By Steven Norris
Can life actually emerge victorious in the face of death? The prophet Ezekiel would certainly nod in affirmation after surveying the army consisting of skeletal remains. The disciples of Jesus would have to agree after witnessing the empty tomb. The experience I had in Rwanda reinforced this conviction in my own life.
The 2004 movie, “Hotel Rwanda,” was all that I really knew about the country before signing up for the mission team. I had some sense about the genocide that took place there in 1994, but the Hollywood version bore little resemblance to the reality of that tragedy.
When we arrived in Rwanda, one of the first things that we did was to visit the Genocide Memorial, a sacred place where more than 250,000 bodies are buried. That number represents only one fourth of the more than one million deaths that occurred over some of the most brutal 100 days in human history.
After World War I, Rwanda came under Belgian leadership, who enacted policies that favored the minority Tutsi people over the Hutu majority. From 1959 to 1973, tensions continued between the groups leading to the installation of Major General Juvenal Habyarimana as leader by the military, a moderate Hutu. When he was shot down on April 6, 1994 (along with the president of Burundi), war broke out in the country. The political instability led to mass executions across the country as ordinary citizens were incited by radical Hutu groups to take up arms against their neighbors.
As we walked up to the memorial, we were greeted by giant letters spelling out the Kinyarwanda phrase, “Kwibuka 28” (translated “Remember 28”). The Rwandan government were clearly guided by the principle: “those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it.” Plastered around the capitol were signs instructing people to “remember” what happened 28 years prior.
Following the genocide, Rwanda undertook a profound attempt to heal the country. In 1999, the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission was established which included Gacaca courts to hear the trials of those who had committed crimes in the genocide. In these local courts, victims and perpetrators were brought face to face. Perpetrators were able to confess their crimes to the families of those they killed. In many cases, these had been neighbors, co-workers, and acquaintances.
Instead of seeing justice as retribution for the crime, these courts sought to model healing and mending of the relational fabric of the community. Those that engaged in the difficult relational work of reconciliation received shorter sentences combined with extensive community service.
Everything that we witnessed in our trip to Rwanda centered around this focus on restorative justice as opposed to retributive justice. It highlighted the call of the Apostle Paul to the Christians in Corinth: “God…reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (5:18).
The goal of missions and ministry should be first and foremost relational — reconciling others to God through Christ and helping to heal the social fabric of the broader community in the process. After all, this is the example Jesus left for us.