Lessons from Rwanda

Thinking Biblically about reconciliation

By Diane Holt

(From the October - December 2017 issue of VOX.)


A new facilitated resource from Thrive Ireland helps churches to learn from the Rwandan church in how to approach forgiveness, justice and reconciliation in areas of conflict. While designed as a resource for the Northern Irish church, Thrive Ireland sees the potential for this to be used across Ireland to help churches struggling with issues of conflict and broken relationships, whether within the church, between churches or in the wider society.

It was clear from my first trip to Rwanda that we had so much to learn from them in the area of reconciliation. I’m the director of Thrive Ireland, which was birthed out of Tearfund, and I also work for Tearfund UK with a project called “Inspired Individuals”.

Often we think we have something to give to developing countries but there is a huge amount we can learn.

Rwanda was decimated by the genocide in 1994. Around 1 million people there were killed in 100 days. The impact was huge. The Troubles in Northern Ireland saw less than 4,000 people killed in 40 years and yet that was traumatising.

When the Government of National Unity was formed following the Rwanda genocide, law enforcement had completely broken down and the justice system had come to a standstill. Inflation was 65% and most economic activity had ceased. There was chaos! The GNU constituted by a coalition of five political parties, repatriated and resettled 3.5 million refugees, restored public trust in the legal system and tried to avoid revenge.

A local system of justice “gacaca” was re-established. They used a restorative justice approach. Our justice system is all about saying, “You are guilty.” Restorative justice is about speaking the truth, acknowledging wrongdoing and making restitution, sometimes in the community and sometimes in prison. The communities trusted this system because it took a bottom-up approach.

The hardest part of reconciliation is our ability not only to grieve for our own wounds but also to acknowledge the wounds of our enemy and empathise with their hurt. Furthermore a test of true Christian reconciliation is that the initiative for reconciliation begins with the victim. It is God who is in Christ reconciling a world that has rebelled. Jesus, the truly innocent victim, becomes the vehicle for the reconciliation of the guilty party.
— David Porter, Dreams and Visions (an ECONI resource)

The church had an enormously important role because there was a spiritual dimension to the transformation of Rwanda. We visited a church to listen to the stories of genocide survivors. It was a humbling and painful experience. Many of them wanted desperately to tell their story.

Each year, there are 100 days of remembering the genocide. This is not about remembering to wallow in that remembering. There are banners everywhere and posters, which say, “remember, unite, renew.” It is about coming together and thinking about their renewal as a country.

It was clear from what the victims and survivors were saying that talking and being heard was an important part of the healing process. There is no healing without public grief because it is heard as legitimate and affirmed as true.

Sadly in Northern Ireland, dealing with the trauma of the past doesn’t seem to be a priority. A lid is put on the past. The University of Ulster conducted research and found that 30% of the population suffers from mental health problems and more than half of these issues are directly related to the Troubles. There are high levels of untreated post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of decades of violence.

Outwardly, Northern Ireland looks good. People may be able to shop together now but we’ve settled for tolerance, and tolerance is not enough. We’ve done the superficial stuff but we haven’t dealt with relationships and with people’s hearts and minds. Issues spill over into the Republic of Ireland too, evident as tensions in the border counties or as apathy and indifference in Dublin and further south.

Derek Poole, researcher for the Lessons from Rwanda resource says, “Having a peace process is not the same as having made peace with one another.”

Derek was struck by the example of one Rwandan woman who was able to identify the man who had killed all of her family including her husband, children and parents. She said, “I want to forgive because Christ tells me to forgive my enemies. I want to forgive so that I can live again.”

For the leadership of many churches in Rwanda, engaging in the rebuilding of their fractured country was essential. There has been a spiritual dimension to the country’s healing. The government appointed church leaders in positions of authority in peace and reconciliation. In the poorest communities, people now say, “We are neither Hutu nor Tutsi, we are Rwandan.” And the churches are taking the lead.

Too often our remembrance leads to deeper divisions and we do not unite. In Northern Ireland, we mostly live in different communities and are educated separately. If we cannot build authentic, vulnerable relationships among churches, how can we encourage others to do the same?

Lessons from Rwanda is a facilitated Bible study in four sessions which looks at the church as a community of forgiveness, justice, reconciliation and repentance.

The church in Rwanda that morally failed its people during the genocide is now modelling forgiveness. The Rwandan Christians teach that Christ has reconciled us to God but has also abolished the walls between us. They acknowledge that Christians were complicit in the genocide and failed to speak up or act against the evil. The churches did not challenge the historical divisions that poisoned relationships.

There can be so many issues of conflict within the church and because people don’t like conflict, they avoid it. That causes rifts and splits. If you don’t have a church leadership that is able to deal with conflict, then churches fall apart. At worst, these divisions end up in the news headlines. Conflict eats up the church to the point that it is paralysed.

It is all about broken relationships, whether that is with God or with each other. If we do not have reconciliation at the heart of our ministry as churches it means we are not really dealing honestly with the harsh realities of life.

The truth is, there are massive divides in Ireland and Northern Ireland; not just between Catholic and Protestant or between Loyalist and Nationalist but also between rich and poor, middle class and working class. There are divisions between new churches and “mainstream” churches and between nationals and immigrants. Often it is to do with a lack of understanding of the “other” because of lack of relationship.

The problems in Ireland are not unique but it is often easier to understand our own issues when we explore them from another perspective. In Rwanda, there is a spiritual dimension to the transformation and healing that has taken place. Churches and church leaders have been directly involved in addressing the wounds of sectarianism and tribalism, and in rebuilding a new future together.

The idea of whole-life mission takes on a whole new sense when you understand that your faith needs to touch everything you are involved in and every part of your life. This includes every area of conflict and broken relationship.

Speaking at the launch of the new resource Bishop Harold Miller (Down and Dromore) said, “I don’t know how God gives the grace to someone, who has seen a baby murdered or their family wiped out in tribal violence, to come to the place where they can be released from the bitterness in their hearts - forgiveness means release. I don’t know how that happens because I haven’t been there. But when people get to that point, it seems to be transformational in their own lives and it seems to give them a freedom that they didn’t have before.”

If you are interested in using the Lessons from Rwanda resource or in becoming a facilitator for it, you can contact Diane by email at info@thriveireland.org.