Saturday, December 15, 2012


Many Catholics use the Sacrament of Reconciliation during Advent because forgiveness and healing help prepare for Jesus’ coming.  A few weeks ago at Mass in Singapore, a priest gave a protracted analogy comparing this Sacrament to regular bowel movements.  However, having just arrived in Singapore from Rwanda, I thought post-genocide Rwanda offered a more profound example of reconciliation, forgiveness and healing. 

What can we learn from Rwanda?

As historical background, during a 100-day period in 1994, Rwandan people slaughtered about 1 million of their fellow citizens.  To put this in perspective, that is about twice as intense an extermination rate to that of the World War II genocide when 6 million Jews were killed over 4 years.  Thank God the Rwandan genocide was of shorter duration.

Hutu tribe members used machetes, clubs and grenades to destroy Tutsi tribe members and their Hutu sympathizers.  These massacres were not just conducted by government officials or soldiers.  Ordinary people participated, killing friends, family or neighbors. 

The people I met in Rwanda seemed gentle, soft-spoken, kind and calm.  I could not envision them committing atrocities associated with genocide.  So I struggled understanding how the genocide ever occurred. 

My host explained that Rwandan culture trained people to be blindly obedient – to not question authority.  Beginning in 1959, schools, churches and the government consistently and systematically cultivated ethnic-based hatred and fear that reached fevered pitch after their president died in a 1994 plane crash.  The president’s death launched the 100 day killing spree where Hutus were urged to kill Tutsis and their sympathizers, lest the “enemy” kill them first.

The Roman Catholic Church played a significant role in the genocides.  Bishops, priests and nuns fueled the propaganda machine spreading messages of ethnic hatred and fear.  Sometimes religious leaders actually committed the murders.  For example, massacres at Catholic Churches such as in Nyamata, Ntarama, Nyarubuye, Cyahinda, Nyange, and Saint Famille occurred after clergy lured the people to the church under the pretense of offering safety, and proceeded to slaughter the people or deliver them into the slaughterers’ hands.  Tens of thousands of people died at Catholic Churches in such scenarios.

Abusing trust, these clergy committed even more heinous crimes than the unspeakably deplorable rapes of children by tens of thousands of clergy.  Several priests and nuns were tried, found guilty, and jailed, though the Vatican did nothing to support bringing these criminals to justice nor ever acknowledged the Church’s involvement in the genocides.  

So, Rwanda has a lot to forgive.  But people described how necessary it was to undertake the long, difficult journey to reconciliation.  And they have made tremendous, if not miraculous progress.  How has that occurred?

One person explained that it is easier for the innocent to forgive than for the guilty to accept forgiveness or forgive themselves.  “When you are innocent, your conscience is clear.”  This makes it easier to see how little divides the guilty and innocent, and how you might have been duped into following the manipulators given different circumstances.   You make a conscious effort to forgive because you can see yourself in the guilty one, and you would want to be forgiven were the tables turned. 

But, he explained, the guilty live with an unrelenting self-hatred.  Some people, who don’t know how to process their self-hatred, try to justify their actions.  Others are consumed by remorse and cannot accept the forgiveness their victims extend.  In either case, the result is a spiral of unforgiveness and self-hatred within the guilty.  Their self-hatred afflicts society.  That is why the innocent must strive towards reconciliation.

Rwanda teaches us many things.

1.  How do we prevent genocides or similar atrocities?  By seeing and avoiding the danger of unquestioned obedience to any human individual or organization.  Quite simply the obedience culture of the uber-orthodox in the church is not a virtue.  It is a danger not only to the church but to society because uber-orthodox groups which cultivate blind obedience can morph into destructive machines, intoxicated by the deadly cocktail of zeal and delusions masking hatred as virtues.  

Rwanda’s genocide was an example of this.  So were the serial rapes of children and seminarians by the Legion of Christ founder, Marcel Maciel, who was enabled by unquestioningly obedient Legion members. 

Perhaps this is why St. Paul and Canon law explain our duty to question even and especially our religious leaders.  However, currently there seems a perversion of the whole questioning responsibility.  Jesus didn’t question secular authorities.  He questioned religious leaders.  Today, religious leaders question secular leaders and instruct the faithful to question secular leaders as well but they are intolerant of questions directed at themselves.  Who and what in the Church need your questioning voice?     

2.  How can we forgive others?  By seeing ourselves not as the better person who condescendingly and magnanimously dribbles forgiveness to further demonstrate what superior people we are.  Rather, genuine forgiveness occurs when we see that we are no better than the perpetrator, given different circumstances.      

3.  How can we forgive ourselves?  By realizing how much others want us to feel forgiven.  But, sometimes, others are too broken to forgive us.  In these cases we must see our similar brokenness which might prevent us from forgiving others and not only forgive ourselves but forgive the person who cannot forgive us.

4.  When does reconciliation occur?  True reconciliation occurs when the desire to forgive and be forgiven meet.  It takes time. It takes work.

With the sexual abuse scandal in the church, reconciliation has not occurred because there is a great absence of both elements.  Many of the clergy and their groupies largely want to diminish the damage and pretend it was no big deal.  That is vastly different from thirsting to be forgiven.  Many laypeople, clergy, victims, their families and non-Catholics do not want to forgive – usually because of their sense that the hierarchy lacks thirst for forgiveness.

But the sexual abuse scandal is only one example of an unforgiving spirit in the church.  Vote for someone I think is unworthy and “off with your head – you are not Catholic enough.”  Espouse scientific understandings about human sexuality later than the medieval period and “off with your head – you are not Catholic enough.”  Advocate for dialogue or question a hierarchical leader and you get the same reaction. 

It seems ironic to me that many clergy who complain about being under-visited in the confessional where they advertise they stand ready to offer generous dollops of forgiveness often seem like some of the most unforgiving people I’ve met.    

Keep in mind, Jesus extended unconditional forgiveness to people.  After he forgave them, he sometimes asked them to sin no more.  But he extended his forgiveness without obtaining or demanding personal reform.  It seems like he thirsted to forgive.

Do you thirst to forgive and be forgiven?  Is your forgiveness motivated by a sense of superiority or a compassionate awareness of equality with the wrong-doer?

1 comment:

  1. Someone submitted a comment that violated both rules for submitting comments on this blog. As a reminder, people leaving comments should in some way identify themselves and should not make personal attacks. The comment I received this week failed both criteria.

    The substance of the comment questioned the church's role in the Rwandan genocide. I wrote that the church played a significant part in the genocide. About 100,000+ people died either at the hands of clergy or due to the clergy luring them into situations and handing them over for slaughter. Though that is about 10%, I still think 100,000 people dying due to direct actions of clergy is "significant". Thus, I stand by my word choice.