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I Can Only Imagine: A Vision of Peace and a Place of Sanctuary


Carmen Lau, a board member of Adventist Forum, recently traveled to Rwanda as part of her research thesis for a Master’s in Anthropology, Peace, and Human Rights at University of Alabama at Birmingham. In this three-part series, she explores what led to the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, how the Church is healing in the wake of its involvement, and where church members go next.

In 1994 before the genocide, Rwanda was a Christian society. Eighty-five percent identified as Roman Catholic. About ten percent were Adventists. During the genocide, the line of good and evil crossed through each Christian group, in sharp contrast to the Muslims who consistently provided spaces of refuge. Currently, Roman Catholic membership in Rwanda has decreased to forty-nine percent. I attended a packed St. Famille Church in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda for Mass at 7:00 a.m. on Sunday, among several thousand Rwandans, including many young children who were dressed up and seated at quiet attention on wooden pews during the 45-minute service. In Kigali, the Adventist church has a visible presence with beautiful buildings. I saw attractive physical structures at the Rwandan Union Mission and at both campuses of the Adventist University of Central Africa (AUCA). In addition, one person in our group received outstanding care at the Adventist Medical Clinic in Kigali. The Rwandan Adventist Church continues to grow, and as our group traveled to rural destinations, I frequently saw Adventist schools. We walked through Kigeme Refugee Camp 50 miles from the border with Congo where 20,000 people live. Entrance signs feature ADRA as lead partner with UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and credit ADRA for building over fifty classrooms in the region. In addition, I saw many signs throughout our travels crediting ADRA with building roads.

Rwanda has taken intentional steps to promote peace. The country has a new flag and emphasizes the concept of “One Rwanda.” Gacaca Courts offer a reconfigured justice process that has relieved crowded prisons post-genocide while offering community-based restorative justice for perpetrators who have confessed to wrongdoing. School textbooks refer to the genocide, and the country has 263 memorials to the victims of the genocide. In the context of the Adventist church, many steps are in place to promote unity and peace, and while there is a separation of church and state, AUCA has a prominently placed photo of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who is credited with leading the peace after the genocide. Phodidas Ndamyumugabe is a beloved professor at AUCA and a genocide survivor who wrote a dissertation examining how Adventists responded during the 100-day genocide. He states that a significant factor in the Adventists’ dismal response was that many people lacked deep biblical conversion. This realization has permeated the church as several Adventists I met mentioned TMI, Total Member Involvement, being a positive step in the Rwandan Adventist Church.

Within the Adventist context, I wonder if this absence of deep biblical conversion could have been the loss of the true meaning of Shabbat Shalom which left the Rwandan church unprepared and impotent during the early 1990s. Moreover, might I suggest that the same problem still exists within the context I know best: North America. Have we embraced true Sabbath keeping? Our situation is ironic. After all, don’t we hold a measure of pride in our decision to keep the “right” day? In Rwanda, some Adventists laid down machetes and quit the “work” of killing to keep Sabbath. Pastor Ntakirutimana did not “work” on Sabbath, but he was seen riding in a car away from the Mugonero Church, thus allowing those who sought shelter in an Adventist sanctuary to be massacred on Sabbath, the “right” day. (See part two of this series.) I suggest that it might be wise for Adventist church members to recommit ourselves to the significant implications of Shabbat Shalom, the biblical Sabbath. Claudius Plantinga (1995) defines the concept this way:

The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight — a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.

Has our embrace of “Happy Sabbath” theology flattened this rich Sabbath meaning? Churches in North America frequently crescendo in quirky rounds of “Happy Sabbath.” This benign, congenial practice may flow from a joyous shedding of legalistic constraints, but has prevalent use of this phrase allowed us to avoid the deeper implications of Shalom as noted in the Old Testament? Gary Patterson gives context to the use of “Happy Sabbath” and helps us seek further meaning. Following that trajectory and after reflecting on the Rwandan Genocide, this essay builds on what it means to keep the Sabbath. What if the mission of the Adventist church were to encourage an authentic, meaningful Shabbat Shalom in the context of Jesus’ teachings?

Carl Wilkens, former Rwandan ADRA Director and the only American who stayed during the genocide, has sought purpose and meaning in the years after that traumatic time. In his view, the three core elements to ensure flourishing are REI (respect, empathy, inclusion) as noted in part two of this series. Schematically, he sees community and purpose as two mirroring crescents that are intertwined by these strands of respect, empathy, and inclusion. Thus, a religious group must have a purpose and should provide a sense of community, and to be deeply successful, the strands of respect, empathy, and inclusion must thread these twin components together. I find Plantinga’s synthesis of Shabbat Shalom to buttress Wilkens’ schemata. That is to say, Shabbat Shalom has the elements needed for healthy, spiritual community.

In the context of Adventism, Willkens’ vision of a healthy spiritual group deserves significant respect. He speaks with the voice of one who stood for the right during the Rwandan genocide. A “right day” Sabbath theology only might be built on shifting sand while a “Shabbat Shalom” Sabbath theology is built on a rock which creates space for peace, connection, affirmation, and love. Mantras of “Happy Sabbath” are fine, but Sabbath meaning must go beyond that. “Happy Sabbath” is okay, but it does not reflect the deeper joy and peace that reside in Shabbat Shalom. That is to say, Sabbath observance must pierce beneath a veneer of smiling people who speak a catchy phrase, and, instead, point to purpose and create space for the nurture of community with a resolve to be committed to ensuring the flourishing of others.

Keeping Sabbath must be more than church on the “right” day. Sabbath involves shalom and all the peace that comes with it. Peace is a process. Keeping Sabbath is also a process that is perpetual and all encompassing. Human happiness, joy, and well‐being rest on two pillars: health and peace. A deficit in either diminishes them, and both health and peace are best understood as fluid processes, not as stagnant states. The Adventist church has a rich history in supporting both of these pillars. In our current tumultuous world, a health message and a return to Sabbath-keeping may very well be our unique and much-needed message for this time.

Health can be defined as a process leading to physical, mental, social, and spiritual well‐being with a goal to encourage full realization of the human potential. Peace is a “behavioral process aimed at negating violence, keeping aggression in check, and maintaining just and mutually beneficial and harmonious interactions and relationships” (Verbeek and Peters 2018). Peace is not merely the absence of war; it is also the overcoming of injustice and oppression. In positive terms, it is a life that is blessed, affirmed, loved, and successfully blesses, affirms, and loves —life as shalom. Shabbat Shalom. What if our outreach to join us in Sabbath keeping had no doctrinal arguments but was instead offered as an invitation for sharing that would feature respect, empathy, and inclusion springing between anchors of purpose and community?

What if the Adventist Church offered a vision of peace and a place of sanctuary? What if we go beyond “Happy Sabbathing?” Could we create a transformative space of REI where we refuse to submit to powerful voices that scapegoat the Other? I heard a survivor who lived through the genocide in Gisimba Orphanage describe seeing Carl Wilkens in a pickup truck bringing water for the children. I am not sure if Rwandan Adventists were saying “Happy Sabbath” in 1994. I am sure that some were living Shabbat Shalom.


Notes & References:

Plantinga, Cornelius, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, 1995, B. Eerdman’s, Grand Rapids.

Verbeek, Peter, and Peters, Benjamin, Peace Ethology: Behavioral Processes and Systems of Peace, 2018, Wiley, Blackwell.


Further Reading:
Part 1: Getting a Mental Detox in Rwanda
Part 2: Ensuring Sanctuary in Sanctuary: Respect, Empathy, and Inclusion

See Spectrum‘s 2003 report on the trial of Adventist Pastor Elizaphan Ntakirutimana by Alita Byrd.


Carmen Lau is a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum. She lives and writes in Birmingham, Alabama.

Image: Lake Kivu, Rwanda. Photo by Serrah Galos on Unsplash


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