Inspiration and Indictment

When so many churches have urged people to see Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ, “why did so few (if any?) promote Terry George’s film?” (George directed Hotel Rwanda). This is the question that Brian McLaren – a nationally recognized author and pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Maryland – asks in the current issue of the journal Leadership. It’s a fact that the Christian community has certainly not turned out to see Hotel Rwanda (grossing only $14,200,000 and is #124 for releases in 2004). By contrast, Passion revenues are over 25 times as much ($370,000,000) and is #3 for 2004. “What do our answers to that question say about us?” By us, McLaren means people of Christian faith. I’m not sure I have answers to that question, but here are two reflections on what this fact might indicate.<

First, we may have overlooked this film because Hotel Rwanda – while inspiring – also indicts us. This is the true-life story of hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle) who housed over a thousand Tutsi refugees during their struggle against the Hutu militia in Rwanda (800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered over 100 days in 1994). We are indicted because our tendency to measure the wrong things might have contributed to the genocide – and it is well-established that you pay attention to what you measure. For decades, many Christian organizations measured attendance and the number of conversions to gauge how Rwanda was changing. Using those scales, the signs prior to 1994 were exhilarating, leading some to proclaim Rwanda a “Christian” country.

But we failed to measure ominous developments that would have called into question what was really taking place. Jared Diamond’s new book Collapse (Viking Press) widens the lens to offer a more complete and nuanced account for the 1994 slaughter – which produced the third-largest body count of all genocide since the 1950s, topped only by Bangladesh in 1971 and Cambodia in the mid-‘70s. The problem wasn’t conversions and new churches; it was the disconnect between conversions and cultural reform – something we hardly measured.

In addition to long-standing and deep-rooted animosities between the Hutus and the Tutsis, Diamond observes that pre-genocide Rwanda had a population density approaching that of Holland, yet it was supported by Stone Age agriculture. In the years preceding the genocide, Rwanda suffered a precipitous decline in per capita food production because of drought and overworked soil, which in turn caused massive deforestation. The upshot was dramatically rising levels of theft and violence perpetrated by landless and hungry young men (private property is a hedge against anarchy and authoritarian regimes). Diamond cautions against reducing Rwanda to a cut-and-dried morality tale of good and evil. Instead, if we had paid attention to the indifference of the UN and other outside powers to humanitarian intervention, we might have been able to advance institutional reforms that would make our international peace-keeping agencies more responsive to needs on the ground where people were being maimed and killed. Ken Ringle’s “The Haunting: He Couldn’t Stop the Slaughter in Rwanda; Now He Can’t Stop the Memory,” (The Washington Post, June 15, 2002) offers a gripping account of the futile efforts of Lt. General Romeo Dallaire, a decorated Canadian soldier in charge of the UN forces in Rwanda, who had his hands tied by higher-ups in the UN bureaucracy as the massacre unfolded.

Second, Hotel Rwanda can teach us something here. If we use any gauge other than what people say or attendance (in church or small groups), “it is undeniable that the influence of Christianity on the life and mores of our society is on the wane. And the decline is likely to continue,” warns Robert Louis Wilken, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia. He believes that Christian faith, no matter how enthusiastically proclaimed by clergy to people-filled pews, cannot be sustained without reforming “the pattern of inherited meanings and sensibilities encoded in rituals, law, language, practices, and stories that can order, inspire, and guide the behavior, thoughts, and affections [of people].”

You may not know that a high percentage of Rwandans who participated in the 1994 genocides were churchgoers. A Rwandan pastor and his son were the first convicted of crimes against humanity. You probably know that a high percentage of the Americans who ignored the 1994 genocides (then and now) were and are churchgoers – the same churchgoers who went to see The Passion but ignored Hotel Rwanda and the same churchgoers who have largely remained silent in the face of genocide in The Sudan that is on-going. We can begin to change this. First, it’s never too early to begin believing that the gospel is a four-chapter story that measures conversions and cultural reform. Second, we can begin to inform ourselves about The Sudan and other issues that deserve the attention of serious believers. Third, it’s not too late to rally our church brothers and sisters to see Hotel Rwanda. There should be plenty of available tickets – and a night at this movie might help us make progress on points one and two.

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