News Articles

WORLDVIEW: Rwanda & the reality of evil

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Postmodernists tend to squirm in the presence of the word “evil.”

In an age when all morals are ambiguous, all truths debatable, all shades gray, phrases like “Axis of Evil” or “evil-doers” seem quaint. Many human actions can be explained in psychological, political or scientific terms, the postmodernists say. Those that can’t, they suggest, may be ignored.

What happened in Rwanda 10 years ago cannot be explained in such terms. It definitely cannot be ignored — though the “international community” tried its best to do so while it was happening.

Beginning in early April 1994, gangs of ethnic Hutus butchered about 800,000 members of the Tutsi people in 100 days, as well as many Hutus who opposed the slaughter. Tens of thousands of Hutus later died in the refugee tidal wave that followed a Tutsi-led rebel invasion.

After the genocides of the Holocaust, the Gulag, Cambodia, the Balkans — and Rwanda — “one would think the world would emerge believing in almost nothing except evil,” writes journalist Lance Morrow in his recent book, “Evil: an Investigation.”

“What could be more certain than evil, given what we have seen? Why are we not immobilized by the sheer horror of our insight into human depravity?” Morrow asks. “Why — upon crawling out of such wreckage, the still smoking evidence of the human will to destroy — would you not at least acknowledge the reality and power of evil?”


Political analysts might concede that point in general. But they continue to debate whom to blame for the specific evil that swept over Rwanda in 1994. There’s plenty to go around:

— The former Belgian colonial rulers encouraged and manipulated traditional ethnic divisions between the Tutsis and Hutus.

— Rwanda’s government — then Hutu-dominated — encouraged radical Hutus and fomented the massacre for its purposes.

— The Tutsi-led rebels who soon invaded and drove millions of refugees over Rwanda’s borders had their own agenda, as did the neighboring states that supported them.

— By their own subsequent admission, the United Nations, the United States, France and other powers that might have been able to stop the killing before it started did little or nothing.

— Group hysteria certainly played a role. Moreover, many reluctant Rwandans were systematically forced to participate in the killing to save their own lives.

— “Press coverage was limited, superficial and often sensationalistic,” contends Human Right Watch in “Rwanda: Lessons Learned,” a new report looking back at the events. “Journalists usually portrayed the killing as a result of ancient, tribal hatreds rather than as a state-directed attempt to exterminate the Tutsi.”


But none of these factors account for why so many ordinary Rwandans willingly, even enthusiastically participated in the slaughter of their own neighbors — often inside church sanctuaries where people were promised protection.

Only evil can do that. There were, in fact, “ancient, tribal hatreds” at work. Politicians and others manipulated them, but they were there. They’re still there. And not just in Rwanda.

Smaller-scale atrocities in neighboring Burundi several years later — this time by Tutsis against Hutus — drew this reflection from David Garrison, then-leader of global strategy coordination for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board:

“This is an African race war between Bantu and Nilotic races. [But] the atrocities in the region reveal the depravity that lurks just below the surface of us all…. The frightening thing is that we’ve seen atrocities like this all over the world…. The overwhelming lesson I see is that the people who do things like this are just like us. We’re all only a step or two away from this insanity.”

Many forms of evil were at work in Rwanda 10 years ago: political, regional, local, tribal, individual — and demonic. Southern Baptist missionaries forced to flee the country during the slaughter appealed to U.S. churches to pray against the darkness hovering over the land. “Rwanda’s devastation is a result of spiritual warfare, manifested in physical destruction,” they wrote. “Please join us in prayer for our country.”

Their evidence for demonic activity, as reported at the time by former IMB overseas correspondent Craig Bird, included: “women and babies beaten and dismembered, hospital patients bludgeoned to death, men’s legs amputated so they bleed to death while their tormentors jeer, ‘You’re not so tall now, are you?'”


There’s only one remedy for that kind of evil, and it has little to do with politics or economics. “The very foundations, the very basis of society have to be sound,” one longtime relief worker in Rwanda told National Public Radio recently. “Unless people learn to live together out of mutual respect, I don’t think it’s really possible to do sustainable development work.”

The Gospel of Jesus Christ has spread far and wide across Africa in the last several generations. It still needs to take deep enough root, however, to transform many African cultures.

“We’ve got a lot of Christianity that’s as wide as the continent but about an inch deep,” says missionary Larry Pumpelly, a veteran of work in east Africa. “Before we’ll really see church-planting movements happen, there’s got to be strong teaching, strong discipleship — and people who catch the vision to take the Gospel beyond where they live.

“They have to look at someone of a different tribal or ethnic background and embrace them, work with them, minister to them. That’s where it’s got to be.”
Erich Bridges is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board whose column appears twice each month in Baptist Press.

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges