- Christianity and Genocide in Rwanda
In Henry VIII, Shakespeare tells the tale of the Roman Catholic Cardinal Thomas Wolsey's climb to power and phenomenal wealth under Henry VIII (followed by his equally phenomenal demise and death in near penury). To see the play and watch the corpulent Cardinal in his sumptuous red robes strutting around the stage as a near equal to the King is to feel the power of a church embedded in the state. Wolsey becomes, by far, the richest man in England due to his association with Henry VIII whose favor ensured his promotion from chaplain to bishop, to archbishop, and eventually to cardinal. Wolsey had more disposable income then Henry, and is the founder of Christ Church College in Oxford as well as Hampton Court—Henry's eventual home with five of his six wives.
One does well to think on these images from Shakespeare while reading Timothy Longman's excellent book Christianity and Genocide in Rwanda.1 I happened to see the play in London on the same trip in which I was reading Longman. I did not anticipate that Shakespeare would provide visual images illuminating the role of an impoverished church in Africa. However, Longman's history of Christianity in Rwanda parallels that of Christianity during the Tudors in instructive ways. During both periods the church's ambitions were to be part of the political elite. Thus, in both England and Rwanda, the church sought association with the privileged over the poor. In both cases, churchmen's actual girth was an indication of connections and power. Ministers in Rwanda, just as Wolsey in England, also contributed a great deal to the welfare of their parishioners. Therefore, Christianity's role in both histories is complex, and in the end their record of accomplishments is mixed.
In Christianity and Genocide in Rwanda, Longman is unequivocal that the Christian churches were complicit and contributory in the 1994 genocide. He does not agree with Pope John Paul II who declared that Roman Catholicism cannot be blamed for having a role in the slaughter, when only a minority of priests participated in the genocide as a few sinful individuals.2 Tens of thousands of Tutsis were killed on church grounds when they sought refuge. One parish complex alone had over seventeen thousand bodies in mass graves.3 In fact, more people were slaughtered on church [End Page 1063] grounds then anywhere else. We are told that the International War Crimes Tribunal and Rwandan courts have sentenced two Catholic priests and a Seventh Day Adventist pastor for luring Tutsis into their churches.4 The Roman Catholics allowed victims to be buried alive if they weren't murdered outright, and the pastor oversaw the murder of 8,000 people at his church. Often, Hutus killed their fellow parishioners. Genocidaires were going to church services on the same day they were committing their crimes. More ink is spent on the Roman Catholics, but the case studies Longman focuses on are Protestant parishes. (Thus, when referring to churches below, both are implied.)
Longman never shies from presenting the counter examples of Christian leadership behaving well. Hutu priest, Augustin Nkezabera, attempted to protect Tutsis in his church, but was killed with a machete. When Hutu priest, Ananie Rugasira, tried to stop the militia from entering his seminary he too was killed. As was the Hutu priest who said to the extremists, "If you want to kill, start with me." Hutu nun, Felicitas Niyitegeka, refused the chance to live when her Tutsi colleagues were lined up to be shot. She wrote to her brother explaining that she would not abandon them—instead, "I choose to die with them."5 One cannot paint all Christian behavior with a single brush, and that is the strength and virtue of the author's writing—he deftly depicts a complex reality.
Longman's focus is on institutional Christianity's failure. Because the churches had mixed responses does not mean that they were neutral during the genocide, or that they were not deeply culpable. When the first Roman...