natural identities. Purposes and goals were dictated to Christians and non-Christians alike by radio personalities and political figures.
Rwanda’s story is not unlike the stories that shape Christians in the West. Beginning with our poverty of imagination, we start to see how our whole lives can be held captive by the pattern of this world.
CONSIDER HOW race continues to shape our understanding of who people are. When I first came to Duke University, where I teach, locals were always asking me if I was serving as a priest at Holy Cross Parish. I wasn’t, but I just assumed a few people had heard a false rumor or remembered incorrectly a news update from the diocesan paper.
When people kept asking me the same question, I decided to find out about Holy Cross Parish. It turns out that this is the historically African-American parish in Durham. When Christians in Durham see my dark skin and learn that I am Catholic, they assume I am a member of Holy Cross Parish. It’s only natural. Of course, it would be scandalous if someone on the university campus assumed that I was a service worker and not a professor because of my black skin, because the legal authorities in the United States integrated the rest of society 40 years ago. But American Christianity is so tribal that it continues to assume black people will “stay in their place” and not worship with their white or Latino brothers and sisters.
It is deeply ironic to me that most Western Christians blame the Rwandan genocide on tribalism while taking for granted the tribal divisions of their own churches, as if they are simply natural. A story about natives and settlers, it seems, means more to Christians than a story about the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of our God. Christianity without consequence is a problem that Rwandans and Westerners share.
This is how the apostle Paul articulated Jesus’ call to repentance: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Our deepest problem is our poverty of imagination. So our transformation must begin with the renewal of our minds. And that is what the Christian story is about—offering a fresh lens through which to see ourselves, others, and the world. In the process, Christianity is meant to shape a new identity within us by creating a new sense of we—a new community that defies our usual categories of anthropology.
Jesus was born into a story that said Jews were the legitimate heirs of Abraham and Samaritans were an inferior mixed breed. Those were the accepted categories of his day. In the fourth chapter of John’s gospel, when Jesus not only speaks to the Samaritan woman at the well, but asks her for help, his mind was not held captive by the story that made Jews and Samaritans into people at odds with one another.
“Believe me,” Jesus eventually said to this Samaritan woman, “a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship God in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers God seeks.” Jesus knew a different story about who we are and what we were made for. He spoke to the Samaritan woman—as he speaks to each of us—about a God who loves us.
Emmanuel M. Katongole, a Catholic priest of the Kampala archdiocese in Uganda, is co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove lives in a Christian community in Durham, North Carolina. This article is adapted from Mirror to the Church: Resurrecting Faith after Genocide in Rwanda, ©2009 by Emmanuel M. Katongole and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Used by permission of Zondervan.