If there is anything terrible enough to remind me of the sorrowful day that Jesus died, it is the living hell that descended on Rwanda during the 1994 genocide.
Good Friday falls on April 6 this year, a day that also marks the beginning of the Rwandan genocide. Eighteen years ago today, the Rwandan president's plane was shot down and the extremist Hutu Interahamwe blamed the Tutsis, calling for their elimination. About 100 days later, 1 million people had died.
When I studied abroad in Rwanda this summer, I was keenly aware that I was visiting places where great evil had occurred -- a church where the promise of sanctuary had been violated, a valley where blood had tainted unspoiled beauty, a camp where 10 Belgian soldiers had been killed to scare off foreign intervention.
At these genocide memorials, I stood on the ground where people had been chopped with machetes or raped, and yet, when I looked at the landscape, I would see Rwanda's beautiful rolling red mountains for miles. The contrast was eerie, and I felt like I was in a sacred place that had been violated in the worst way.
I don't know what Good Friday felt like for Jesus' followers, but I imagine there must have been a profound sense of evil, a terrible fear that the Devil had spilled sacred blood and won -- just as Rwandans must have felt when genocide struck.
Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire stayed in Rwanda with his small U.N. peacekeeping force during the genocide, and he felt this evil when he tried to negotiate with the Interahamwe. He went in to shake their hands -- and then saw the blood spots. It hit him that he had come face to face with the Devil: "That son of a bitch had come on earth, in that paradise, and literally taken over," he said in an interview for the "Ghosts of Rwanda" documentary.
After encountering such evil, many Rwandans have wondered where God was during the genocide. A well-known Rwandan proverb says that God spends the day elsewhere, but he sleeps in Rwanda. This proverb originally meant that Rwanda was so beautiful that God chose to sleep here, but since the genocide, its significance has become much darker. Could it be that God was sleeping during the genocide, having abandoned Rwanda to the reign of the Evil One?
Nowhere did I feel this sense of abandonment more acutely than the Nyamata Catholic Church, where the victim's rosaries had been laid out. I could just imagine Rwandans clasping those beads -- just as generations of my family had clasped them -- and praying desperately for deliverance. In those moments, I wonder if they recalled Jesus' words on the cross:
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
You cannot help but wonder, where were you, God? Didn't you hear the prayers of your followers as they cried out to you, begging for protection, only to meet their end at the hands of genocide killers?
When I came back from Rwanda, I felt empty and dead inside. Aside from one desperate prayer in my journal, I couldn't find the will to talk to God. How could I trust him knowing that he had allowed this tragedy to happen? Stories of genocide replayed in my mind -- what about the mother at the Murambi technical school who had begged for mercy, only to watch a killer throw her baby against a wall? How could God allow that kind of sickening evil to run rampant?
One of the few stories that comforted me as I wrestled with these questions was Reverien Rurangwa's testimony, "Genocide: My Stolen Rwanda." In it, Rurangwa tells how he survived the genocide and learned to heal. For a long time, he rejected religion and refused to consider forgiveness. But then he saw something in the crucifixion that changed his heart:
"This Christ, disfigured, bruised, hacked away, pierced, cut, looks like me. ... He looks like a young Tutsi from the Mugina hillside, dismembered on April 20 1994 by men who should have been his brothers. He looks like the victim of the Tutsi genocide. He looks like all victims of all genocides, of all massacres, of all crimes, of all wrongs. Is he the victim?"
As I turn to the Gospels, I see it, too. Jesus does look like a Tutsi -- beaten and tortured, spit on and shamed. He was stripped of his clothes just as Rurangwa's mother was stripped to humiliate her before her death. Jesus' suffering was made a joke, and when he said, "I am thirsty," all he was offered was a disgusting sponge of wine vinegar. In the same way, the killers laughed at Rurangwa as he lay injured and thirsty and begged them to finish him off.
Jesus was dressed in a robe and crown of thorns meant to mock him, just as the killers shamed Tutsis by attacking their ethnic differences -- cutting off their long noses or chopping their long legs. Jesus and the Tutsis experienced the worst kinds of suffering -- degradation, agonizing pain and the feeling of being forsaken by the One who could save them.
And yet we know that God heard Jesus' fervent prayers (Psalm 22:24, Hebrews 5:7). Perhaps Jesus felt forsaken, but God still heard him, and he still heard the cries of the Tutsis as they clutched the beads of their rosaries. Because God wasn't sleeping during the genocide, but rather he was suffering alongside his people, re-experiencing the terrible pain that humans had once inflicted on Him.