I recently recalled my painful experience of watching Hotel Rwanda. Nominated for three Academy Awards® and two Golden Globes®, Hotel Rwanda tells the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu hotel manager who helped to save the life of over 1,200 Tutsi fugitives during the 1994 Rwandan conflict. As the nations of the world turned their heads, the Hutu military–assisted by gangs of radical extremists and the French army–conducted the most atrocious act of genocide in recent history as they slaughtered almost one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
The rivalry between Tutsi and Hutu had been going on for centuries. Originally inhabited by the pigmy Twa, Rwanda became home to a majority Hutu population about 1000 years ago. By the fifteenth century, the Tutsis had merged into the region and–although a minority–quickly gained political dominance. Tutsi mwamis (kings) ruled the region until the early twentieth century when power was ceded to Germany and eventually Belgium. In true colonial fashion, the Belgians encouraged minority Tutsi dominance until the late 1950s when Hutus successfully lobbied for a political voice.
As the Hutus grew politically stronger in the following decades, civil discord erupted and many Tutsis sought refuge in neighboring countries in an attempt to escape the growing numbers of vengeful Hutu leaders who called for the extermination of the Tutsi minority. The centuries old tribal rivalry culminated in the 1994 genocide when ethnic pride transformed tolerant neighbors into blood thirsty killers.
Failure of Christianity
When reflecting on the world’s complacency in the face of such a devastating tragedy, many view the genocide as a failure of humanity. Recently, former President Bill Clinton voiced his regret for not intervening in the massacre. Politically scarred by the loss of US marines in the Somalian conflict, he did not want to place more American troops in harms way. America was not alone in its feigned neutrality, none of the world’s “superpowers” attempted to stop the killing.
While the event does expose the dilapidated nature of humanity, I see it more as a failure of Christianity. As a result of missionary efforts, about 90% of the Rwandan population professed to be Christian (a Catholic majority with a strong Protestant minority). Every weekend teems of people crowded the narrow streets going to their places of worship on Saturdays and Sundays. In the weekdays, students attended church run schools and universities. However, when the command to slaughter was issued, it did not take long for dutiful churchgoers to transform their “plowshares into spears and their pruning hooks into swords” (cf. Joel 3:10).
They had been taught to be loyal to their denominations but had never been introduced to Christ. They had been catechized into creedal Christianity but had never been shown the Savior. They had been schooled in the memorization of scripture but had never witnessed what it means for God’s words to be hidden in the heart. They had been instructed to hate their culture but had never been encouraged to love their brother.
Triumph of Christ
Although many of the colonial missionary-masters presented a distorted version of Christianity, some Rwandans opened their heart to the Spirit’s voice and were ready to be witnesses in this “time of trouble.” In the midst of the maddening massacre, the Spirit of Messiah was mightily manifested in mysterious ways as some Hutus resisted the allure of the frenzied throng and provided refuge for the terrorized Tutsis. They realized that God has only one race–the human race–and we are all equal under heaven (Gal 3:28). While brother turned against brother, God’s remnant refused to succumb to ethnic pressure.
I believe that Paul Rusesbagina was one of God’s remnant. From the pharisaical standards of many professed Christians, the character portrayed in the movie would never have qualified for the kingdom. He had learned the ways of the world and did not think twice about doing favors for corrupt government officials or imbibing a shot of scotch on social occasions. He even uttered the odd curse word when he got upset. Many upstanding Christians would have viewed him as a heathen. However, when the time of testing came, this lapsed Seventh-day Adventist stood for godly principle and “did not love [his] life so much as to shrink from death” (Rev 12:11, TNIV).
He may not have exhibited adherence to archaic creeds crafted in ecclesiastical councils. He may not have had a perfect record of church attendance. He may not have conformed to a list of dietary restrictions or a puritan dress code. But when God called for a person to stand for him when it counted the most, Paul Rusesbagina said, “Here I am, send me!” Are you willing to be used by him? As you contemplate your response, always remember that “a tree is known by its fruit.”
Keith Augustus Burton teaches religion classes at Florida Hospital College of Health Sciences and Oakwood University. He is also the Executive Director of the non-profit organization, Life emPowerment, Inc., which encourages personal responsibility and community cooperation.