Religion as a set of teachings: problematic theology
Approaching religion as a set of teachings in pre-genocide and genocide Rwanda provides another helpful angle for understanding the role of religion in this context. From the Christian message with its core concepts of love and mercy, how could such atrocious acts of hatred spring forth? One line of thought tries to explain this paradox in terms of a superficial faith. From this perspective, the mass conversions to Catholic Christianity following the baptism of Rwanda s King Mutara III Rudahigwa in 1943 were seen as guided mainly by strategic purposes, rather than denoting a genuine transformation of hearts and minds. While this argument might hold a certain validity, it does not take that into account which appears to be at the core of the paradox: theology' itself.
The theological teachings disseminated by both the early missionaries and later the institutionalized churches emphasized respect for authorities, not least for the hierarchy of the Church, and obedience to the state. Furthermore, the Christian religion was portrayed as a spiritual, inner affair with no bearing on public life. “Christian identity was socially and politically irrelevant” (Carney 2014: 119). In the aftermath of World Wars I and II, eschatology figured prominently in the churches’ teachings. Believers were told to look to their rewards in heaven, rather than being burdened by the life in this world (Munyaneza 2001: 64). This-worldly issues such as poverty, injustice, and violence were not to be concerns of the Christian, but better left to politicians. While obedience to authority is indeed one aspect of the Christian Scripture (such as in Romans 13), the teachings of the churches neglected other crucial aspects such as active love for the neighbor (as illustrated by the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37) that extends even to one’s enemy (Matthew 5:44).
Rwandan converts hardly learned about important Christian concepts such as responsibility, freedom, and the prophetic witness of speaking truth to power. Even as massacres ofTutsi were taking place throughout the country during the Civil War 1990—1993, the church leaders mostly failed to name or condemn them. For instance, in their Easter message of March 1991, the Catholic bishops preached on the love of enemies, yet failed to address the massacre ofTutsi at Ruhengeri in the previous month. And even when the massacres were mentioned, blame was allocated to Hutu or Tutsi rather than the government. Chained to a highly dubious theological justification of loyalty to ecclesiastical hierarchy and state power, Christian-based social justice remained a thin concept, even as younger priests tried to carry some of the atmosphere of change of the Second Vatican Council into the Rwandan context. Though there were notable exceptions, one needs to conclude that by failing to speak out against ethnicity-based injustices—ranging from discrimination over exclusion to murder—and by failing to condemn state instigated hatred, the churches gave the impression that they condoned the expanding violence against the Tutsi as in line with
Christian belief. “The churches, thus, not only failed to provide an obstacle along the path towards genocide but actually helped to create a moral climate where genocide was possible” (Longman 2010: 162f).
Religion as discourse: language, cultural myths, and Weltanschauung
Religion as discourse is yet another fruitful lens to employ Approaching religion through discourse means, first of all, taking a closer look at language. Drawing on pseudo-theological notions of duty and loyalty to authorities, Christian language was often instrumentalized for political purposes. For example, after the Tutsi RPF (Rwanda Patriotic Front) Army had invaded Rwanda from the North in 1990, sparking the civil war that culminated in the 1994 genocide, the religious language of Christian unity and duty was invoked to appeal for national unity and the obligation to serve one’s country. On October 12, 1990,Vincent Nsengiyumva, Archbishop of Kigali and member of the central committee of the ruling party until 1990, reminded Catholics of their “duty of protecting the country against all peril and against all menace, from wherever it comes—from the interior or the exterior” (cited in Carney 2014: 197). Jean-Pierre Karegeye thus rightly points to the “strong interaction in political and religious speeches [that] facilitated the way to genocide” (Karegeye 2011: 97).
Yet religion as discourse goes beyond language as a system for communication and extends to a cultural and linguistic framework that molds the entire life. For a better understanding of how mentalities on religion and violence developed in the context of Rwanda, we need to go back to pre-colonial times. Long before the arrival of Christianity at the turn of the 20th century, religion was already an integral part of Rwandan life. The spiritual world, inhabited by a heavenly Being called Imana and other spirits, was believed to have a direct influence on the living. Participation in different cults, such as that of Lyangombe or Nyabingi, offered access to spiritual powers. Like other parts of Rwandan oral history, these cults were vibrant with violent images, stories, and initiation rites. Forming the cultural and linguistic background, “the stories told and learnt by heart, orally and transmitted, were full of violent images ... and the banalization of violence and death” (Munyaneza 2001: 58). Christianity failed to address this cultural heritage of violence. Not only did Christianity not challenge it, but contributed to reinforcing latent violence, for instance, by using Kinyarwanda words associated with violence in the translation of the Bible and hymns. God and Jesus Christ, for example, are called umutabazi (savior/liberator). In Rwandan oral history and cultural myths, however, this term is inseparably connected to the glorification of violence as it refers to quasi-mythical heroes who were sacrificed for their people.
Rwandan traditional Weltanschauung was further characterized by the belief in predetermination and fatalism. The experience of misfortune or violence was met with resignation as the expression of Imana s will or as the result of angry spirits one had failed to pacify. This thinking aligned itself only too easily with Christian ideas of predetermination. At times, biblical narratives were employed to justify ethnic differences. “Especially the Book of Genesis was used to prove that Abatutsi pastoralists were like Abel, and Abahutu like Cain who was agriculturist and who fell in disgrace and therefore was cursed” (Munyaneza 2001: 64). Instead of addressing and critically examining the violence latent in Rwandan history and cultural myths, the churches ignored or worse, contributed to cultural violence. This failure on the side of the churches helped to sustain conditions in which violence and injustice could be understood as preordained and therefore inevitable, making the struggle against it seem pointless.