The art of not forgetting
The following excerpt is the eye witness account by Theresa M, who was an 8 year old Tutsi girl at the time of the Rwandan genocide:
‘During the war I was in the bush because they, the Hutu, wanted to kill me with a machete because I am Tutsi. My mother was killed because she was Tutsi. Some Hutu killed her. I didn't know them.
I was hiding in the bush with my mother. They found us and hit us. My mother wasn't dead; she went home and died there.
Then I was scared, so I ran away. I spent the night in the bush. There wasn't anyone else, just bodies, lots of bodies. I didn't know any of them, just my little sister. She had also been killed with a machete. I was there for many days.... One day I met a man. He was a Hutu soldier, He was alone. He said he was going to kill me and throw me in a pit. He took me to the pit-it was full of dead people, men and women and children. Then he said, "I'm tired of killing at the moment. You're lucky, you can go," and so I ran.’
In 1994, as South Africa was emerging as the ‘Rainbow Nation;’ throwing off the shackles of Apartheid, Rwanda was falling apart at the hands of a merciless genocide whose bigotry and hatred had begun in the Rwandese classroom. The Hutu was pitted against his Tutsi neighbour; with one million men, women and children being killed in 100 days.
In 2002, we moved to Kigali, Rwanda.
What would we find in a country with such a past?
We found a Genocide Memorial of the skulls of those massacred. We found not one family untouched by the horror of the genocide. Josie, our Tutsi housekeeper, was mothering her sister’s children as her sister and parents were killed in the genocide. Our kind Hutu driver, Laurent, had family who had killed. We found people trying to find ways of dealing with their past together – even outside the church.
If that is your history and part of your narrative, how do you forget that?
How do you live with that?
It is not possible to forget. You have to choose to remember differently.
How could Naaman’s little servant girl forget that she had witnessed the killing of her family at the hands of her new master? How could she be kind to him and concerned for him?
How could Joseph forget the hatred he had experienced at the hands of his own brothers? How could he be kind to them and forgive them?
They couldn’t forget, but Naaman’s little servant girl and Joseph both remembered their God who was bigger than their painful memories.
This issue of dealing with the memory of past acts of injustice has recently raised its head in Reformed circles (recently highlighted by the MLK 50 conference) – from the Neo-Reformed circles to the Classic Reformed circles and those in between where the circles intersect. Todd Friel, from Wretched Radio, calls it ‘the gathering storm’ around the issue of racism and racial tensions in the church, which has the potential to bring about division.
He does so in a clear and simple overview by laying out the players, the issues, the worldviews and some suggested solutions.
You can watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=91jXXjkCKN4&feature=youtu.be
At the recent 2018 T4G conference, Ligon Duncan simply and humbly articulated a plea for the church with the words of Jesus in the second greatest commandment: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’
‘If we would have just obeyed the commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves, racial tensions would be in a very different place in the church today.’ [Ligon Duncan]
He goes on to explain how we, in the church, have found a way to make the second commandment not apply to us. If we put issues such as discrimination, injustice and prejudice into other categories, redefining them as politics or social concerns, then we have a justification to be silent on these issues.
As a South African, I cannot speak into or comment on the recent developments in the church in America.
But, as a white South African, I am well aware of the scars and injustice of Apartheid and the unique local dialect of these racial tensions.
By the time I was eligible to vote, Apartheid was being dismantled. Although my vote was never counted in support of an unjust system, I was not untouched by such a system.
The very air I breathed was loaded with a prejudice that built into a distorted and sinful worldview without me even being conscious of it. Wrong attitudes and patterns of behaviour, unquestioned and indoctrinated, remained until forced into the light. These were even subtly expressed in the church context.
Do I need to repent of that? Yes, I do.
First and foremost, I recognise that I have sinned against my God. My continued prejudice was an affront to a holy God.
Secondly, I have to acknowledge that my black brothers and sisters in Christ grew up on the other side of the Apartheid system, bearing its yoke and burden of struggle and of living with the very real impact of prejudice and discrimination.
I did not put that system in place and I cannot repent for the sins of my forefathers, but I can repent of my wrong thinking. I can repent of unloving and bitter attitudes and a rejection of others as unworthy or inferior. In part, I was unaware of many of the realities. In part, I was naïve. In part, I was the Levite and the Pharisee who crossed the road and looked the other way.
We cannot rewrite history, defend its mistakes, sanitise it or pretend it no longer matters. We need to look history in the face and acknowledge its wrongs and injustices.
You, my black brother or sister, have been wronged by a system that cannot be defended or supported on any page in Scripture.
I acknowledge that. I cannot pretend it didn’t happen and that there are not deep wounds and scars.
The church in SA, in general, turned a blind eye to this issue, labelling it ‘liberalism’ or promoting a social gospel – failing to acknowledge it as deeply and inherently sinful. It was in a context that we forget, where the world seemed in turmoil, where ‘struggle theology’ looked more like Marxism and was therefore rejected by the mainstream church. Even now, it remains a complex issue to process.
How are we to respond now, when we recognise the wilful blindness of the church in the past?
Do we remain silent still, or should we humbly acknowledge that this was wrong?
We have the potential to cause division and much unhappiness depending on how we handle this; even if we avoid it altogether.
We have a choice: we can ignore this; hiding behind sophisticated defence mechanisms of rationalisation and self-deception, or we can deal gently and patiently with one another. Retreating to established social and political positions is neither helpful nor wise.
We need to deal with this biblically, as God’s redeemed people rather than historical adversaries.
None of us can change the atrocities of the past and so our fight becomes against memory.
We are looking back to the past and holding account.
That is what the world does. In so doing, we are inadvertently saying that what Jesus achieved on the cross is not big enough to overcome.
When we stand on opposite sides of an issue, it is very easy to point fingers.
When we stand together on the same side, looking at the issue, it is not that easy to point fingers at someone next to you.
We are first and foremost brothers and sisters in Christ and so we need to treat each other in this NEW context – not in the old distorted and prejudiced way.
I need to renew my mind and love my neighbour as myself. I need to not pretend there isn’t an issue. I need to empathise, acknowledge and listen.
I need to be prepared to humbly come over to your side so we can stand together as we address the issue.
That is what it will hopefully look like from my side.
What will it look like from your side?
Will it look like the Good Samaritan? Not crossing to the other side, not holding grudges, but sacrificially loving, forgiving and working towards healing.
The Good Samaritan was the victim of extreme Jewish discrimination, hatred and prejudice. He was spat upon and considered a half breed. He was the one who was considered ‘less than.’ Yet he is the one who crosses the road to help the Jew who had been taught to hate him.
A Samaritan travelling along the road came upon the Jewish man.
When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him.
Jesus asked, ‘What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbour to the man attacked by robbers?’
‘The one who treated him kindly,’ the religious scholar responded.
Jesus said, ‘Go and do the same.’
Our hearts need to go out to one another.
Jesus exemplified this in His earthly ministry in the way He related to others. He sat with the Samaritan woman at the well, He went into the home of Zacchaeus, a tax collector, for a meal and he touched the lepers. He washed his disciples’ feet. The only people Jesus pointed a finger at were the self-righteous, proud Pharisees.
He broke down all dividing walls by taking the form of a servant; humbling Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
We are all called to have the same mind of Christ.
‘The Gospel calls us to identify with oppressed people as ‘our own flesh.’ Whether or not we feel personally responsible for knocking our neighbour down, we’re all responsible for picking our neighbour up, as if our own brother or sister were down.’ [Mika Edmonson]
Jesus dealt with all underlying issues on the cross. He took them all on Himself. Every expression of hatred, discrimination, bigotry and oppression so that there could be unity in the church.
We all have one confession and that is Christ. The NT church had slaves and slave owners, Jews and Gentiles – all brought together as a new family in Christ. This is radically good news.
Our one identifier is Christ. Christ is all and in all.
No longer can past hurts and injustices define our relationships to one another.
From a human perspective, reactions of outrage from minority groups and those discriminated against are understandable and natural. Past systems forced your forefathers to be silent, but now you speak; you have discovered your voice.
But from a Gospel perspective, your voice in the church may not be angry, bitter or vengeful. God has brought this forgiveness and has borne the punishment for this sin too.
Can we rage? Your words may not be harsh and based on provocative generalisations and inflammatory stereotypes.
The issue is not whether we have opinions, be they arrogant, ignorant, informed, justified or rationalised.
How we express these opinions as brothers and sisters in Christ is more important than the issue itself.
Inflammatory tweets on Twitter, open letters accusing and harming and the naming and shaming from many platforms, will never achieve the reconciliation and love Jesus died for and calls us to.
James’ words are an apt warning: ‘So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!’ [James 3:5].
This is a warning to each one of us, no matter what side of the colour line our heritage may be.
As Christ’s ambassadors and bearers of the Gospel, we have been given a higher way, a better way.
Jesus’ calls us to His model of conflict resolution in Matthew 18:15 at work: ‘If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.’
We can reap beautiful rewards by obeying the command in Ephesians 4:29 ‘Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.’
James says in James 1:19: ‘Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.’
Paul reminds us to hold fast to Romans 12:9-10: ‘Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honour,’ and Romans 12:1.
The ‘art of not forgetting’ lies in choosing to remember in a new way.
As new creations in Christ, we have died to self-will and to our rights. We are now intent on doing the will of our Father in heaven.
May our hearts go out to one another. Christian love calls us to believe the best.
In so doing, the world who cannot do this, will see this in the church and be amazed. May we be faithful in dying to self. This is the reconciliation Jesus died for.
Black or white, we are called to forgive as we have been forgiven by God and to love one another as we have been loved by God.
To my black brothers and sisters who are hurting by the consequences of the many injustices of the past - may you be able to stand solidly on God’s sovereignty and say confidently with Joseph in Genesis 50:20: ‘As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good,’ and may your heart go out to your white brothers and sisters in Christ.
To my white brothers and sisters, ‘the legacy of Apartheid has deeply entrenched our collective psyche and worldview, often resulting in us naively simplifying and overlooking the past and its reality.’
Much soul-searching is required on all sides. Remembering the sins of the past comes easy and yet we rest in a God who remembers our sins no more. May that reminder graciously motivate our interaction with one another.
For a different perspective, you can find my article, ‘He had a dream’