“It was late and we had to leave before the six o’clock curfew…A girl of about eleven was crouched by the side of the road. She go up, calling, and walked towards us…She took my wrist and gently directed me to the gutter alongside the cathedral. She let my wrist go and bent down to lift a printed shawl. She had placed rocks on the corners of the cloth to hold it over her mother, who lay in the gutter. Her mother’s eyes and mouth opened and closed to dissuade the flies that swarmed around her face. She was too weak to use her hands. She lay sweating among several corpses that had been thrown out of the church. She was covered in vomit and diarrhea. She was delirious, emaciated and barely alive…There was no choice, no thinking. I just did it. I picked up the girl’s mother and carried her to the truck…The girl’s name was Therese, and her mother had dysentery and likely TB as well. She died two days later. During those two days, Therese never left her mother’s side, washing her, holding her hands and trying to feed her.”
“I could hear wild dogs fighting among themselves in the distance. They had already eaten the flesh from the roadside corpses. Fresh greenstick branches browned by the sun slapped onto the windshield, yet even with the dense undergrowth, bodies were visible in the grass and underbrush along the road. They were at least a few weeks old. Sun-bleached white bones stuck through petrified leather skin that had been cut by machete, or torn by dogs. Women lay on top of their children. They had probably been forced to watch their children be butchered before being cut themselves.”
“My mother hid me in the latrine. I saw through the hole. I watched them hit her with machetes. The men were angry and strong. I watched my mother’s arm fall into my father’s blood on the floor and I cried without noise in the toilet.”
“The boy was fourteen, his lower right leg destroyed by a land mine. What was left of his foot hung from his calf like severed wires that made a gnarled web capturing bone, bits of flesh, a piece of shoe. The explosion had happened two or three days before. He was febrile, and already infection was tracking up towards his knee. It would have to be an above-the-knee amputation, the first amputation I would do alone…I cut, irrigated and tied off the arteries. In the last six weeks, Giovanni had broken all of the surgical saw blades. Now we were using a sterilized hacksaw…In thirty minutes, I had sawed off his leg…Therese took the severed limb and put it in a bucket on the floor…His leg was in a bucket, and he was alive – an imperfect offering.”
The Rwandan genocide took place in 1994, only seventeen years ago. In his book, An Imperfect Offering – Humanitarian Action in the Twenty-First Century, Dr. James Orbinski, a past president of Medecins san Frontieres (Doctors without Borders), devotes almost 100 pages to the time he spent in Rwanda as the genocide was occurring. As you have just read, he witnessed atrocities that no one should have to see, let alone experience. So far, in my time on this earth, I have seen poverty, horrible living conditions, and terrible illness. But I have not witnessed this. I have not seen the systematic slaughter of men, women, and children. What Orbinski describes is beyond anything I can fathom or understand. There were times, as I read through these pages, when I would actually have to stop and catch my breath. Just reading about it was physically draining. After eating supper, I would read into the night, and, when I finally decided to stop, I would just sit in my chair for five, ten minutes, with very little thinking, very little of anything going on. What can I say about it? What can I even think about it? How can people possibly do this to each other? How can people justify to themselves the cold-blooded murder of innocent children?
In another passage from the book, Orbinski writes, “The Interahamwe would kill at night outside the church and throw bodies and severed limbs back over the wall so that the living would know what they would face. The children were butchered systematically, but only a few at a time – sometimes five, sometimes thirty, sometimes more, whatever the killing squad’s alcohol and weed would allow for each night.” When Orbinski tried to persuade a commander to let him move the children to a hospital (the kids were also experiencing an epidemic of measles), the commander replied, “These here are not children, they are Tutsi inyenzi (cockroaches)…They will be crushed like insects.”
How has it come to this point? How is it possible for people to come to see other human beings as being so inferior, so inconsequential, so far beyond love and compassion? And this is not the only genocide that has occurred in history. There seems to be a long tradition of the killing and/or oppression of one group by another group, because the first group is seen as less human, less advanced, less worthy. This is not a terrible problem only present in one group of people, at one moment in history, at one place in the world. We have read, seen, and heard about these inhumanities in many different places, at many different times.
One of Orbinski’s main points is that the individual who is suffering could have been me, that there is no inherent difference between the person who is tortured or oppressed and any other human being on this planet. When discussing a man who was suffering and simply wanted to be treated like a person, Orbinski’s friend remarked, “He could be me, he could be any of us.” And yet, along with this theme is another, opposing point…While we should feel solidarity with those in pain, we must also realize that, somewhere deep within ourselves, we also have the capacity to commit the atrocities that cause such pain.
Orbinski writes, “It is easy to imagine that war and genocide come from a place outside of ourselves. But genocide is not an accident of nature, nor an act of God. It is an act of man – a human choice. And genocide is not war, itself another human choice – ostensibly a choice with agreed-upon rules. In genocide there are no rules...”
“Animals could never do this. Animals can be brutal, but only humans can be rationally cruel. We can choose anything, we can be anything, we can get used to anything…Only humans can be evil. Only humans can make this choice.”
And yet, it still seems unexplainable. What conditions, what circumstances, what accepted lies can produce someone who sees no problem with killing another? I was in the latrine a few nights ago, and I saw a fly get caught in a spider’s web. As the spider went over the make sure the fly didn’t escape, I found myself feeling bad for the fly…Now, a spider killing a fly so that it can eat and survive is drastically different than a human being killing another human being because he can. But, if we have the capacity to sympathize with an insect as it dies, how can we also have the capacity to begin to see other human beings as insects that must be crushed? And yet, it happens. Somehow, mass killings, genocides, wars occur, and maybe I am capable of terrible things. I have not experienced it, and, right now, I cannot understand it.
Maybe that’s good. Maybe we’re not supposed to understand it. Maybe we were meant for something more, something higher, something that is so different from oppression, torture, and killing that these things should be incomprehensible to us. Over the past week, as I have spent my evenings immersed in this book, something different has dawned on me in the darkness of the night. I’ve started getting into the habit of going outside right before going to bed, just to look up at the sky and take in all of the stars. Especially on nights when the power is out, I can see so many stars, just by walking out of my door. It’s absolutely beautiful, and it reminds me of our true situation in this universe. We are really very, very small. I’m looking up at millions and millions of tiny lights that are actually massive stars almost as big as, just as big as, or bigger than our sun, which is many, many times larger than this little planet. And those are just the stars I can see from earth. There are millions more out there in the Milky Way Galaxy, which, by the way, is just one galaxy of many in the universe. And then you have the theoretical physicists who think that this universe is just one dimension among many. And here we are, a tiny speck on a tiny needle inside of a huge haystack.
In other words, considering that we have no idea what the heck else is out there, we are all a lot more similar than we might sometimes think. From humans to animals to plants to fungi to algae to protozoa to bacteria, we are all in this together, and a lack of respect even for the environment that we inhabit, not to mention another person or animal within that environment, adversely affects everything. By ourselves, we can’t comprehend the full complexity of the entire natural system within which we live, but, even in our incomprehension, we can realize certain things about ourselves.
The director of the organization I’m working with recommended that I read a book called Principles, by Ray Dalio, the founder of the investment firm Bridgewater Associates. While there is a lot in there that I’m not in total agreement with, I do like how he describes nature. He writes, “Nature is both beautiful and practical. Its perfection and brilliance staggers me. When I think about all the flying machines, swimming machines, and billions of other systems that nature created, from the microscopic level to the cosmic level, and how they interact with one another to make a workable whole that evolves through time and through multi-dimensions, my breath is taken away. It seems to me that, in relation to nature, man has the intelligence of a mold growing on an apple—man can’t even make a mosquito, let alone scratch the surface of understanding the universe.”
Maybe we can’t understand the universe (although it would be pretty cool if we could), but our not understanding can lead to subsequent realizations. First, as I’ve said already, we might realize that we’re not as different as we think we are. Sometimes, as I’m walking the streets of Kalisizo, I feel like the only thing others see as they look at me is the color of my skin. But other times, when I stop and am able to have a conversation with someone, I feel a connection that goes far beyond anything related to external appearance. We care about the same things, we want our friends to be safe and happy, we want children to have good teachers, and we want to learn from each other. Just in the space of a few minutes, or even a few seconds, we can move beyond seeing another person as “the other,” and we can start to see an individual who is cut from the same cloth as we are.
Second, in our lack of understanding, we might come to understand that we are standing on hallowed ground. As I was gazing up at the stars one night, a feeling came over me that I usually experience listening to or playing a beautiful piece of music, seeing a beautiful landscape, or witnessing a truly life-affirming church service that calls us to action. I slipped off my flip-flops, because, on my little concrete veranda, I was standing on holy ground. Whatever you believe, the universe’s most beautiful work of art, the universe itself, shows us that we are a part of something much, much greater than ourselves; that we, and everything else in the universe, are meant for something much higher. We might not know what that something is, but we know that we are striving for something, working toward something, and we are doing it in conjunction with everything and everyone around us (“Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” – 1 Cor 13:12). And we might start to realize that, maybe, we can get closer to that something by lifting others up, instead of pushing others down to prop ourselves up, and that, by lifting others up, we ourselves will also naturally rise higher.
Third, we might realize that, while injustice, violence, and destruction may be incomprehensible, they must also be intolerable. Orbinski writes, “There is no right balance between life and death when life is possible. There is no right balance between justice and injustice when justice is possible.” And it is our responsibility to speak out against death and injustice, questioning any systems and structures that allow them. Again, Orbinski remarks, “The only crimes equaling inhumanity are the crimes of indifference, silence, and forgetting.”
One of the things I love most about the Old Testament prophets in the Bible is their honesty, not only with the people around them, but also with God. And they are not afraid to question why things are the way they are, even as they talk directly to God. The book of Habakkuk begins with these words: “How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted…Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (Habakkuk 1:2 – 4, 13). This is a passage, I think, that could be directly applied to the Rwandan genocide without changing a word.
In another case, the majority of the book of Job consists of the title character asking God why he is afflicted so severely. Following a huge discussion between Job and his “friends” (who are not all that friendly), God finally answers with a majestic monologue about the vastness and complexity of the universe. Some scholars call this a non-answer, which has some merit, since God doesn’t give Job an explicit explanation for why he suffers. But maybe God’s answer is a “non-answer” because there is no answer. In other words, many people suffer, but they don’t deserve it. Many people are oppressed, but it’s impossible to understand how the oppressors have gotten to this point. Suffering and injustice are sometimes unexplainable, but must always be intolerable. One of my favorite interpretations of the book of Job suggests that the specific content of God’s answer is not what is truly important in this context. Rather, it is the simple fact that God did answer Job. God answered Job, who was talking to God, rather than Job’s friends, who were trying to talk about or for God. God answered Job, who was protesting suffering and injustice, rather than Job’s friends, who were trying to explain, understand, and justify suffering and injustice. God answered Job because he had the right idea. You can’t always explain injustice and suffering; you can’t always understand it; but you can speak out against it. You can refuse to keep silent when you witness it.
We do this because we are all in this together. Because every rock, every tree, every creature (hmm…apparently I’m now citing Pocahontas) has inherent value, just by existing, and contributes to the whole, which encompasses all that is in existence. By doing this, by listening to the voices of the oppressed, remembering them, and speaking up for them, maybe we can create a future that is free of genocide, free of injustice, and full of love and compassion. Maybe we can move, together, towards that something for which we strive, even if we don't know exactly what it is. “The creation waits in eager expectation…in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:19a, 21).