Rediscovering The Gospel Of Reconciliation

Editor’s Note: This Cape Town 2010 Advance Paper was written as an overview of the topic to be discussed at the related session at the Cape Town 2010 Congress “Building the Peace of Christ in our Divided and Broken World.” Responses to this paper through the Lausanne Global Conversation were fed back to the author and others to help shape their final presentations at the Congress. (Watch a video of the final Cape Town 2010 presentation)

In his book, The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen speaks of ministry in a wounded, dislocated world, populated by a rootless generation made up of “desperate men”, ministered to by “ a wounded healer”. In the chapter on “Ministry by a Lonely Minister”, Nouwen writes: “Since it is his task to make visible the first vestiges of liberation for others, he must bind his own wounds carefully in anticipation of the moment when he will be needed. He is called to be the wounded healer, the one who must look after his own wounds but at the same time be prepared to heal the wounds of others. He is both the wounded minister and the healing minister…” (p.82). This is an accurate description of the ministry of reconciliation in the church. In every nation where reconciliation is needed, the “healing ministers” are part of the population and they too are wounded. And it is only when they are healed that they can minister healing to others through sharing with them the experience of a healed life. And that is what I will try to do in this paper. The content of this paper is not taken and presented from an academic perspective but rather distilled from the experience of 16 years of active participation in the healing of a broken nation, first as a Christian and preacher and also as a member of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission in the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide of 1994.

Contradictions in the Christian Setting:  Flourishing Churches and Festering Wounds

Many Christian writers today agree that the epicenter of Christianity has moved to the southern hemisphere. But how do we reconcile that phenomenon with the opposite contradiction of tribal wars, ethnic clashes and genocides?  How do we reconcile the joy of the fastest growing churches with the sadness of the worst history of internal killings and wars?  Most of the countries with a dominant Christian presence in Africa are deeply wounded.  And even when they look normal, the healing is superficial,festering with wounds underneath like a volcano ready to explode. We cover up, but life circumstances keep showing us that we are not healed. We have growing churches, but we also have the worst wars and even genocide.  How can we be Christians and still live with hatred and anger? How can we be Christians and live with slavery, apartheid, ethnic and racial hatred, family dislocation and divorce? What has gone wrong with our evangelization and Christian discipleship?  What can we do to become “ambassadors of reconciliation”? The plea in this paper is for a rediscovery of “the Gospel of reconciliation”.

Failure and success: Rwanda as a case study 

The general population census of 1991 showed that Rwanda was 89% Christian, with a large proportion of Roman Catholics (62%), followed by Protestant denominations (27%), with 8% Traditionalists and a few Muslims (1.5%) and other religions (0.5%).  The White Fathers, the first Catholic missionaries to arrive in Rwanda, came with the specific mission of creating “a Christian Kingdom in the heart of Africa”, a dream long cherished by their Founder, Cardinal Lavigerie.  Christianity arrived in Rwanda in 1901. By 1941 the king of Rwanda was baptized. All the chiefs and influential personalities followed suit, making Rwanda the epitome of a fulfilled dream. The Protestant missionaries were also successful despite the stumbling block of the merciless opposition of the Catholic missionaries who had cut a lion’s share for themselves. In the early 1930’s, a mighty revival broke out in the Anglican Mission of Gahini, setting the Eastern Africa countries on fire and reaching even beyond. Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Burundi and other countries still celebrate the fruit of that mighty revival. The “Tukutendereze” anthem is still sung with nostalgic ecstasy.

But between 1959 and 1963 the cradle of the revival was rocked by a bloody ethnic massacre that led many Tutsis into exile. The roads that had been trekked by missionaries and revival teams were now trodden by refugees running for their survival. While the church kept growing and was working hand in hand with the Government, discriminatory policies were put in place and even complied with by the churches. Between 1990-1994, ethnic tensions were visibly growing and eventually culminated in the 1994 genocide against Tutsis where more than 1,000,000 people were brutally massacred––often inside church buildings and in many cases, with the participation of clergy members. What went wrong with our Christianity?

An Autopsy of the Church Failure

There are many reasons that can explain the situation, but we will state the most obvious before drawing lessons for the future.

The content of the message: a partial, selective gospel

It is very clear that the message that was presented was not contextualized to respond to the needs and problems of the nation. When the missionaries arrived, they found a unified nation with three groups: Hutus, Tutsis and Twas, the power being in the hands of the Tutsi monarchy. These groups were more social classes than ethnic groups.  But there were already some seeds of future evil in their relationships––such as inequalities in power distribution, negative social stereotypes, contempt for the poor and other social ills.  Rather than correcting the injustices and the negative social biases, the colonial authorities and the missionaries built on them, favoring the Tutsis over the other two groups. The gospel that was presented never addressed these social problems to correct them. In some cases, hints of what could have been done were visible during the revival when people repented of contempt and lack of love between the different ethnic groups and even between the missionaries and the local population.

The methods of presentation: intellectual vs. experiential

African spirituality in general and Rwandan spirituality in particular is experiential, always linked to personal, family and national life. And in African spirituality, everything is linked, such as the living and the dead, the animal kingdom and the inanimate world. The world is one. It is not dichotomized between the material, physical and visible and the spiritual and invisible. The way Christianity was presented did not take into consideration that reality: it was an intellectual presentation, with memorization of verses and catechism, but most of the time without any link to daily reality. As a result, many people turned to Christianity but kept finding answers to their daily problems in the ancestral religion, relying on their traditional perceptions to define their ethnic, racial and tribal identities and relationships. It is then no wonder that in times of conflict, people did not rely on their Christian faith but rather on “what their fathers had told them.”

The problem of the messengers: talking love, sowing divisions 

The messengers themselves were not a good model of relationships. When the Germans lost World War I, the Lutheran missionaries in Rwanda were chased by Catholic missionaries who kept blocking the advance of other Christian denominations in the country. This created more divisions and animosities among the people who did not see Christianity as a unifying factor but rather another colonial importation. And what about today? Have things changed? Are our churches and denominations setting the model for brotherly relationships? Aren’t we rather exacerbating the divisions?

The relationship between church and politics

From the colonial period, the church in Rwanda, mainly the Roman Catholic Church, worked hand in hand with the political leadership, often influencing their decisions. This prevented them from keeping a critical distance to raise a prophetic voice. Has the situation changed today? Aren’t we siding with governments based on our racial, ethnic and tribal biases rather than on truth?

Rediscovering the Gospel of Reconciliation

After the genocide of 1994, the church was covered in shame and sat on the bench of the accused with so many questions thrown at her. How could such a thing happen in a country that was almost 90% Christian?  Has Christianity become an obsolete practice to be deleted? The amazing thing is that despite the questions, Christianity is still growing in Rwanda. Just eight years after the genocide, the 2002 general population census showed that Christians stood at 94%, Muslims having grown only to 1.8%, with the other religions sharing the rest of the 4%. And the question today is: has anything changed? Yes and no! Yes, because we now know the message we should preach to heal the wounds of our nation. No, because not many people are preaching it and those who preach it are not doing it with intentionality––that is, preaching until we see change! Some aspects of the healing message we have re-introduced include:

1. A new perspective on sin and alienation: Genesis 3

Divisions are the result of sin! When sin entered the world, it brought 4 levels of alienation:

  1. alienation from God: spiritual problems
  2. alienation from self: psychological problems
  3. alienation from the other: social problems
  4. alienation from nature: ecological problems

A complete, full gospel will be a gospel that will continually analyze the situation of each community in terms of these 4 levels of alienation and bring a relevant message until change happens.

2. A new perspective on preaching Christ crucified: Isaiah 53:4-6

  1. Christ our pain bearer. We often preach about Christ our sin bearer to call people to repentance but rarely call people to offload their pains, frustrations, anger, hatred and bitterness on the cross. This is the message the offended must hear in order to heal. It is only when people have been healed that they can forgive.
  2. Christ our sin bearer. This is often preached but without touching on those issues of perpetrators and offenders. When preached pertinently, this message leads the offender to confess and repent, facilitating the coming together.
  3. Christ our reconciler: Ephesians 2:11-22. It is only when the offender confesses and asks for forgiveness, and when the offended has healed and is ready to forgive, that real reconciliation happens. And the cross of Jesus-Christ is the ideal place for such a happening.

3. A new perspective on our identity: 2 Cor.5:17

Helping people to explore their roots and see the influences that made them what they are––the legacies of their human condition, their native continent, country, region and family, as well as of their personal problems––gives a new perspective on one’s identity. It is our old bitter roots that yield the bitter fruit of the flesh (Gal.5:19-21). But when we are grafted into Christ, we become a new creation and we bear the fruit of the Spirit (Gal.5:22).

4. A new perspective on the mission of the church: 2 Cor.5: 18

Once the church has understood and started preaching this message, we become ambassadors of reconciliation not just between God and man but also between man and man. “He has entrusted to us the ministry of reconciliation.”

5. A new perspective on social relationships: The Holy Nation of God 

Ethnic, racial and gender divisions are all against the spirit of the gospel. Galatians 3:26-28.

6. A new perspective on the power of our unity: Mission and Reconciliation 

It is when the church of Christ will live in love and unity that great things will happen in our nations.

People will know we are Jesus’ disciples: John 13:34-35.

  1. People will accept him as their Savior: John 17:20-21.
  2. Great things will happen when we pray: Matthew 18:18-20.
  3. “That is where God has commanded his blessings!” Psalm 133.

Conclusion:   What lessons can we draw from the Rwanda experience?

  1. We need to re-examine the evangelization and discipleship of our nations. The solution can then be birthed in the pulpits of our churches. A good analysis of our communities and nations will allow us to develop a curriculum of church teachings that can lead to healing and reconciliation.
  2. We need to be intentional in rediscovering the message of reconciliation as contained in the Gospel, and to preach it.
  3. We need to accept our calling as “ministers of reconciliation” and accept the blame and criticism if we preach and our communities remain wounded and full of hatred.
  4. In practical terms, churches in wounded nations and communities need to come together. We must model the love and peace we want to see in the places where we minister. We must work together to recover the message and the ministry of healing and reconciliation.

© The Lausanne Movement 2010

References

Bourdanne, Daniel (ed.). (2002). Le Tribalisme en Afrique. Abidjan: PBA

Deyoung, Curtiss Paul. (1997). Reconciliation: Our Greatest Challenge…Our Only Hope. Valley Forge,PA: Judson Press.

Dallaire, Romeo. (2003). Shake Hands with the Devil: the Failure of Humanity in Rwanda.  Toronto: Random House Canada.

De Lacger, Louis. (1961). Rwanda. Kabgayi.

Gourevitch, Philip. (1998). We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With our Families. New York: Picador.

Guillebaud, Meg. (2002). Rwanda: The Land God Forgot? Revival, Genocide and Hope. Oxford: Monarch Books.

Guillebaud, Meg. (2005). After the Locusts: How Costly Forgiveness is Restoring Rwanda’s Stolen Years. Oxford: Monarch Books.

Rutayisire, Antoine. (1996). Faith Under Fire: Stories of Christian Bravery. London: African Enterprise.

Smedes, Lewis B. (1996). The Art of Forgiving: When You Need to Forgive and Don’t Know How. Nashville: Moorings.

Tutu, Desmond. (2000). No Future Without Forgiveness. London: Random House.

Volf, Miroslav. (1996). Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville: Abington Press.

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  • Are the countries of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Africa standing ons the same precarious selective, compromised or provocative gospel precipice as did Rwanda in 1994?

  • Tom Tharp

    How does one reconcile with those who seek to abuse the reconciliation? Such as one who uses the love that Christianity is attempting to express to normalize or even justify their sin? I agree that a central job of Christians everywhere is to reconcile. After all, Christ came to reconcile the world to God. But there are those that will see this as a way to advance their own motives. How does a prophetic voice be both salt and light? Bringing reconciliation and also correction when it is needed?

    Great Article. Reminds me that I need to be more active on here.

    • I’ve thought about this a lot. We need to communicate the whole gospel of the kingdom. God is reconciling everything and continually call people to a new full abundant life here and now. Free from the death and destruction of selfishness and pushing God away (sin).

      I’ve learned that I need a deeper faith that the culture in Jesus kingdom is actually a better way to live than what our selfish, consumeristic tribal world teaches us. Jesus way leads us to deep joy, deeper relationships and deep healing and hope for the whole world.

      I started with the “heavenly” gospel that emphasis way too much on personal holiness and taught me that Jesus saved me so that I would follow his rules. I’ve since matured and know Jesus is inviting me and everyone to be set right, the root word for justification/righteousness/justice in the new testament. My life with Jesus is a tangible experience in the world. It’s my own embodied experience of life being better in and through walking Jesus’ way. For example…

      In the last 7 years I’ve worked as a church planter beside atheist anarchists and Muslim armed groups in the Philippines. In both cases they have tasted a way of life and a upside-down logic that points to a better way of living together on this earth. Jesus’s way esp. Matt 5-7. Our friendship has been an example that God is offering to make all things new if we will walk with him and learn the new way that is actually the way it was always supposed to be before humanity rejected God in the garden.

      We need to participate God’s mission to reconcile the world with patience and accountable to one another in the church. In my life freedom from the addiction to sin came from God’s gift of inner transformation from his loving spirit and mutual accountability in the church community.

      Humans who abuse reconciliation are never a problem for God. We’ve always done that too him. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, they all did it. But God never holds anything back from us when we “abuse the reconciliation.” He is patient and always inviting us back. The parable of the prodigal son is the perfect example Jesus gave to show us the ever patient and constantly inviting character of our Creator.

      Blessings!

      • Tom Tharp

        True, that it is not a problem for God. God is all loving and all powerful. Yet my question was about the church. I have personally experienced those who seek to twist the church to their own ends. Having accountability and patience assumes that those people are not the ones in power and won’t use your patience to destroy the church they are in. There are predators, not just the sexual kind, who worm their way in and try to use the kindness and goodness of the people around them to warp churches to their own designs. Reconciliation is a wonderful thing. And it is the hope of all people. Paul said that we should be on guard against those kind of people. That we should call them out and expel them so that they can experience the need to reconcile. This sounds harsh but I believe it is far better than a church where the corruption has spread and taken over because the people believed letting it was better than confrontation.

        • I appreciate what your saying. I think I would nuance your ideas a little.

          I don’t think anyone worms their way into our churches without members ignoring them and not taking responsibility for the health of the predator or the rest of the community. If this sounds idealistic then I think that church structure needs to be questioned. It’s not serving the purpose of discipleship and raising people to become like christ.

          I don’t separate the idea of what God is like and the church. God is like Christ, always. We are called to be the body of Christ, always. The church is like Jesus. Not perfectly, but we have been raised with christ and walk in his resurrection as his new creation. Therefore, I expect us to walk as disciples and family together rather than strangers suspicious of one another.

          I don’t think calling people out and expelling them is a first step. I realize I may sound idealistic but I’m living in a church community that is a real family and I came from a 290 person church that is a real family. I’ve experienced new creation with them. This isn’t a fantasy.

          An important thing I’ve learned to do (as a church planter) is foster a culture of mutual accountability in the church. Leaders don’t hold people accountable to rules through power. We don’t need stronger hierarchy in the church. That’s not Jesus example.

          Instead, members of the community accept responsibility for one another and are accountable to one another. Members agree to follow the contextual confession and convictions of the community. We remind one another of our commitment to giving and receiving council by practicing it with humility and boldness.

          We don’t need to be harsh. We don’t need to cut off corruption. We need intimacy and accountability so that we can approach on another with honesty and humility and the truth in love so that our brothers and sisters can repent and be accountable for the consequences of their actions.

          I believe deeply in biblical restorative justice. I’ve seen it work well in cases of murder, and cases of abuse. It requires something much more intimate and costly than retribution or punishment. The intimacy required for real repentance.

          I believe we can be loving and forgiving. It requires a lot more faith. Careful discipleship and ruthless commitment to one another, even those we don’t like. It’s in this intimacy that we see the way of Jesus that can transform the corrupt predators rather than wanting to kick them out. When this happens then the world is really seeing the glory of God revealed on earth, like in the story of the prodigal son.

          Any thoughts? I probably miss-understood you and my over active mind lead me to say too much. Sorry if I overshared. Blessings brother.

  • Francesco Abortivi

    Great article.
    When we preach ourselves (our ideas, doctrines, organizations) instead of the Gospel, we create division. When we preach Christ, the prince of peace, true peace comes.

    • Wendy Walton

      Amen!

  • great piece on reconciliation and gospel !