30th anniversary of Rwandan genocide a reminder of sin’s power

NASHVILLE (BP) – The genocide that left more than 800,000 Rwandans dead and millions displaced during a 100-day period in 1994 demonstrated the depths of depravity found in hearts not redeemed by Jesus, former missionary Nik Ripken said.

“When Billy Graham was asked what was the number one hindrance to the Kingdom of God, he said it was racism,” said Ripken, who served overseas for 37 years, including in Kenya during the early 1990s. “Racism is a sin in the human heart.”

The violence in Rwanda 30 years ago was the culmination of long-simmering hatred between Hutu and Tutsi tribes. Neighbors were instructed to kill neighbors, and pastors slaughtered congregants.

Ripken remembers crossing into Rwanda just long enough to evacuate missionaries who needed to leave but couldn’t.

“They had gotten too close to everything, and they were sitting around waiting to die with their people,” he told Baptist Press. “What they talked about was how people were possessed by the demonic.”

Genocide is possible when people let racism grow in their hearts, then gather a likeminded crowd, then obtain weapons and act on that racism, often where governments are weak or are in collusion, Ripken said.

“The genesis of the Rwandas and the Somalias and the Afghanistans of this world is racism that is an overt expression of a cancerous, sinful heart.”

Based on what he had seen on the ground in Somalia – sometimes entire villages killed – Ripken quickly trained about 15 Western relief workers to head into Rwanda as the genocide waned.

“When you stop seeing people as those who are created by God and you demonize them and make them less than human, then you’ll hear Somalis and Rwandans talk about ‘killing dogs and the puppies of dogs,’” he said.

The remedy, he learned, is to determine whether a person truly is committing to Jesus or is nodding to a religion.

“I’ve never had an African say ‘no’ to me in 37 years. Their culture won’t allow it,” Ripken said. “You have to listen enough to know whether they’re embracing Christ or whether they’re [praying a prayer] because they get all the material things that the Westerner brings with Christianity.”

As much as 90 percent of Rwanda was Christian at the time of the genocide, Ripken said, “but they were Catholic.”

“They didn’t get a faith that was beyond ritual that really touched the core of their life with the love and forgiveness of Jesus. Therefore, they just reverted back to their old sinful selves.”

Melissa Bird, whose late husband Craig was an overseas missions correspondent during the early 1990s, recalled the Rwanda experience as different from others he covered because he was needed in the evacuation efforts.

“He was helping Rwandans evacuate,” she told BP. “He was having to take them across this bog, which was kind of like floating grass. They were trying to stay on top of those. People were pulling their cows through there, trying to keep their things dry.”

The reality was that he was evacuating people whose tribes were killing each other, Bird said, and “he knew that he got to save a lot of people even though there were so many more that didn’t make it.”

“Craig and I were both in and out of a lot of areas that were at war, and I have to say that Rwanda was by far the worst,” she said.

In an assessment of modern-day Rwanda, the Associated Press reported the country has shown strong recovery, but questions remain “about whether genuine reconciliation has been achieved” under the long rule of Paul Kagame, “whose rebel movement stopped the genocide and seized power.”

“He has been praised by many for bringing relative stability but vilified by others for his intolerance of dissent,” AP said.

Chris McHorney, a professor of political science at California Baptist University, said the church has an “essential role in the prevention of future genocides.”

“Classification or placing groups into ‘us’ and ‘them’ categories based on the nationality, ethnicity, race and/or religion of the members directly contradicts the biblical reality that God created us in His image and those distinctions are meaningless to Him,” McHorney told BP.

The church must always be motivated by the second greatest commandment to love neighbor as self, he said, “and not by a desire to create ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups” based on characteristics important to man but irrelevant to God.Kelly Boggs, a former BP columnist, wrote at the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, “From the Jewish Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis, to the Cambodian killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, to the present-day tragedy of abortion in the United States, the common thread that runs through man’s inhumanity to man is sin.”

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