Reflections on Reconciliation: How Rwanda and My Patients Mess Me Up

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April 7, 2014 by The Jailhouse Doc

I have just been reminded by countless thoughtful and sobering articles that this week marks the twenty year anniversary of the beginning of the Hutu-Tutsi genocide in Rwanda which massacred over a million people in the span of weeks. It was a grotesque event, that the entire world stood back and watched take place without taking action. The most shocking and overwhelming articles circulating was a collection of photographs of victims standing side by side with their perpetrator. Each photo had a brief summary of their story: the Hutu who attacked the Tutsi’s family, burning property, maiming and killing family members. The process of how the perpetrator came to understand their guilt, and the process of forgiveness and reconciliation as the perpetrator sought forgiveness from the victim to whom he had inflicted such severe harm. Some have now developed such a level of reconciliation as to depend on each other for daily needs, such as building homes for those whose homes had been destroyed.

What’s so shocking about the photos is that what they depict seems impossible. You really can’t picture yourself in that kind of story. Imagining the depth of despair felt by losing your loved ones and livelihood. The hatred, grief, anger and bewilderment. The thought of then forgiving and then reconciling? It’s not in our bones. It’s not the American Way. Justice is The American Way. Yet our understanding of justice ends with a punishment worthy of the crime, which if the online jury of the American public had their way, would always consist of the perpetrator rotting in hell (prison) for all of eternity. It’s partly why there was such a sense of injustice when the man who enslaved three women in Detroit for years managed to commit suicide after serving months of his life sentences. He never paid for his crimes. He never suffered as the women suffered.

I have a friend who runs a nonprofit that works to promote victim-offender reconciliation, and to be honest, the very first time I saw what she was doing, I felt nauseous. I felt conflicted. I felt like, I don’t want to have anything to do with that. I felt overwhelmed by the knowledge that there was probably a whole lot of Jesus in what she’s doing, and that I was fleeing Nineveh like a madwoman.  She has no idea I feel this way, I’m too chicken to reach out to her about it.

I know that Christ is the very embodiment of reconciliation between God the Almighty: Righteous and Holy, and humanity the sinful, despicable, selfish, and downright shock-inducingly evil.  He calls us to reconcile with Himself, with God through his own suffering and death, and then go and live like He did.  I’m great with the salvation part, but the truth is this: I DO NOT WANT TO RECONCILE WITH THOSE WHO HAVE HURT ME.  I do not want to be the fleshly representative of Jesus to my own perpetrators.  I feel very strongly that I do not have anything within me that would render me capable of accepting the apology of, and then offering forgiveness to, some of the men who have mistreated me as a child.  I don’t want to pose in a picture, and tell the world how I chose to forgive.  Even though, I know with all my heart that the forgiveness within those humble Rwandan villagers is the path of LIFE, I don’t want to do it.

So yesterday at church, the President of Fuller Theological Seminary preached at our church, and pretty much rocked my world.  You see, he spoke with power and conviction that as Christians, everything comes down to the moment in which you encounter the Leper, or the person who was beaten and left on the side of the road as in the story of the Good Samaritan.  This is the moment in which you find out if your faith has been built on rock or on sand.  What will you do in that moment when you face, quite possibly, your biggest enemy?  Will you defy the laws of Man, or will you be willing to be like Jesus, and reach out and touch that person with love?

And for the past several months, I have been just totally rocked by what it means to work with inmates, many who have been squished to the very bottom of the barrel of the squalor of our society, and told to stay there.  I have been overwhelmed by the fact that somehow, God has breathed compassion into my heart, where I do not have the power to just conjure compassion to feel good about myself.  I have stood in front of the convicted pedophile who will now spend the majority of his one and only earthly life behind bars, and was kind, smiled, looked in his eyes, rested my hand on his shoulder while I listened to the air flow in and out of his lungs, listened to the valves of his twisted heart snap open and shut.  I felt no anger, condemnation or malice towards him.  I felt overwhelming sadness, pity, and heartache.  I don’t wish his sentence were any different, I lament his story, period.  I lament the reality of the sin within his heart that led him to do horrible things to children who may never fully recover.  I lament the self loathing, the hubris, the terror, the despair that I think are probably tormenting his thoughts.  I lament that this story will likely not end in reconciliation, for the same reason that the captive women in Detroit would never seek reconciliation with their captor and tormentor.  And, for the same reason I don’t want to seek out and reconcile with my offenders.

I lament that reconciliation is largely absent from how we, in western Christianity live out the Gospel.

I can wrap my head around forgiving my husband for annoying me.  Or my relative for their politically incorrect or racist comments.  Or the driver who cut me off.  I know I’m better off not having to live that bitterness.  But it’s the deep wounds, the wounds in the world of shame, hatred and contempt that I don’t want to let go of.  I think it’s because I know that when I forgive someone, I relinquish my right to that anger and contempt, and it feels good to be royally incensed, to know that I’ve been WRONGED and that I have a RIGHT to my anger.  I am JUSTIFIED in my contempt.  And when I step towards reconciliation, I am actively inviting that person to have a presence in my life, free of that hatred, contempt and disgust.  This is overwhelming.  There is no common sense here.  This is like, asking for your PTSD symptoms to stand ready to have a temper tantrum.  This is totally insane.  And yet, somehow, these Rwandans have been able to do it.

Last night over drinks with friends, we were reflecting on the sermon, and I started to speak, and before I knew it, I had a massive problem on my hands.  What I was saying, is that for me, I encounter “the leper” on such a blatant and extreme level at my job, I feel like I live those moments each day of, am I going to pass by this broken person, or am I going to bind their wounds?  And I choose to bind wounds.  I choose to be encouraging.  I choose to try to convey dignity.  I say things like, “this doesn’t have to define who you are.”  “Use the time you are here to think about what you’re going to do to make sure you never come back (to jail).”  “Write your own come-back story.”  “Your life matters.”  And it feels great to be a speaker of love.

And then as I was speaking, it hit me, that I cannot be Jesus to one group of people, the perpetrators I am caring for, and then withhold Jesus from those who committed offenses against ME.  It’s either, I built my house on the rock or it’s all sand, Baby.  Washing away when the floods come.  I can’t celebrate the good God is doing in my heart and through my hands, which I believe is truly Him, while purposefully rejecting to live Jesus into my own personal hurts.  The reality is that I will never see those who mistreated me again, but I can see faces in my mind.  And the pedophile I cared for here is the same pedophile that victimized me.  They may be different human beings, but the evil is the same.  The corruption is the same.  The misuse of power is the same.  The disfigurement of sexuality is the same.

I’m already posing in photos with perpetrators, symbolically.  I just hadn’t realized it.  I’m posing with men who have killed, assaulted, and destroyed other peoples’ lives, livelihoods and property.  I am identifying myself on the side of good, for all to see, unashamed.  I am identifying myself with Jesus by choosing love.  I am exercising the act of reconciliation on behalf of the God of love towards people who have been rejected by humanity, and justly so in the eyes of men.  I am extending dignity to them simply by showing up, being willing to talk with them, willing to look them in the eye, touch them, and listen to their problems.  No one’s taking photos, but the symbolism for me is there.

And now I must figure out how to reconcile the pain that bubbles up in my chest when I realize that this means I have no choice but to see my own offenders in the faces of those who I serve, and to decide that if given the opportunity, I would treat them with love and pursue reconciliation with them if we were to ever meet again.  This is not for the sensitive stomach.  I liked feeling good about myself for being nice to people, but this process of reflecting reminds me that when I fire the question “What does love require?!” at people who I think are being unlovingly dogmatic, or those who I interpret as pharisees that turn a blind eye to poverty and injustice in the world for the sake of being religiously “right,” I have to face the fact that love requires that I forgive and reconcile.  I must face the lepers who’ve broken my own heart, and be willing to touch them.

I’m a little overwhelmed by this, I am sure that anyone pondering these issues would feel similarly.  But, I think it’s fairly obvious in my heart that this is a teaching I need to hear, and a path I must walk, and that I will feel a lot better once I let Jesus remove the heavy weight of contempt from my shoulders.

If Rwandans who witnessed the machete-massacring of entire villages, roads paved with the bodies of the dead, and are choosing to forgive and form relationships with those who’ve hurt them, and likewise those who perpetrated the violence are willing to stand before the lives they’ve destroyed and ask forgiveness,… then I have no choice but to go and do likewise.

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