After spending a week last year in Rwanda (my second visit there), I came away convinced more than ever that this central African nation of Christians is becoming a global lab for testing new models of Christian forgiveness.

In Rwanda, individuals and institutions forged an unholy alliance that supported and participated in the 1994 genocide that killed 800,000 or more people. In one infamous case, a bishop gave refuge to fleeing Tutsis and Hutus. His staff carefully checked ID cards and noted the location of all Tutsis on the compound. When murderous Hutu militia arrived, the bishop handed the Tutsis over to them, only giving them one restriction: that no killing should take place on his grounds. No one survived.

The church itself must be forgiven. "The failure of the church in the genocide is an opportunity for the church to cleanse itself and ask for forgiveness," says Anglican Archbishop Emmanuel Kolini. "Are we going to be obedient?"

In my home town, people (me included) love to complain about their church, and especially the other people in it. It's right up there next to our petty resentments toward bosses, spouses, and unruly kids (or the Cubs). On my initial trip to Rwanda in 1999, I visited the church at Ntarama, and I realized again that American Christians have not one thing to complain about. Before that visit, I had no idea how unforgettable the smell of decaying human bones is. Surrounding the small church building in Ntarama, the trees bear witness to genocide by the deep machete scars on their trunks. Inside the church, I was unable to see the floor. The bones of genocide victims were piled deep and high.

On my second trip, I discovered faithful Christians at every level of society from gardeners up to government ministers. And Rwandan Christians have found that an experience of healing enables new unity, forgiveness, and reconciliation. They sponsored gatherings where people wrote down their deepest hurts on scraps of white paper. Then they shared those feelings in small groups. In procession, they walked up to a large wooden cross on the floor and nailed those bits of paper to it. They took the cross outside, removed the papers, and burned them.

Such healing of memories empowers forgiveness, meaningful justice, and reconciliation. But on occasion, Rwandans confessed crimes of the heart. A missionary told me that a Tutsi evangelist who grew up loathing Hutus heard a Hutu named Joseph publicly confess. "I am standing here on behalf of my people and am asking your forgiveness," Joseph said.

The missionary said the woman evangelist sensed the Lord saying to her, "All those times you said you wanted to kill a Hutu, are you not the same as him?" The woman began weeping, raced back to her room, and grabbed a new skirt. Minutes later, she saw Joseph and put the skirt at his feet. "Here is a Tutsi woman giving you her forgiveness and asking yours for the way she looked at Hutu. Put this skirt in your bathroom. When you and your wife and children come out of the shower, I want you to wipe your feet on it and remember this Tutsi woman who often killed Hutu in her thoughts. Please forgive me."

We have a great deal to learn from our African sisters and brothers in Christ.

Related Elsewhere:

Today's article is on the Rwanda genocide.

A sidebar to today's lead article is on restorative justice.

More on Rwanda includes:

Influence of Roman Catholic Church in Acquittal of Rwandan Bishop Debated | Augustin Misago cleared of 1994 genocide charges. (June 20, 2000)

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