On Living Faithfully and Compassionately

Pictured above: Baptist ethicism David Gushee

By Yme Woensdregt

Almost 26 years ago, in April 1994, a vicious campaign of racial genocide began in Rwanda. In 100 days, 850,000 Rwandans were slaughtered. Extremist Hutu militias were in power, and they saw an opportunity to slaughter rival tribal Tutsis as well as more moderate Hutus. Here was a chance to solidify their base by getting rid of their “enemies”.

The tragic irony of this massacre is that some 90% of the people in Rwanda claimed to be Christian.

As a result, Baptist ethicist David Gushee asled, “How could this have happened in the most Christianized country in Africa?” He continues, “And yet, all of that Christianity did not prevent genocide, which church officials did little to resist, in which a large number of Christians participated, and in which, according to African Rights, ‘more people died in churches and parishes than anywhere else.’” (David P. Gushee, “Church Failure: Remembering Rwanda”, The Christian Century, April 20, 2004)

Canadian Lt.–Gen Romeo Dallaire, who was in charge of the UN peacekeeping mission during the genocide, returned to Canada devastated and angry. He continues to be haunted by his inability to prevent the genocide or to convince the international community to do more to stop it.

Why do I raise this issue so long after the fact?

It strikes me that similar kinds of things continue to happen in our world today. Let me mention just a few: certain Christian leaders support acts of hatred and violence against minority groups; they support the policies of the Trump administration on the southern border of the US, where families are ripped apart in heartless refugee camps; they continue to make angry statements against refugees who are seeking to escape a horrific existence; they support policies which prevent people from wearing religious garb if they are public servants; they continue to act in ways that limit the rights and inherent human dignity of members of the LGBTQ community; they remain silent in the face of increasing attacks against synagogues and mosques.

Gushee reminds us that 1930’s Germany was also a pervasively Christian nation, and yet the vast majority of German Christians were loyal to or silent in the face of the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism. These Christians were complicit in the hatred against Jews and the Holocaust.

There have been many such failures on the part of the church. Dutch white South African Christians were the architects of apartheid. Most American and European slaveholders and slavetraders claimed to be Christian. Christians in Canada were guilty of abuse in residential schools. White southern American Christians opposed Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement and acted to keep their churches segregated.

David Gushee’s reflections on Rwanda can be applied more broadly: “The presence of churches in a country guarantees nothing. The self–identification of people with the Christian faith guarantees nothing. All of the clerical garb and regalia, all of the structures of religious accountability, all of the Christian vocabulary and books, all of the schools and seminaries and parish houses and Bible studies, all of the religious titles and educational degrees — they guarantee nothing.”

He asks why this should be so for Christians, and comes up with three basic reasons.

Firstly, some preachers and churches continue to proclaim hateful versions (what Gushee calls “bastardized versions”) of the Christian message, namely that God does not love people who are different, whether they be members of the LGBTQ community or liberals or Jews or Muslims or (fill in the blank).

Secondly, we can’t assume that those who fill the pews are serious about the Christian faith. People come to church for a wide variety of reasons, and not all who identify themselves as Christians are open to the influence of the Holy Spirit.

His third, and I think most important, insight is that for most of us, Christian faith is “not the only or even the primary factor affecting the attitudes and behavior of those who claim to be Christian.” We spend more time in front of the television than we do thinking about our faith. We know more about favourite sports teams than the Bible, and we have forgotten how to think biblically. We are more influenced by politics and economics and ideology and fashion trends and what our neighbours think than we are by theology.

As I’ve said many times before, Christian faith is not about getting to heaven, or about accepting Jesus as “your personal Lord and Saviour” or about reading the Bible a certain way. Jesus was always more concerned with how we live on earth and how we treat our neighbours. If our faith doesn’t make any practical difference to how we live, then it has no value. If people can slaughter others while claiming to be Christian, there’s a huge problem with that. It’s like that wonderful scene in The Godfather which superimposes a baptism with a Mafia hit.

The purpose of Christian faith is to transform us so that we walk in faithful ways of peace and shalom, seeking the well–being of the world, and working for the health of the whole global village. Christian faith seeks to train us to be people of compassion and grace. Above all, the heart of Christian faith is to be loving in everything we do and say.

We work together with people of many other faiths, as well as those who claim no faith, for the healing of this fragile planet, to stand against injustice, and to fight oppression wherever it is found. To do any less is to dishonour the faith we claim.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Cburch Anglican in Cranbrook

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