How a Country Where over 85% of the People Profess to be Christians Became the Site for One of the Worst Genocides in History

Joseph Nyamutera is the founder and leader of the Rabagirana Ministries in Kigali Rwanda where he works at helping people recovery from the Rwandan genocide and teaches others to do similar work.  In his teaching and speaking he often asks the thought provoking question, how did this genocide happen in an overwhelmingly Christian country.  His analysis of this is meant to prompt us to think about our present-day events.

From April to July 1994, about 100 days, a million people were butchered in Rwanda.  This is the official count based on bodies recovered and does not include people whose bodies were never found and people who died hiding in the bush with no food or shelter.

There are a few important things to know about Rwanda to understand what happened.  First, when the Belgians took over Rwanda from Germany after WWI they decided to setup one group of people that could be taught to serve as a professional class.  This was a time when globally there was a great debate over whether some groups of people were inherently superior to others or whether differences were largely cultural and environmental, and when these superficial differences are accounted for, all people are essentially equal.  The belief in the superiority of some groups was the basis for the Nazi genocide.  Examinations, including IQ testing by psychologists, were used to support the belief in the superiority of some groups.  For example, in South Africa, IQ and ability tests based on Western psychology were used during the apartheid to support the notion of the inherent superiority of whites and the limited capacity of blacks.

Siding with those believing in inherent superiority, the Belgians developed a simple solution.  Anyone with 10 or more cows would be part of the professional class and called a Tutsi, and those with less were lower class and called Hutus.  These “tribes” did not exist before and were simply socioeconomic classes based on the idea that those with more material possessions were showing greater ability.  With that distinction in place it was a simple matter to accord prestige, power and economic access to Tutsis, and deny it to Hutus.

Clearly, this was an environment made to build resentment over injustice.  And this was just the beginning.  Cycles of violence followed.  The first major outbreak of violence was in 1959 in the Rwanda Rebellion when Hutus killed large numbers of Tutsi and forced 100,000 to flee the country.  Once the Hutus gained control of the country in 1962 they began a regular campaign to demonize the Tutsi.  The government blamed Tutsis for the country’s problems.  Tutsis formed a rebel army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front and the country descended into civil war.  The UN intervened and attempted to negotiate a settlement, called the Arusha Accords.  These Accords were seen as favoring the Tutsi and as working against the Hutus.  In this tense and distrustful environment all that was needed was a trigger.  That came in April 1994 when the airplane of Rwandan President Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down.  While both sides were under suspicion, Tutsis were blamed, and the genocide started.

The Genocide Memorial in Kigali Rwanda

Joseph Nyamutera describes six roots to the genocide that have their basis in the nature of the Christian church in Rwanda.  First was a syncretistic approach to Christian faith, syncretism being the blending or merging of different ideas and traditions.  One of these ideas is the idea of the “big man”, that is, an emphasis on a powerful leader.  Rather than developing the members of the church, the church emphasized the power of the leader.

Second, during the revival of the ‘30s and after there was an emphasis on numbers of converts over the development of faith.  As a result, many people were nominal Christians who did not have much education or knowledge about their faith and how to put it in action.

Third, Nyamutera sees the approach to Christian education as very narrow, emphasizing one or a few topics but not a broader understanding of Christian faith and how to apply it.  This is compounded by (fourth) a lack of adequate and contextual discipleship for church members.

His last two points involve conflict and competition.  There was disunity between denominations.  Rather than respecting differences, there were the basis for criticism and rejection.  Finally, there was a “marriage” between faith and politics resulting in people imbuing political differences with spiritual significance, thus making them much more consequential and emotional.

While there are other factors in the genocide, such as the government information campaign demonizing Tutsis, Nyamutera’s faith-based model of the genocide suggests an interesting hypothesis: that a strong church can counter political and social forces that lead to violence.  I interpret from his model that a strong church, and along with it a strong theology, is one that emphasizes developing a depth of faith among members, fosters respect and cooperation among all people rather than conflict and competition.  It would eschew politics and take a broad approach to faith and community to avoid becoming aligned with narrow political issues.

Some of the same criticism has been aimed at US Evangelicals.  Political writer Jennifer Rubin writing in the Washington Post[1], states …

“The notion that lies don’t matter, that politics is akin to a religious mission, strikes many Americans as a scary repudiation of the Constitution’s establishment clause. Protecting Trump and dodging critics who raise legitimate issues about his behavior have now become acts of faith”.

Others have criticized the conservative church for focusing on abortion and gender rights to the exclusion of all else; for focusing on numbers and engaging leaders over developing a deeper faith among the multitude; and fomenting division between faith groups, especially Muslims.  Katherine Stewart, writing in The Nation about how abortion became a political tool, writes:

“Once the strategy of using abortion as the unifying issue for the right was settled, theology changed dramatically in order to service this new purpose. Falwell committed himself to a new version of the Gospel in which protecting fetal life was the defining element of membership in the community of God. To be a member of the anxious, dislocated, white working class was also to be opposed to the immoral “others” in society who endorsed abortion.”[2]

Evangelicals, like other conservative groups, are more likely to express negative views about Muslims. Kate Shellnut, writing in Christianity Today says:

“While Americans overall have warmed up to Muslims in recent years, white evangelicals express more concerns about US Muslims than any other religious group. Two-thirds of white evangelicals believe Islam is not part of mainstream American society and contend that it encourages violence more than other faiths, according to Pew.”

If Joseph Nyamutera is right, then these developments are symptoms of a deeper problem within the church rather than problems created by our polarized political environment or the Trump administration.  What then are some conclusions we can draw from this for churches elsewhere?

  • While individuals can certainly engage in politics, when the church becomes political, or there is wholesale alignment with one political view, the church’s role in the community is compromised, even corrupted.
  • Demonization of any group, which is too often seen in politics, runs counter to the churches message that all people are worthy of respect as part of God’s creation.
  • If the church is to change then there must be a movement for peace and reconciliation between groups with the larger faith community.
  • Church leadership must focus on building a deeper understanding of faith and theology. Likewise, when theology is compromised or corrupted, leadership must call for correction.  In the Evangelical community this is difficult because there is no central leadership.  However, there are groups, like NAE in the US and WEA globally, that could fill this role if they were to assert themselves.

I am not suggesting that the US is heading for a genocide.  The conditions Nyamutera writes about could lead to a variety of events.  In Rwanda they combined with an ongoing government campaign to demonize Tutsis.  But there are parallels to the US.  A benign interpretation would be that the church is not the force for peace and reconciliation that it could be, and we should begin to discuss that.  A very negative view would be that the US is already seeing an increase in hate crimes, and the church could be said to be complicit.  Whichever the case may be, what is needed is an open dialog about these issues, and a movement for change.

For more about Joseph’s work in Rwanda see




One thought on “How a Country Where over 85% of the People Profess to be Christians Became the Site for One of the Worst Genocides in History

  • March 20, 2018 at 4:30 am

    This is a great article to remind us how important it is to live together in peace. Whatever we have, as great as our achievements may be, without love they and we are nothing! We need to open up our communities to each other, we need to talk about any subject without condemning each other, we need to open our hearts for and to each other… there are still high barriers and walls erected around us, the church. Love is bringing these walls down – for that we need humble and courageous men and women to stand up for justice, truth and reconciliation. Love binds us together… it is the love of Christ, who died for us and who rose again. There is power in the love of Christ!


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