Friday, October 2, 2009

A Water that Runs Deeper than Blood

When [Cardinal Roger Etchegaray] visited Rwanda on behalf of the Pope in 1994, he asked the assembled church leaders, "Are you saying that the blood of tribalism is deeper than the waters of baptism?" One leader answered, "Yes, it is."
Mirror to the Church: Resurrecting Faith
after Genocide in Rwanda
by Emmanuel Katongole
with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
(page 22)

I first read these words a few months ago, and they continue to echo and rebound in my brain. Much of Father Katongole's book does so, but this brief passage does especially. It summarizes so much of the world.

I live in the USA. I've never been to any part of Africa, much less Rwanda, and don't really imagine that it's on my itinerary. Father Katongole, however, gave me a picture of what happened in the Rwandan genocide that does, indeed, seem to be a mirror for the church, at least here in the USA. I recognize myself in that reflection.

When I describe myself, I often say "I am a German Lutheran farm boy." I therefore identify with Germans, with the theological descendants of Martin Luther, and with a rural upbringing that is more often at odds with my adult urban life than I may let on. These are the "tribes" that I belong to, the ones I claim.

Given a certain circumstance, I might also say I am a Christian, which may be implied by "Lutheran," but is a larger tribe. The larger tribe, admittedly, I do not always claim, certainly not certain sub-tribes of Christianity.

I'm loath to describe myself as Democrat or Republican, as I find neither sides really represent me as I would like to be seen. I struggle with words like "liberal" or "progressive" because I find different people hear wildly different things when those words are spoken. So I suppose I don't identify too clearly with a political tribe, but I'm quite aware that by most people's standards, I fall into the liberal side of the spectrum. I suppose I do (except when I'm pushed on specific topics).

The point of all this tribe-identifying is this: When push comes to shove, with which tribe will I align?

Father Katongole suggests that to claim baptism as the marker on our soul, we cannot claim any tribe, or else being Christian does not matter. He points out that Rwanda was one of the most successful missionary stories of all Africa. Nowhere else in Africa did the population embrace Christianity as Rwanda did. And when the machetes and guns came out in the name of tribalism, that success story mattered not at all. Neighbors who once sat in the same congregation to worship the same God were suddenly washed, not in the blood of Jesus, but of each other, at each other's hands.

Is the blood of tribalism deeper than the waters of baptism?

This is a mirror to me because I fear for the current mood of the USA. The talk of some groups, found in places ranging from fringe internet groups to nationally broadcast radio and TV shows and nationally distributed magazines found at your local Barnes & Nobel, is turning violent and threatening. A Facebook poll asks if the president should die. Newsmax, a fast growing periodical, had an opinion piece on its website (I don't know if it was in the print edition) stating that a military coup might be appropriate in the current political situation. Talk show personalities who basically get paid to rile up people with outrageous remarks (with specious factual foundation) are hoping this presidential administration will fail and calling the president a racist.

And I begin to wonder what statement will it take (and who will make it) to bring the machetes out in these United States?

And where does the church stand (or fall) in the middle of all of it.

There are many arguments about whether or not the USA is a "Christian nation." That's beside the point. I don't know if everyone in these arguments identify as Christian, but I believe it's safe to say that many do. And the point then becomes, what difference does being a Christian make if we let political powers draw lines between us?

Are the waters of baptism deeper than the blood of Republican and Democrat and liberal and conservative? And if so, what does that look like? How can being a Christian make a difference in a powder keg nation?

I have no answers, only some fear and trembling. I believe that being a Christian does, indeed, transcend all the divisions among us. And yet we see in Rwanda how little that transcendence is embraced.

Am I merely being paranoid? Or do you look in the mirror of Rwanda and see yourself, too?


  1. Neil, I echo your concerns and worries. I am neither Democrat nor Republican. I don't consider myself liberal or conservative, it depends upon the issue. But the majority of this nation did speak and elected Obama to be our President, by a very clear majority. As our elected official he does deserve our respect. I have little patience with those who speak to rile people.

  2. I am reminded of Jesus' response when his mother and brothers came to have a conversation with him, and, instead, he said that everyone who was around him were his mother and sisters and brothers. He recognized his identity as belonging to something larger than the family tribe, and bigger than a national tribe. (We know later, it was to the whole world.) With a story about a man beaten and left for dead on the side of the road, he told us to be neighbors, not try to define who our neighbors were. We hear this over and over, year after year, at least those of us who worship in a Lutheran church regularly. And yet the church is still so tribal, so entrenched, that it takes infinite patience to teach and model what it must mean for our tribe to extend to the worldwide community...and I'm not speaking only in geographical terms. It is so hard. But as soon as I say this, I find myself judging others...and I have to face the fact that I we left our camping site early this weekend because our camping neighbors were noisier than we liked. We judged them and their music and the way they spoke to one another as not like us, our tribe. But did we go over and introduce ourselves? Try to make friends? No. Tribalism is alive and well, even in one who tries to teach against it....Sigh.