As We Forgive, Part 2

Book Review

It is said that light shines brightest in dark places. I wrote last Saturday about Catherine Claire Larson’s book As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation From Rwanda. It is probably both the darkest and the brightest book I have ever read.

As We Forgive Book Cover
Before I proceed, let me remind you: Next Thursday evening at 9:00 pm EDT, here on this blog, you will have the opportunity to meet Catherine and interact with her in an online chat. I urge you to mark it on your calendar. Instructions for joining the chat will be posted on this blog just before it begins. No new software or lengthy sign-in will be required; all you’ll need to do is to visit the proper web page, enter a name under which you will participate, and begin.

If you can get your hands on the book before then, I urge you to do so.

The book is about the Rwandan genocide of 1994, and especially about its aftermath, especially the very remarkable reconciliation and forgiveness that has taken place between many of the Hutu genocidaires and Tutsi survivors.

The stories all place Jesus Christ at the center of these works of restoration. Jesus set the example himself: hanging on a cross to die, having experienced severe beatings from the soldiers who executed him, he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Forgiveness through Christ is at the core of Christianity, and closely tied to that (as the Lord’s Prayer emphasizes) is our need to forgive one another.

But the stories told in this book, all of them true, represent extreme situations. One of them is about Rosaria, whose husband was killed early in the season of genocide. She and her son were later attacked by Hutus. She saw her son die, and she herself was left for dead, but she and the unborn baby she was carrying survived.

In a separate incident her sister Christine and Christine’s two children had also been killed. Though she did not know it, it was a neighbor named Saveri who had committed the deed. “After killing,” says the author, “Saveri was changed. ‘I was not the same’ [he said]. ‘I was void of peace in my heart from that moment.’”

Rosaria was hardly at peace herself, for quite different reasons. When order was finally restored, she was left alone, grieving, a single mother with lasting injuries, an inadequate home to live in, and a sorghum crop to manage.

Another survivor, Gahigi, who had lost all but eight of 150 family members, was a Christian pastor who “had been jailed twice in 1992 for teaching people that hating is a terrible sin.” His own teaching was put to the test when his sister’s killer, weeping bitterly, pleaded with him for forgiveness. “That day,” writes Larson, “Gahigi embraced not just a killer, but what he believed was his calling to be a mediator.”

Gahigi’s story intersects first with Saveri’s. “When he heard Gahigi and others preach of forgiveness, Saveri could not comprehend mercy,” but in time he was able to accept God’s gift of forgiving grace. Yet he knew he also needed to seek forgiveness from surviving family members.

Over a period of several years, Gahigi facilitated meetings between neighborhood groups of Hutus and Tutsis for the purpose of reconciliation, and here Rosaria re-enters the story, “pulled by a need to know the details surrounding the death of her loved ones and by a desire to somehow find release from the past.” It took several meetings for Saveri to summon courage to do it, but finally he confessed to her what he had done, and begged for her forgiveness.

Larson does not tell us how long it took her to answer, or how difficult it might have been. She does relate what Rosaria said: “I forgive you. If you have sincerely confessed your sin before God and truly changed, then I forgive you. How can I refuse to forgive when I did not make you?”

Rosaria was still facing a difficult sorghum harvest ahead. Saveri had been involved in a home-building project in the village. It was when Saveri came to help with her harvest, and when he took her to the new home he had built for her and her young daughter, not far from his own new home, that reconciliation was shown to be complete.

How could such a horror have happened in the first place? Alexander Solzhenitsyn caught a piece of the answer when he wrote, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

This is not just about “someone else, somewhere else,” you see. As We Forgive includes several personal reflection sections, bringing focus to forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration for us who live far from Africa. We have all experienced darkness, in ourselves and others. This book shows how bright the light can shine through it.

P.S. I made a commitment last week to post weekly on evidences that Christianity is true. One category I included in my list of evidences to write about was “changed lives of believers.” The effect of the Gospel on these people is really quite stunning; I found myself thinking, “I knew Christ was good and could do good works in us, but this is more than I had expected.” It is not clear from the book whether there are parallel works of restoration happening among non-believers. That is a question someone might want to ask the author when we chat with her on Thursday night.

As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation From Rwanda, by Catherine Claire Larson. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009. Paperback, 284 pages. Amazon Price US$12.47.