Fifteen years ago last Tuesday the killings started. In just 100 days almost a million people were killed. Nearly two thousand years ago last Friday God’s Son was killed. The conjunction of the two remembrances in one week was striking to me even though the events are distant from each other in time and scale. For all their differences I see them as closely linked in important ways as I’ll explain below.
Today is Sunday, Easter. On Friday, Good Friday, I attended an evening service at the New Life Church. I returned there for the Easter service this morning. The church building was constructed last year so this is the first Easter weekend held on the campus.
Less than a mile further up the road is one of the major killing fields in Kigali—at least it had been in 1994. Thousands were marched up the hillside road, past our present church location, to a compound where they were then slaughtered. This past Tuesday that location was the main setting for Rwanda’s mourning and reflection. Thousands attended, President Kigame included, in a nationally televised service. More poignantly there were many attending who are now orphans—remainders and reminders of whole families. They are called the survivors. Extended families—fifty or more in some cases—had been extinguished, most killed by machetes and all too often by ‘friends’ and neighbors. Some were even betrayed by spouses if they had been born to the ‘wrong’ tribal group. Mercy had gone missing.
Construction of the church was slowed last year when bones, bits of clothing and personal items were found just under the top layers of earth. A part of the soil had been soaked with blood fifteen years earlier.
In Jerusalem the ground had also been soaked with blood at the foot of the cross. The size of the stain was small but the grief of the surviving family member was just as real. He ripped the one garment he had at hand from top to bottom. He watched as his beloved Son was killed by crucifixion at the hands of merciless soldiers.
On Friday we sang and prayed. After the time of personal prayers we shared together in taking communion. Never has the reading of Matthew 26:28 and 1 Corinthians 11:28 had as much impact on me as this Friday night. All week we were recalling days of blood-letting—and now on Friday we shared a unique day of remembering an unspeakable death: “for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
I’ve met a number of Rwandan survivors by now—and I realize there are at least two types. Both of the groups I have in mind are somber as they remember who and what they’ve lost. Grief is an emotion that can revisit us even years after a loss. But one group still lives as the victims of the genocide. The other group lives in light of Easter Sunday.
Victims—in the sense I’m using here—are those who share a set of common features. There is, for one, an unexamined sense of moral entitlement that transmits the virus of evil to the next generation. By that I mean that victims tend to elevate their status to a transcendent standing among peers because their pain is accepted as tragic and, therefore, as uniquely elevated. With that it can be perpetually elevated as a status for life. Inexplicably the perpetual victim then feels free to damage others without feeling grief for what they’ve done. So they become victimizers as well as victims—spilling out gratuitous gifts of pain and distrust on innocent bystanders, perhaps in order to have others feel how their own pain and insecurity feels.
A fraternal twin of moral entitlement is bitterness. Bitterness continues to chain victims—often unwittingly—to their victimizers. Victims live as reactors rather than as actors because their hatred towards the perpetrator sustains a captivating focus that blurs and subsumes every other vision for life. Why? Because the perpetrator remains at center stage in the victim’s emotional gaze. He or she—or they—become inescapable companions for as long as bitterness holds sway.
Another dimension is stillborn hope. The victim remains oriented to the past rather than to the future. Pain is reviewed, tasted, tested, and renewed until every other emotion is dulled to silence apart from the deep ache of betrayed trust and the resulting tragedy of self-absorption and the associated addictions of self-medicating behaviors.
Finally, victims are deeply lonely because others around them are ill-equipped to sustain, vicariously, the consuming energy of hating another. So friends and even family eventually abandon any true emotional bond with the victim—for the sake of their own health—and replace it with increasingly detached pity and sometimes with actual separation.
The victim, then, is a person who was broken and who prefers to stay that way by adding new layers of victimhood. So their tragedy multiplies as the first perpetrator continues to hurt, and hurt, and hurt again—even if he or she has long since departed.
Today—Easter—is the day that celebrates the end of victimization through the pooled blood of Jesus on Friday and the empty tomb on Sunday. In this sequence of days Jesus was both the ultimate victim and the ultimate healer. To know him is to find comfort and to be able to share comfort with others.
Let’s return to the Rwandan genocide. With that tragedy we can also speak of the holocaust of World War II, of Bosnia, of Darfur, of the Garden of Eden. In each case evil erupted and death followed. In each of these the victim treats God as responsible which then locates God in the status of an ultimate perpetrator. This closes God off as an option the victim can look to for relief. Bitterness undermines faith.
What is so remarkable about how the entire Bible treats this subject—it’s called theodicy—is that it always rejects the victim’s charge that God has done what is evil or is in any way chargeable. Yet, in a seeming paradox, the Bible also treats evil as something God rules over to his own good ends.
An example of this comes in the story of Joseph’s life in Genesis 50 where his brothers who had betrayed him years earlier gathered to meet with him after their father Jacob died. They were worried that he would now repay them. Joseph at that stage had the power to execute them if he wished. Yet he answered softly, “As for you, you meant it for evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” His statement is remarkable. He cited one event—the brothers’ betrayal—and two agencies: God’s intent for good and their human intent to sin. Human accountability was not dismissed—the brothers would still have to face God—but God owned the events themselves as something he meant for good.
The victim will quickly ask, “That’s nice but how can such a narrow event be equated with genocide!” Good Friday and Easter are pivotal in offering a response—and these two days are the basis for confidence among all who live by faith rather than as victims.
The cross is another example of divine and human double agency. Consider, for instance, how Jesus spoke to both sides of his looming crucifixion. Of Judas, his betrayer, he said, “It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” But to Peter, who tried to rescue Jesus from capture by using his sword, Jesus intervened: “Put your sword back into its place.” Only through the crucifixion could “the Scriptures be fulfilled”. So, the Biblical application of a double moral agency was at work here: the Son of God was murdered in a terrible injustice and, in God’s eyes, this was the ultimate expression of evil; while at the same time the cross represents God’s ultimate mercy through Christ’s role as our atoning sacrifice.
The Gospel of John puts this together as a theme. Evil is the product of rebellion which is unfolded in John 3. God loves the world enough to send the Son on a mission of redemption; but the world loved—and still loves—darkness instead. This was not a surprise to God—the freedom of heart that humanity has been given allows us to love the creation rather than the Creator; to love self and pleasure rather than God; and to love independence rather than dependence; to worship personal security rather than God. And to blame God for our own evil.
What humanity didn’t expect and still doesn’t seem to grasp is what I call the slosh factor of sin. The sins of individuals and societies stir together like a series of intersecting waves that form unexpected synergies of tsunami-like power. World War I began with an assassin’s bullet in Sarajevo that cascaded unexpectedly into a tragedy for dozens of nations. Examples of this can still be found. Today the use of recreational drugs by a host of individuals—each viewing their choices as too small to matter—threatens whole governments. American loan policies—when set free from the boundaries of honesty—unleashed our current economic crisis. God allows all of this to happen because he allows us freedom not to love him. The parable of the prodigal son and the loving father’s open arms is God’s answer to theodicy.
So it was that the 1994 tragedy in Rwanda has been linked to policies by colonial rulers decades earlier that cascaded into murderous ethnic hatred. One small feature—ethnic identification cards—became a virtual death certificate for any Tutsi Rwandans once the genocide began. Small events and policies—there were many others—led to a tsunami of shed blood from April to July fifteen years ago.
Now, back to Easter. God’s glory is that with his own freedom to love he gave the Son over to a mission of death. The theme of theodicy was shared by Jesus in John 12:
The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
The plan of the cross was to have Jesus reverse the slosh factor. The analogy Jesus used was from agriculture: seeds for planting are needed to generate a multiplied harvest of seed for food. The sacrificial actions of a few extend by multiplication to bring life to the many. Yet the point of the seed being planted was that a sinless man would need to die: Jesus, by being “lifted up” in crucifixion, despite being sinless himself, would then “draw all people to myself.” This was the basis for God’s glory—that God’s plan was to expend his Son’s life in order to extend his mercy to many. Love is the antidote to evil.
Rwanda’s tragedy is answered by the ultimate victim who was never willing to take on the identity of a victim. Jesus came to the cross willingly. It was his Father’s purpose to have the Son take on human nature so that humans could unite with both his death and his life. By entering into a real union with Jesus through the Spirit’s new life from above, each believer is freed from the rule of evil.
Here’s the bottom line of this story: God is not the author of evil. But he allows evil to be exposed for what it is and for what it does: it breeds death. But in his Son’s death God has co-opted evil for good to all who join in Christ’s death and then live in his life. In our Easter service today those survivors who were elevated as victims last Tuesday but who now have new life in Christ are not victims but victors—now sharing in Christ’s eternal life. His shed blood trumps the shed blood of Rwanda by showing how love trumps evil, bitterness, and slavery. God is not the author of evil but the author of salvation: “Christ is risen.” He is risen indeed! And so are we who now love him and share in his life.