Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Out of Africa and Into My Classroom: Rwanda and Reconciliation

I reckon you all have picked up on some recurring themes in my recent writing, among which are an awareness of what is going on in the world around us, as well as a desire (really a passion) for both God's beauty and justice to be made known in my life -- and rippling outward in increasing measure. That sounds so lofty as I type it, so "other" than much of what my daily experience is in a house that is riddled by the mess, noise, conflict, and other general chaos inherent in raising a large family. But it's in my heart nonetheless and I'm trying to find ways to put it into practice.

One of the things I most enjoy is being able to teach the 7th-8th grade English class at our home school co-op on Mondays. Again, I have been trying to impart to my students a compelling sense of global awareness, beauty, and justice. And yesterday, by the grace of God, these managed to converge in our classroom.

I don't know how many of you are aware that last week marked the National Week of Mourning in Rwanda. Fourteen years ago, on April 6, 1994 (the year most of my students were born), a 100 day massacre started. I suck in my breath (sharply!) when I have to type the staggering statistic of over 800,000 victims (not including the injured). If you look at a map of Africa, you might have to hunt for Rwanda. It's a teeny tiny country with a population of only 8 million. Can you imagine 10% of the population of the USA being slaughtered in 100 days? But this is not something that happened overnight. The conflict between the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis had been brewing for centuries, seething for decades, carefully planned and organized for months, and whipped into a "sudden" murderous frenzy by government-sponsored radio propaganda. Plans for genocide against the Tutsis had already been openly discussed in cabinet meetings. The final trigger that set off the massacre was when an airplane carrying the Hutu presidents of Rwanda and neighboring Burundi was shot down. The paltry UN "peacekeeping" forces didn't accomplish anything substantial. The genocide did not stop until the Tutsi RPF rebel forces overthrew the Hutu regime.

Perhaps you have already watched the excellent movie Hotel Rwanda (rated PG-13 for graphic, though not gratuitous, violence). It is the true story of a Hutu named Paul Rusesabagina, who at great risk to his own life, sheltered 1,200 desperate refugees in the hotel that he managed. Many courageous Rwandans -- both Tutsi and Hutu -- saved the lives of other people, but that doesn't bring back the heartbeats of the 800,000 who did not survive.

(Skulls in Murambi Technical School)

I can't pretend to know even a sizable portion of the truth about what happened and why, but it grieves me to think of the statistic that 80% of Rwandans would have considered themselves to be "Christians" before this happened -- and yet they either stood by or participated in the horror! In fact, one priest ordered that his own church be bulldozed with countless helpless refugees inside of it. (Pause a moment and let this sink in...) Yes, I know there was tremendous fear of the threat to "kill or be killed." But that does not satisfy me. It certainly did not satisfy those who were being attacked by machetes and AK-47 machine guns. What happened? Some of the commentary I read on-line yesterday was lamenting the fact that for most of those people, their "Christianity" was a rather shallow affair. For them, it was a matter of getting converted (merely so they could be assured of going to heaven) and following a few basic rules, but not having a life change that worked itself out in a reflection of the radical beauty and justice of the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, they weren't following in the footsteps of the Savior, full of faith and compassion. There was a critical disconnect between their talk and their walk. They did not see the necessity of being courageous, sacrificial "salt and light" agents of change in their culture. They certainly failed to grasp the concept of Biblical love and peacemaking. Is this a problem just in Rwanda? Not hardly! We Americans are just as guilty of hypocrisy. Even the fact that we tune out the news of the world atrocities shows that we have become jaded to true tragedy. That is a tragedy in itself.

But I want to help change that. And so I teach and write and talk and pray and dream and give and lay awake at night... Maybe someday I will be able to go to Africa myself and visit Pastor Headson Makazinga in Malawi.

Yesterday, I took it to the classroom, as part of a language arts emphasis on how the media and the arts both report and shape culture. Fortunately, I had a little help (via technology) from musician Sara Groves. I recently bought her DVD Nomad, part of which documents of her trip to Rwanda with the International Justice Mission. I showed a vignette called "I Can't Breathe" (about her visit to one of the genocide memorial sites) and played the video segments of a concert with her songs "Why It Matters" and "Add to the Beauty" in which she tries to share how important it is to be a positive and healing influence in this violent, chaotic, selfish world of ours. I also read parts of an article from Wikipedia about the genocide, and tried to share about how important it is for each of us to walk as Jesus walked, with an authentic, life-changing faith rather than dry rules and shallow creeds. And, as their writing project for the week, I assigned an essay on how they can "add to the beauty" with their own unique God-given gifts and talents. As a side note, it is interesting that unbeknownst to me, my students had just been learning about Africa in their history class. And, by "divine coincidence" my friend Jeannette Walti, the 3rd-4th grade history teacher (and soon to be missionary to Italy), had just brought in a whole duffle bag of fascinating items from Zimbabwe, which she gladly came to show our class as well.

I am encouraged to hear that there are some positive forces of change at work in Rwanda, including a revamped judicial system that is geared toward rewarding repentance and reconciliation, and a government that is downplaying ethnic distinctions. Some churches are emphasizing restoration, compassion, forgiveness, justice, mercy, and hope. Villages are even being established where Hutus and Tutsis can live, work, raise their children, and even learn to love side by side. But there is much to be done. This is going to take generations of heart change to heal the horror and restore hope for the future.

I may not be able to go fix all of Rwanda's problems, but I can do my part to teach reconciliation in my own sphere of influence. Part of our curriculum in my English class this year has been the Young Peacemaker program. I desperately want to equip these precious kids with the communication skills and attitudes to prevent and resolve conflicts in a way that honors the God who made us. I am so grateful to be able to teach and have my own children learn in an educational environment where peacemaking is a priority. Yesterday while I was grading papers, one of the other moms popped her head into the teacher's work room and informed me that one of my children seemed to be having some sort of conflict with another student. I immediately walked over to the classroom and summoned my child out to the hallway for a chat. Within just a few minutes, the other student came right out of the classroom (on his own initiative) and apologized for his part in the conflict. My child also apologized and they quickly forgave and hugged each other, walking back into the classroom as buddies again. And I thought "YES! That's the way it is supposed to work!"

I wish it worked that way all the time. Petty conflict in our home is a near constant, and I find myself pleading with my younger kids, "Give me some hope that this is going to change -- soon!" I try to be faithful with dealing wisely and consistently with it. When my kids have been "in the wrong" I don't allow them to grunt the word "SORRY!" with a glare on their faces. I want them to politely and humbly acknowledge their responsibility. At a bare minimum they should use the simple statements, "I was wrong. I apologize. Please forgive me" in a pleasant voice. And yet I can't leave it at patching up the quarrels after they happen. I want to prevent them! Almost every day I sit down with my five youngest children (ages 2-10) and we take turns reading a little from the Scriptures. (We have a stack of small New Testaments that we keep in a basket in the living room, so they don't have to waste time running for their own Bibles.) Lately, I have been trying to pick passages to motivate them to get along with each other better, such as passages about love from 1 Corinthians 13 and 1 John 4:7-21. Last night's selection was one of my favorites on humility, wisdom and peacemaking:

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such "wisdom" does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness." James 3:13-18

If we each lived by these words, in the grace of God, wouldn't the world be a better place for all of us? Let us each add to the beauty and do our part.

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