Sunday, August 1, 2021

The Fury Once Kindled

It started with suspicion. In the years and decades before it happened, it was often the case that Hutu children were told by their elders how to think of the Tutsis: how the Tutsis were arrogant, how Tutsis were weak, how Tutsis hoarded too many cattle, how Tutsis didn't play fair, how Tutsis were always up to something. Those are the sorts of things the Hutu elders said (and the Hutu youth overheard) when they were drinking. So the Hutu kids might have had Tutsi friends, might play soccer on the same team, but they were trained from childhood to instinctively connect 'Tutsi' and 'untrustworthy.' They were always alert to the possibility that any friendship with a Tutsi was one-sided, that their Tutsi friend was really a trap waiting to spring.1

And so working and drinking with Tutsis was interspersed with unsavory Hutu jokes about just getting rid of the Tutsis and being done with it. Hutus mumbled how the land was too small, resources too scarce, they didn't want to live with these too-tall Tutsis any more. Gradually, Hutus took in talk radio talking about Tutsis, calling them names like 'cockroaches' and 'snakes.' A civil war revisited the painful past, and all the old political and class divisions collapsed into this one thing, this one area of focus, this one fault line for each to understand himself by being not that other thing. No wonder one admitted, “The Hutu infant was swaddled with hatred for the Tutsis before first opening his eyes to the world.” No wonder another Hutu described his generation being “raised in hatred, stuffed with slogans. … We became contaminated by ethnic racism without noticing it.”

Then, three days after Easter 1994, an airplane was shot out of the sky over the capital. On board was the late Rwandan president – a Hutu. Suspicion surged into fury. Having become comfortable joking about 'cockroach' and 'snake,' many Hutus were easily organized into obedient teams of exterminators – even of those they used to call 'neighbor' or 'friend.' In the moment, such memories would seldom cross their minds – not 'til the deed was done. To look at a Tutsi was no longer to recognize a person with thoughts or feelings like Hutus had. As one explained his attitude at the time, “We no longer considered the Tutsis as humans or even as creatures of God. … That is why it was easy for us to wipe them out.”

All it took was a word from some local leader, and machetes began to swing. One remarked, “Rule #1 was to kill. There was no Rule #2.” No questions asked. Over the next couple months, about ten thousand Tutsis were butchered daily by neighbors who knew them on sight. Credit where credit is due: tens of thousands of Hutus refused to join the violence, and frequently were themselves cut down in response. And yet wielding those machetes were church stewards, church trustees, church choir leaders. After all, before the civil war, Rwanda had been pointed to as one of the great evangelistic success stories, had been officially decreed as a 'Christian nation.' And yet, beneath the surface, something was going on. And when it boiled over, even one Hutu had to reflect how “in the marshes, pious Christians became ferocious killers.” In fact, sometimes the Tutsis they were killing had, just days before, been singing with them in the same church choir to the same risen Jesus. But then in a heartbeat, worship crumbled and the cutting began, sometimes even inside the very churches where they'd formerly paid lip-service to loving one another. Yes, something was going on beneath the surface – something dangerous. Long before there was blood on machetes, there was murder in their hearts. And even if no blood had ever been shed, there were already plenty of murderers walking the dirt roads. They just didn't know it yet.

One Rwandan woman, in the wake of all that happened, commented that “the history of the Hutus and Tutsis is like the story of Cain and Abel, brothers who no longer understand each other because of mere nothings.” It's worth remembering that story. The story of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam born beyond Eden's locked gates – it doesn't begin with violence. It begins with a pair of brothers, each of whom is a living image of God in a broken world. And when Cain's lackluster offering fails to get the same response from God as Abel's best, anger moves in. God warns him of sin crouching on his doorstep, like a lust-eyed beast – and Cain lets it have its way with him. He lures his brother into the field under a false pretense, and then he strikes. In the New Testament, the Apostle John walks us through what it means. “Cain... was of the Evil One,” John says. Cain was in league with Satan, anchored his behavior in the legacy of a dragon, proved to be the spawn of a serpent. How do we know? Just look at what he did: he “murdered his brother.” That much we know. But John dares to ask, Why did he murder him?” Why did Cain do what he did? “Because his own deeds were evil, and his brother's deeds were righteous” (1 John 3:12). It was an underlying moral gap in the way they lived. The one who wanted to give in to sin, he couldn't stand living in the shadow of someone who was a living testimony that Cain's way wasn't inevitable. So Cain, consumed by anger and envy and hate, nurtured those dark impulses, he nursed those bad feelings. Then he turned over not just his mind and heart, not even just his mouth, but his feet and hands and will to those inner attitudes, to the lurking beast. And so he lashed out and murdered his brother.

But, John says, Cain was a murderer before he turned over his hands and feet and will. He was even a murderer before he turned over his mouth. He was, in fact, a murderer from the moment he turned over his mind and his heart – from the moment he didn't refuse those bad feelings, the moment he watered his darker impulses. When he stopped thinking of Abel as being like himself, when he reduced Abel to an existential threat that had to be handled, when he hardened his heart against Abel, when he distanced himself from the brotherly relationship and washed his hands of responsibility to be his brother's keeper, then and there Cain was a murderer already, fist or no fist, rock or no rock. For John tells us, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15).

But John learned how to read scripture like that from listening to his Teacher. Jesus was not shy when it came to talking about this commandment against murder (Matthew 5:21). But Jesus said it wasn't enough to follow its letter if we're just ignoring its spirit. No, to resist a commandment's spirit, to stab a commandment in its heart, is to break it all the same, even if its letter should stay inviolate. And the heart of this commandment is life, is love, is esteem, is peace, is brotherhood. And so Jesus announces, “Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” in the light of this commandment (Matthew 5:22). Anger – unjust anger, the anger of Cain, the anger that demeans and holds in contempt, the anger that innately wants to lash out, the anger that bangs at the door of the will – yes, to harbor that anger against a brother or a sister is to harbor a wanted fugitive from divine justice within your heart. Evict it quick. Show it no hospitality. Eternal life's at stake.

Following Jesus, the early church used to say, “You shall not hate any person, but some you shall rebuke, for some you shall pray, and some you shall love more than your own life. … Don't be quick-tempered, for anger leads to murder; nor be jealous nor quarrelsome nor aggressive, for murder is begotten from these” (Didache 2.7; 3.2). So what is it to hate our brother and sister and neighbor? If it's enough to make you a murderer, enough to set you against the command of the Most High, enough to steal eternal life from you, then it's mightily important for you to steer as far clear of it as you can. And fundamentally, hatred is an attitude of detachment. It cultivates that fear and suspicion and anger. Think about how, even before the genocide, many Hutus treated their Tutsi brothers, not what they did outwardly but what they did inwardly, in their hearts. They exaggerated the differences. Hutu is us, Tutsi is them; Cain is me, Abel is him. They stereotyped them like villains. Hutu trust, Tutsi suspect; Cain is safe, Abel is threat. They withdrew recognition of God's image. Hutu is human, Tutsi is cockroach. Cain is son of Adam, Abel is beyond family. Then they stoked that anger, that impulse to self-justify through unleashing wrath and inflicting pain. If Cain kills Abel, Cain's sacrifice moves to top of the class. If Hutu kills Tutsi, the land can be kept in peace. So they came to wish the other person, or other group, ill. They opposed their hearts to them with pleasure. That mindset is anger, is hatred. And it doesn't just happen 'back then' and 'over there.' It happens around here.... and in here.

First, we might think of racial hatred. Thanks to decades of German and Belgian propaganda, the Hutus and the Tutsis had been taught to see themselves as different races – even though they looked just the same. But on that flimsy basis arose suspicion, fear, aversion, hate. We can't honestly say there's no such thing in our history like that. Mistrust between colonists and native tribes. Arguments about racial superiority that underpinned the slave trade. Signs and songs declaring “no Irish need apply.” Internment camps for Japanese-Americans. Jim Crow laws in the South, plenty of prejudice in the North. And our county saw protest marches in '64 just like anywhere else. Nor can we honestly say there's no such thing in our national present. Domestic terrorism striking out at minorities is just the tip of that iceberg. A survey this past March found that 95% of Black Americans see at least some discrimination against Blacks, 87% of Asian Americans see at least some discrimination against Asians, 83% of Hispanic Americans see at least some discrimination against Hispanics, and 48% of White Americans see at least some discrimination against Whites.2 That's no recipe for a healthy society. Surveys in the early 2000s suggested that about one in three Americans admitted to harboring at least “some racist feelings.”3 Even here, as I listen to people in the neighborhood, I can catch undercurrents of resentment about having to co-exist with people of other ethnicities and subcultures – especially immigrants.

And friends, these are the building blocks from which hatred is built. The stories we tell about 'real Americans' versus outsiders who need to prove themselves; the instinctive suspicion and mistrust; the anger over having to make room for those who don't look like us or talk like us – those are the same seeds that sprouted blood in Rwanda. Planted in people's hearts, they're already of the murder species before they ever bloom. If we want to take God's commandment seriously, Jesus' teaching seriously, then we have to dig up those seeds, no matter which ethnic or racial group we're failing to see as carrying God's image just as fully as another. Because racial resentment, these attitudes toward 'those people,' this group or that group, is enough to put us in Cain's sandals.

Second, we might think of political hatred. That was certainly at play in Rwanda, with its civil war pitting the established republic against the Rwandan Patriotic Front. And if anyone thinks there's no political hatred in our America today, then I don't even know where to begin.4 It's stoked in the population by political grandstanders and pundits. It comes out in insults and slurs, in sweeping pronouncements about “the Left” or “the Right.” But these things are anchored deep in our hearts. Let's face it, if you're a Democrat today, you may or may not have a problem with the Republican next door, but you're likely to have very harsh overall thoughts about “the Republicans.” And if you're a Republican, you're likely these days to harbor pretty intemperate notions about “the Democrats.” There are lots of Americans today who hate liberals, and lots who hate conservatives. These past few years have seen people break friendship and even family ties over voting habits and political instincts, because people assume the worst of anything – even a soul – attached to the 'wrong' partisan label. Some come to talk, feel, and think that the very existence of the other voters is a serious threat. We treat each other – our brothers, our sisters, our neighbors – with contempt and disdain, casting them as hordes of villains instead of as real people who have reasons and motives, who have feelings and other interests, and most of all, who were put here to represent God by the very fact that they live and move and breathe.

Once again, if we want to take God's commandment and Jesus' teaching seriously, we've got to repent. Every Republican must see a Democrat as his brother or sister, and vice versa. We have to disown the divisive power of hating each other, have to refuse to heed voices that serve only to stoke the flames of outrage, have to drop the jokes and attitudes that deny dignity to the other side. For if we don't, then in our hearts we risk becoming murderers, even if we somehow never say a word about it.

And third, we might think of personal hatred. It's easy to lose the trees for the forest. But I'm sure all of us have had hurt in our families, hurt among friends, hurt in our neighborhoods. Offense has been given or taken. Relationships strained or broken. And the words of Jesus are for here just as much as for any place else. When we distance ourselves, caricature, resent, vilify, fume at, and hate – when the personal slight looms larger in our sight than does God's image – then hate becomes our idol. And we've all known what that's like. Some of you might even have somebody pop to mind – somebody you'd really like to unload on, like to see shrivel up small, like to see humbled not because humility would be healthy for them but because it'd give you satisfaction. You wouldn't mind their coming to harm for the sake of harm. You may not take things into your own hands, may not even say a word against them, but you nurse those bad feelings inside, you feed those dark impulses. You may think you're Abel, but there's more than a touch of Cain in it when you'd prefer to be neither brother nor keeper – not of that one. And in that, our hearts can all too easily play-act murder – there's little mystery there.

To all these things, God's Law already taught the answer through Moses: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart … You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people; but you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:17-18). And now every person is our neighbor, everyone is our brother or our sister, everybody is a child of our own people. And living this alternative begins with reversing the detachment. We instead need to attach – need to identify, need to unite, need to serve the best interest of the other. We have to intentionally cultivate an awareness of the other person or other people as a living image of the God whom we've been claiming to serve. We have to ask God to pour out his love in our hearts, to let us see people as he sees them, think of people as he thinks of them, feel about people as he feels about them.

And so Jesus ranks reconciliation as so important that it takes precedence over worship, even in the middle of worship. “If you're offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). Learning from Jesus, one sixth-century preacher said, “Let no one keep in his heart hatred for his neighbor, but love instead, for if a man feels hatred toward even one person, he can't be at peace with God. A man's prayer isn't heard by God as long as anger is stored up in his soul.”5 That's why overcoming anger and hatred – ours or theirs – is so important it can come before worship. If you remember that there's a person out there you need to make peace with, Jesus is telling you to stand up, get out of your seat, and go deal with it right now – you've heard enough of the sermon if that's the one thing you get out of it, you don't need the rest, just go and call them or drive to them and set things right, and then you can get back to worship later, but first be reconciled, first quell anger, first overcome hate. Seriously, if you can think of such a present situation, go – Jesus is telling you to. Then you can come back and hear a sermon; then you can come back and sing a hymn; then you can come fellowship. But this comes first. Without routing resentment, we cannot worship.

Christians are people who renounce hate, who overcome anger. In the second-century, one Christian writer tells us about the church in his day. He says that before becoming Christians, “we hated one another and murdered one another and, because of custom, wouldn't even live under the same roof as those who weren't of the same race. Now, after the appearing of Christ, we eat at the same table, and we pray for our enemies and try to persuade those who unjustly hate...”6 And I tell you, that's a picture of the church as it needs to be today: a community where all the old hatreds, all the old resentments, all the murder attitudes of the world outside, are drowned in communion; where the dividing lines of the dying age become scrambled in Christ; where the barriers are shattered and reconfigured; where the living image of God is lifted high and embraced in each one.

And out of that attachment, we prove what's in our hearts by showing help in time of need. An early Jewish writing before the coming of Jesus draws the link, saying that “the bread of charity is life itself for the needy: whoever withholds it is a murderer” (Sirach 34:25). The Apostle John seems to agree, telling us: “We ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has this world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let's not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth!” (1 John 3:16-18). So “if” even “your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he's thirsty, give him water to drink” (Proverbs 25:21). “Overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Often, the early church managed to live this out. One second-century believer told the emperor, “Christians... comfort their oppressors and make them their friends. They do good to their enemies.”7 And that means giving life to everyone when the need arises. That kind of love will drain murder from your heart.

And finally, we show love by praying for people and guiding them toward the greatest good, which is the God who saves, because we want them to enjoy that good with us. So John advises us that “if anyone sees his brother committing a sin..., he shall ask” God in prayer, “and he will give him life” (1 John 5:16). James adds that “whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:20). Like the early church said, “Some you shall rebuke, for some you shall pray, and some you shall love more than your own life” (Didache 2.7).

One of the most loving things we can do is to help others get closer to God – not by blindly badgering them or loudly lecturing them, but by loving them and praying for them and walking with them, not just in lip-service but in reality. That's the opposite of hate and the opposite of prejudice. It's yearning for the best for them, for life for them, for abundant life and eternal life for them. It's not always a comfortable thing to seek – it isn't for nothing that John told us not to be “surprised... that the world hates you” (1 John 3:13) – but it's as much a help in need as any bodily work of mercy. We love by giving life however and wherever we can.

In all these things, we have Jesus as our power and Jesus as our example. The sins of racial, political, personal hate – they're too crafty for us to dodge on our own, to master on our own. We need his help – not to justify them but to get rid of them. For Jesus lived on earth as one with no hate in his heart – ever. Jesus refused to share anyone's prejudices against Samaritans or Greeks or Romans. Jesus refused to lose humanity in the partisan politics of the Herodians or the zealots, to say nothing of the political squabbles of far-off Rome. Even the Pharisees made him angry at their sin, angry in justice, but it wasn't the kind of anger that could ever be stretched into hatred. Jesus never harbored resentment, never gave way to fear, never failed to see and recognize his image carried by every human life. Every person he saw, he loved and sought the best for. Jesus was all love, perfect love – not in a milksop 'good vibes' way, not in a pandering way, but in a daring way, a truthful way, a challenging and confusing way. And that love led him to lay down his life on the cross for a world full of his chosen brothers and sisters. That's why John can tell us to lay down our lives for them too.

And because his Father bid him take up his life again, Jesus lives to share his love through us – to overpower our temptations, to drown out our hate and our anger, to heal our resentments and our prejudices. Jesus lives to set us free, fully free, to live this commandment, to fulfill it in him. He gives us his Spirit. And if we will let his Spirit fill us with fruit, if we will let his Church train and shape us, if we will let him feed and guide us, then even in our hearts, murder will find no foothold. May Jesus purify our hearts to be like his!

God of Surpassing Love, Fountain of Life, we come to you with repentant hearts.  We come from the world's turmoil that stokes our anger.  We come with our prejudices and our passions.  We come having lost control of ourselves.  But we come to you.  From our fears and sins release us.  Forgive us where we have raged.  Forgive us where we have resented.  Forgive us where we have envied.  Forgive us where we have hated.  By your touch, make us clean.  Correct our wrong thinking.  Soothe our wrong feeling.  Heal our wrong being.  Douse our anger with your mercy.  Keep our hearts and minds as far from murder as the east is from the west.  Open our eyes to your living image in every person, no matter their look, no matter their language, no matter their legacy, no matter their leaning.  Let us see our brothers and sisters, let us feel for them as dear family worth our all, let us be their keepers and their life-givers.  For thus did Jesus Christ treat us in his heart, and so you bid us behave toward all in our hearts.  By your Spirit, make us all love as you are all Love.  Enliven the world through your church, that we might live with unstained hearts before you, we ask in Jesus' name.  Amen.

1  In this and the next few paragraphs, descriptions and quotations are mainly taken from Jean Hatzfeld, Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak, trans. Linda Coverdale (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005 [2004]). See also Frank Chalk, “Hate Radio in Rwanda,” in Howard Adelman and Astri Suhrke, eds., The Path of a Genocide: The Rwanda Crisis from Uganda to Zaire (Transaction Publishers, 1999), 93-106; Emmanuel M. Katongole with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Mirror to the Church: Resurrecting Faith after Genocide in Rwanda (Zondervan, 2009); Richard Morrock, The Psychology of Genocide and Violent Oppression: A Study of Mass Cruelty from Nazi Germany to Rwanda (McFarland & Co., 2010), chapter 5; Timothy Longman, Christianity and Genocide in Rwanda (Cambridge University Press, 2010); J. J. Carney, Rwanda Before the Genocide: Catholic Politics and Ethnic Discourse in the Late Colonial Era (Oxford University Press, 2014); and others.

2  Andrew Daniller, “Majorities of Americans see at least some discrimination against Black, Hispanic and Asian people in the U.S.,” Pew Research Center, 18 March 2021: <>.

3  “Aquí Se Habla Español – and Two-Thirds Don't Mind,” ABC News Good Morning America, 8 October 2007: <>, page 3.

4  See, e.g., “Partisan Antipathy: More Intense, More Personal,” Pew Research Center, 10 October 2019: <>. They found that, as of September 2019, “79% of Democrats and 83% of Republicans rate [members of] the other party coldly,” a sharp and significant rise from March 2016 when “61% of Democrats gave Republicans a cold rating and 69% of Republicans gave Democrats a cold rating” (page 24).

5  Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 14.2

6  Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 14.3

7  Aristides of Athens, Apology 15

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