Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
In the early to mid-1990s, Rwanda experienced an unbelievable genocide. There had been significant ethnic tension between the Hutus (85% of the population) and the Tutsis (14% of the population). When the Hutus came to power, they remembered the years of oppressive rule by the Tutsis.
Living with a spirit of revenge, not forgiveness, and fearing the minority Tutsis, the Hutus conducted a mass slaughter of the Tutsis. As noted by the United Human Rights Council, “In the weeks after April 6, 1994, 800,000 men, women, and children perished in the Rwandan genocide, perhaps as many as three quarters of the Tutsi population. At the same time, thousands of Hutu were murdered because they opposed the killing campaign and the forces directing it.” This represented about 20% of the nation’s population!
In the midst of this atrocity, and the decimation of an ethnic people and a church, God raised up a man and a ministry to address the needs. In 1994 Dr. Celestin Musekura was overwhelmed by the genocide. More specifically, he was deeply concerned because 70% of Rwandan pastors had been killed or were forced into exile. There was both a loss of life and a loss of leadership in the church to address the aftermath of this hatred. And he knew that apart from the gospel of Jesus Christ that would allow one to forgive not get even, there would be no hope for his people or his country. He founded the ministry of the African Leadership And Reconciliation Ministries (ALARM, Inc.) specifically to address the crisis of Christian leadership in the African churches. He continues to serve as the president to this day.
Musekura was recently interviewed about these events. He recounts what happened during these days, and the days that followed. I was especially struck by his response to the question asked toward the end of the interview: “What do we as evangelicals need to learn from your experiences about the meaning of equality and forgiveness?” With a commitment to biblical truth and a life lived based on this truth in the midst of horrendous atrocities, Musekura answered (I have added headings),
First, Divisions Are Problematic
Even though you don’t have the tribes of Hutus and Tutsis, you have dividing things that divide the Americans. . . . Whether it’s race—black, white or yellow, or whatever—you have those tendencies that divide us – brings us to be against someone. So that is a big problem for Christians because as we in Africa get divided on tribe, in America you get divided on other issues.
So the first thing that you need to learn is anything that divides us against them, anything that divides us and separates us from the other group, that is already a problem.
Second, Forgiveness Consists of Giving Up the Right to be Right
The second lesson is, forgiveness does not have to be genocidal, the forgiveness that you can learn from us is that sense of giving up the right to be right
One of the biggest challenges, one of the biggest problems for Americans is the sense of justice. And the sense of justice triumphs over the sense of forgiveness. And so we always have the tenet that, no, they get what they deserve. But if God would say, “You get what you deserve,” you and I would not be here.
So how can we as Christians in America learn to forgive, to give up even our right to be right? Because that’s the weakness of American Christianity, is I want to be right. And forgiveness means to give up the right to be right, to even pay the cost of forgiveness.
So there are issues we need to bring back to the cross and say if I am full of Christ this can be forgiven. We can work on these relationships. There is no sin that cannot be forgiven.
Third, Forgiveness Is Not a Choice But a Command
And so, the third lesson is that forgiveness is not a choice for us Christians. For us evangelicals, forgiveness is not just a suggestion. From the biblical understanding, it is a command and is unconditional.
And so the lesson that we are learning is without forgiveness we can’t have any real community, any fellowship. Forgiveness is the only way, I would say, that builds community together, that builds families together, that brings Christians to model what it means to be Christ-like. But also – without forgiveness there is no hope.
So I think those three lessons are lessons that you can learn, learn together so that you don’t have to forgive someone who murdered because anything that is against you causes hatred, anything that causes anger, bitterness, resentment – anything that causes resentment, you need to deal with it, because it can grow, it can cause the bitterness, it can cause hatred, it can cause killing.
We need to learn how to undo our bitterness, our anger and revenge and give up our right to be right so that we forgive one another as we have been forgiven.
That is what I think evangelicals need to learn – forgiveness is unconditional. It’s not a suggestion, it’s not when you feel it, it’s not a feeling, it’s a decision we make because it is a command that we forgive as we have been forgiven.