Rediscovering the Gospel of Reconciliation

Antoine Rutayisire 10 Sep 2010

Editor’s Note: This Cape Town 2010 Advance Paper was written as an overview of the topic to be discussed at the related session at the Cape Town 2010 Congress ‘Building the Peace of Christ in Our Divided and Broken World’. Responses to this paper through the Lausanne Global Conversation were fed back to the author and others to help shape their final presentations at the Congress. (Watch a video of the final Cape Town 2010 presentation)

In his book, The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen speaks of ministry in a wounded, dislocated world, populated by a rootless generation made up of ‘desperate men’, ministered to by ‘a wounded healer’. In the chapter on ‘Ministry by a Lonely Minister’, Nouwen writes:

Since it is his task to make visible the first vestiges of liberation for others, he must bind his own wounds carefully in anticipation of the moment when he will be needed. He is called to be the wounded healer, the one who must look after his own wounds but at the same time be prepared to heal the wounds of others. He is both the wounded minister and the healing minister . . . (p. 82)

This is an accurate description of the ministry of reconciliation in the church. In every nation where reconciliation is needed, the ‘healing ministers’ are part of the population and they too are wounded. And it is only when they are healed that they can minister healing to others through sharing with them the experience of a healed life. And that is what I will try to do in this paper. The content of this paper is not taken and presented from an academic perspective but rather distilled from the experience of 16 years of active participation in the healing of a broken nation, first as a Christian and preacher and also as a member of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission in the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide of 1994.

Contradictions in the Christian Setting:  Flourishing Churches and Festering Wounds

Many Christian writers today agree that the epicenter of Christianity has moved to the southern hemisphere. But how do we reconcile that phenomenon with the opposite contradiction of tribal wars, ethnic clashes, and genocides?  How do we reconcile the joy of the fastest growing churches with the sadness of the worst history of internal killings and wars? Most of the countries with a dominant Christian presence in Africa are deeply wounded. And even when they look normal, the healing is superficial, festering with wounds underneath like a volcano ready to explode. We cover up, but life circumstances keep showing us that we are not healed. We have growing churches, but we also have the worst wars and even genocide. How can we be Christians and still live with hatred and anger? How can we be Christians and live with slavery, apartheid, ethnic and racial hatred, family dislocation, and divorce? What has gone wrong with our evangelization and Christian discipleship? What can we do to become ‘ambassadors of reconciliation’? The plea in this paper is for a rediscovery of ‘the gospel of reconciliation’.

Failure and success: Rwanda as a case study 

The general population census of 1991 showed that Rwanda was 89% Christian, with a large proportion of Roman Catholics (62%), followed by Protestant denominations (27%), with 8% Traditionalists and a few Muslims (1.5%) and other religions (0.5%). The White Fathers, the first Catholic missionaries to arrive in Rwanda, came with the specific mission of creating ‘a Christian kingdom in the heart of Africa’, a dream long cherished by their founder, Cardinal Lavigerie. Christianity arrived in Rwanda in 1901. By 1941 the king of Rwanda was baptized. All the chiefs and influential personalities followed suit, making Rwanda the epitome of a fulfilled dream. The Protestant missionaries were also successful despite the stumbling block of the merciless opposition of the Catholic missionaries who had cut a lion’s share for themselves. In the early 1930s, a mighty revival broke out in the Anglican Mission of Gahini, setting the Eastern Africa countries on fire and reaching even beyond. Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Burundi, and other countries still celebrate the fruit of that mighty revival. The ‘Tukutendereze’ anthem is still sung with nostalgic ecstasy.

But between 1959 and 1963 the cradle of the revival was rocked by a bloody ethnic massacre that led many Tutsis into exile. The roads that had been trekked by missionaries and revival teams were now trodden by refugees running for their survival. While the church kept growing and was working hand-in-hand with the government, discriminatory policies were put in place and even complied with by the churches. Between 1990-1994, ethnic tensions were visibly growing and eventually culminated in the 1994 genocide against Tutsis, where more than 1,000,000 people were brutally massacred—often inside church buildings, and in many cases, with the participation of clergy members. What went wrong with our Christianity?

An Autopsy of the Church Failure

There are many reasons that can explain the situation, but we will state the most obvious before drawing lessons for the future.

The content of the message: A partial, selective gospel

It is very clear that the message that was presented was not contextualized to respond to the needs and problems of the nation. When the missionaries arrived, they found a unified nation with three groups: Hutus, Tutsis, and Twas, the power being in the hands of the Tutsi monarchy. These groups were more social classes than ethnic groups. But there were already some seeds of future evil in their relationships—such as inequalities in power distribution, negative social stereotypes, contempt for the poor, and other social ills. Rather than correcting the injustices and the negative social biases, the colonial authorities and the missionaries built on them, favouring the Tutsis over the other two groups. The gospel that was presented never addressed these social problems to correct them. In some cases, hints of what could have been done were visible during the revival when people repented of contempt and lack of love between the different ethnic groups and even between the missionaries and the local population.

The methods of presentation: Intellectual vs. experiential

African spirituality in general and Rwandan spirituality in particular is experiential, always linked to personal, family, and national life. And in African spirituality, everything is linked, such as the living and the dead, the animal kingdom and the inanimate world. The world is one. It is not dichotomized between the material, physical, and visible and the spiritual and invisible. The way Christianity was presented did not take into consideration that reality: it was an intellectual presentation, with memorization of verses and catechism, but most of the time without any link to daily reality. As a result, many people turned to Christianity but kept finding answers to their daily problems in the ancestral religion, relying on their traditional perceptions to define their ethnic, racial and tribal identities and relationships. It is then no wonder that in times of conflict, people did not rely on their Christian faith but rather on ‘what their fathers had told them’.

The problem of the messengers: Talking love, sowing divisions 

The messengers themselves were not a good model of relationships. When the Germans lost World War I, the Lutheran missionaries in Rwanda were chased by Catholic missionaries who kept blocking the advance of other Christian denominations in the country. This created more divisions and animosities among the people who did not see Christianity as a unifying factor but rather another colonial importation. And what about today? Have things changed? Are our churches and denominations setting the model for brotherly relationships? Aren’t we rather exacerbating the divisions?

The relationship between church and politics

From the colonial period, the church in Rwanda, mainly the Roman Catholic Church, worked hand-in-hand with the political leadership, often influencing their decisions. This prevented them from keeping a critical distance to raise a prophetic voice. Has the situation changed today? Aren’t we siding with governments based on our racial, ethnic, and tribal biases rather than on truth?

Rediscovering the Gospel of Reconciliation

After the genocide of 1994, the church was covered in shame and sat on the bench of the accused with so many questions thrown at her. How could such a thing happen in a country that was almost 90% Christian? Has Christianity become an obsolete practice to be deleted? The amazing thing is that despite the questions, Christianity is still growing in Rwanda. Just eight years after the genocide, the 2002 general population census showed that Christians stood at 94%, Muslims having grown only to 1.8%, with the other religions sharing the rest of the 4%. And the question today is: has anything changed? Yes and no! Yes, because we now know the message we should preach to heal the wounds of our nation. No, because not many people are preaching it and those who preach it are not doing it with intentionality—that is, preaching until we see change! Some aspects of the healing message we have re-introduced include:

1. A new perspective on sin and alienation: Genesis 3

Divisions are the result of sin! When sin entered the world, it brought four levels of alienation:

  1. Alienation from God: Spiritual problems
  2. Alienation from self: Psychological problems
  3. Alienation from the other: Social problems
  4. Alienation from nature: Ecological problems

A complete, full gospel will be a gospel that will continually analyze the situation of each community in terms of these 4 levels of alienation and bring a relevant message until change happens.

2. A new perspective on preaching Christ crucified: Isaiah 53:4-6

  1. Christ our pain bearer. We often preach about Christ our sin bearer to call people to repentance but rarely call people to offload their pains, frustrations, anger, hatred, and bitterness on the cross. This is the message the offended must hear in order to heal. It is only when people have been healed that they can forgive.
  2. Christ our sin bearer. This is often preached but without touching on those issues of perpetrators and offenders. When preached pertinently, this message leads the offender to confess and repent, facilitating the coming together.
  3. Christ our reconciler: Ephesians 2:11-22. It is only when the offender confesses and asks for forgiveness, and when the offended has healed and is ready to forgive, that real reconciliation happens. And the cross of Jesus Christ is the ideal place for such a happening.

3. A new perspective on our identity: 2 Corinthians 5:17

Helping people to explore their roots and see the influences that made them what they are—the legacies of their human condition, their native continent, country, region, and family, as well as of their personal problems—gives a new perspective on one’s identity. It is our old bitter roots that yield the bitter fruit of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21). But when we are grafted into Christ, we become a new creation and we bear the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).

4. A new perspective on the mission of the church: 2 Corinthians 5:18

Once the church has understood and started preaching this message, we become ambassadors of reconciliation not just between God and man, but also between man and man. ‘He has entrusted to us the ministry of reconciliation.’

5. A new perspective on social relationships: The Holy Nation of God 

Ethnic, racial, and gender divisions are all against the spirit of the gospel (Galatians 3:26-28).

6. A new perspective on the power of our unity: Mission and reconciliation 

It is when the church of Christ will live in love and unity that great things will happen in our nations.

  1. People will know we are Jesus’ disciples (John 13:34-35)
  2. People will accept him as their Savior (John 17:20-21)
  3. Great things will happen when we pray (Matthew 18:18-20)
  4. ‘That is where God has commanded his blessings!’ (Psalm 133)

Conclusion: What lessons can we draw from the Rwanda experience?

  1. We need to re-examine the evangelization and discipleship of our nations. The solution can then be birthed in the pulpits of our churches. A good analysis of our communities and nations will allow us to develop a curriculum of church teachings that can lead to healing and reconciliation.
  2. We need to be intentional in rediscovering the message of reconciliation as contained in the gospel, and to preach it.
  3. We need to accept our calling as ‘ministers of reconciliation’ and accept the blame and criticism if we preach and our communities remain wounded and full of hatred.
  4. In practical terms, churches in wounded nations and communities need to come together. We must model the love and peace we want to see in the places where we minister. We must work together to recover the message and the ministry of healing and reconciliation.

© The Lausanne Movement 2010


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