Rev Yme Woensdregt
In April 1994, 25 years ago, a vicious campaign of racial genocide began in Rwanda. In just three months, 850,000 Rwandans were slaughtered. Extremist Hutu militias were in power and saw it this as an opportunity to slaughter rival tribal Tutsis as well as more moderate Hutus.
David Gushee (pictured above), a Baptist ethicist, asked, “How could this have happened in this most Christianized country in Africa?” 90% of Rwandans claimed to be Christian. “And yet,” Gushee writes, “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)
Gushee also reminds us that that Germany was a pervasively Christian nation, yet the vast majority of German Christians were loyal to — or at least silent in the face of — Adolf Hitler and Nazism. Christians were complicit in the Holocaust.
The same thing appears to be happening again today. Donald Trump, despite his glaring deficiencies of character, enjoys the support of conservative evangelical Christians in unprecedented numbers. Many have suggested that God has anointed him to lead in this time.
We can list many other failures 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 wanted their churches to remain 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.”
I will venture to say that this is true not just of Christianity, but of most or all the world’s major religions. Islam is a religion of peace, and yet there are those who engage in violent and unfaithful actions. Judaism is primarily about shalom, but there are those who claim Jewish faith who engage in oppressive actions. The list goes on.
Gushee 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 LBGTQ 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 God’s 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 no longer know 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. We spend more time in front of our screens playing mindless games than we do in serious reflection and learning about our faith.
I’ve said before (and I’ll say it again) that Christian faith is not so much concerned about getting to heaven. Christian faith is much more concerned about how we live on earth. If our faith doesn’t make any practical difference to how we live here, 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.
People of faith, no matter the faith they claim, alongside those who claim no faith, need to work together for the healing of this fragile planet, correcting injustice and fighting oppression wherever it is found. To do any less is to dishonour the faith we claim.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook