“The Hope of Forgiveness“
A Review of
As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation From Rwanda.
by Catherine Claire Larson.
By Laretta Benjamin.
“Not only is another world possible, she is on her way.
On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” — Arundhati Roy
“Through compassion we also sense the hope of forgiveness in our friend’s eyes and our hatred in their bitter mouths. When they kill, we know we could have done it; when they give life, we know we could do the same. For a compassionate man nothing human is alien.” — Henri Nouwen
One of the most powerful kingdom-stories of our time is unfolding today in the small African country of Rwanda. Inspired by the documentary, “As We Forgive” – produced by Laura Waters Hinson – Catherine Claire Larson built upon Laura Hinson’s research and has created a compelling book of the same name. She gives us a powerful picture of what is taking place in Rwanda today, after the hellish events that took place there almost 15 years ago.
As many of us will remember, in April of 1994, a genocide of incredible proportions began in the small nation of Rwanda. Over a period of 100 days, it is estimated that 800,000 to 1 million Rwandans were brutally murdered, approximately 300,000 of whom were children. Neighbors killed neighbors and those once known as friends slaughtered each other. In the opening pages of As We Forgive, the author lays out before us the key events that led to this human tragedy. Her very helpful timeline traces events back as far as 1885 to the days of the European powers and their control of much of Africa. The seeds of tension and division were being planted even then.
Ms. Larson writes with great truthfulness and emotion as she shares with us the events of the past few years in Rwanda’s little corner of the world. This book’s story begins in 2003, when, because of prison overcrowding and with a desire to promote national reconciliation, the president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, ordered that “elderly, sick and low-level killers and looters from the 1994 genocide who had confessed their crimes” be released from the prisons. As of January 2008, an estimated 70,000 prisoners had been set free – back into the communities and neighborhoods where the atrocities were committed – to live side-by-side with the people they had sinned against. “If they told you that a murderer was to be released into your neighborhood, how would you feel? But what if this time, they weren’t just releasing one, but forty thousand” (16)? For many of us this question might be just a philosophical one for casual discussion, but for Rwandans, it is real. They are being called upon to face the reality of what happened among them 15 years ago and look into the faces of those responsible for that reality. They are being asked to embrace forgiveness, healing and wholeness – God’s shalom. It is a picture of the kingdom of God coming, a compelling display of the way of the cross. This story is a real life drama of “overcoming evil with good” that is being called “one of the most closely watched experiments in forgiveness in our world today.” As We Forgive gives us a wonderful glimpse of the unfolding story.
First-hand accounts from those who survived the horrors of this genocide fill the pages of this book. Their stories are chilling and haunting and their experiences are the stuff that nightmares are made of. We might be tempted to think: “Survivors could not imagine living side by side with their torturers.” Yet, that is exactly what is happening. Words can’t begin to convey what all this means for many Rwandans… and what it should mean for us… but Catherine Larson makes an outstanding effort.
“…this is part of the importance of understanding. If Rwandans can find the courage to forgive, then perhaps there is hope for us in those problems that seem to pale in comparison and in those that echo the horrors of the genocide. This is why I see a country known for radical brutality becoming, person by person, a place known for radical forgiveness. I want to understand. While this process is far from complete, every instance is so beautiful so extraordinary, so beyond ordinary human capability, that it demands our attention and exploration. We in the West, just as Rwandans, desperately need to understand forgiveness. We live in a violent world filled with conflicts. Political polarization, terrorist attacks, racial tensions, immigration fears, and school shootings define our national landscape. Meanwhile, privately, we struggle with broken marriages, splintered relationships, and doubts that pierce us to the core. Could there be a common road map to reconciliation” (19)?
There are some questions for reflection and discussion sprinkled throughout the book which help to guide us in broadening this discussion – so this journey of forgiveness taking place in Rwanda can also become our journey. It is not an impossible journey but neither is it an easy one, as we are able to see in the struggles of our Rwandan brothers and sisters on the pages of this book. “Looking at some of the monsters of the Rwandan genocide— men who sliced open the abdomens of pregnant women, who peeled the skin of their victim’s back with machetes, or who smashed the heads of babies against the walls of churches—the notion of forgiveness became nearly impossible for me to imagine. How could anyone forgive such acts and such people” (88)? “But this is not a path, or a book, for the faint of heart. For the boy whose face bears the scars of a torturous gash, for the child who witnessed her family burned alive, for the daughter who cannot blot out the picture of her father’s blood-soaked face, forgiveness is one of the most excruciating journeys imaginable. Its miles wind through chasms of pain and across solitary deserts of rage. Yet, while it is perhaps the most difficult of all journeys, it is, nonetheless, a journey that is possible…scars can become the intersection of justice and mercy, stitched by forgiveness, the only thread strong enough to bind these wounds. Through forgiveness, these scars cease to be emblems of vengeance, becoming instead evidence of supernatural hope. This is the story that Rwanda can tell the world. This is a story we need to understand.” (20)
Ms. Larson shares very powerfully the other side of the story as well. “But even as survivors were tormented with fears and questions, so also were many of the offenders themselves. Saveri, one of those released from prison remembers his emotions: “I was so overjoyed, but fear lingered also. How was I going to face a survivor and squarely look her in the eyes after I wiped out her family?” This thought stirred a deep fear in him. Similarly, John, a man who had killed his neighbor, says: “I had a mixture of fear when I learned I was going to be released from prison. After a long time in prison it was hard for me to come back to the community that I had sinned against. My biggest challenge was how I was going to meet Chantal, whose father I had killed.” (17).
If you listen closely as you read this book, you can hear the sounds of another world being born in the midst of great labor pains in Rwanda. This book is on my list as a must-read for all of God’s people for so many reasons. For those of us in North American culture, our concern and awareness of so much of what has happened and is happening in our world today is, by our own choice, very limited. I would imagine a large majority of us would have trouble giving even a general account of what happened in Rwanda in 1994 or sharing stories of what is happening in so many other places in our world today. I think Ms. Larson’s writing helps to open our eyes to the incredible suffering that many have endured and continue to endure in this broken world. May God open our minds and hearts to life beyond our borders. Through these powerful stories from Rwanda, Ms. Larson gives us a wonderful glimpse into the ways God is working in so many places of this world. We need desperately to overcome the arrogance that so many times pervades our thinking toward the rest of the world. There is so much we can learn from them, as the stories of As We Forgive remind us. Because of the “comfortableness” with which most of us in this culture live our lives, our understanding of much of the gospel and the teachings of Christ can be incredibly shallow. The act of forgiving someone who butchered our family is beyond comprehension when we have trouble forgiving someone who cuts us off in traffic. Ms. Larson’s insights into forgiveness are deeply moving. How wonderful if we as God’s people in America and God’s people in Rwanda truly saw ourselves as brothers and sisters so that we share our struggles and our stories. If one suffers, we all suffer. If one experiences victory, we all experience victory. Where were we when all hell was breaking loose in 1994? Are there ways we can share in their story of forgiveness now? Ms. Larson’s writings encourage us in that direction. Thank you, Catherine Claire Larson, for opening your heart and life to what is happening in Rwanda and sharing this incredible story with us.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com