Last night I attended a very moving talk by Immaculée Ilibagiza, author of Left To Tell, a memoir of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Her talk gave me a lot to think about - faith, sprituality, and belief in a protective God in our darkest hours. Is it real, or an imagined comfort?
When I arrived I found a sellout crowd filling the auditorium at Cathedral High School in Springfield, MA. And the event itself was unique - Immaculee's talk was the most real and convincing justification for forgiveness and the foundations of Catholic faith that I've ever heard.
That's not to say I embrace Catholicism - I'm not a member of any formal church - but her presentation was very powerful and well reasoned. Immaculee's event opened with a short documentary film that set the stage with what happened in Rwanda in 1994.
The nightmare began with the assassination of the president that spring. Within hours, the ruling Hutus began killing the country's Tutsi citizens and Tutsi sympathizers. Over a three month period between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people were killed. Some estimates say 20% of the tiny country's population was murdered in this killing spree. The victims included Immaculee's parents, brothers, and extended family. She talked of her experience in that unimaginable time.
Immaculee was hidden and protected by a local pastor, who hid her for 91 days in a 3 by 4 foot bathroom with six other women. When they emerged from hiding, the women had lost half their body weight but they were still alive, a miracle she attributed to divine protection.
She explained how faith came to her in the bathroom. At first, her confinement was merely uncomfortable, and hard to believe. Then it got more uncomfortable. Finally, it became unbearable. That's when a Hutu mob arrived to begin a house to house search for Tutsi to kill. They were armed with grenades, machetes, and spears.
At that point, she says, she began to pray. But she was uncertain - was anyone listening? She asked God to show himself if he was there. Meanwhile, the mob spent several hours searching the pastor's grounds. They looked through the front of the house, under the shrubs, in the outbuildings, and even on the roof. For some reason - she attributes this to God - they turned away from the locked door at the rear of the house.
She said she heard two voices in her mind as the mob searched the house. One said, "You have no chance. Open the door and get it over with." The other voice said, "Be calm, and I will protect you." Immaculee said she was very tempted to open the door, and she was terrified, but she stayed quiet. That first search seems to have solidified her faith in a protective God in a way that her earlier religious education had not.
That strong faith sustained her for three months in the bathroom, until the violence ended and she walked out into daylight to see a village that was barely recognizable - littered with decaying bodies being eaten by wild dogs.
She began to teach herself English from the bible, saying the words in her mind since she could not say them aloud for fear of discovery. She relied heavily on the Book of Job and the Lord's Prayer, but there was a problem. The Prayer speaks of forgiveness, but she was not ready to forgive the killers at first. She spoke at length how she arrived at a point of forgiveness and found herself able to accept the totality of the prayer.
Forgiveness brought her a feeling of release and freedom, she said. I can understand that. I know from my own life how forgiveness can set you free. There is indeed a deep good feeling that comes from forgiving and letting go.
But is forgiveness unlimited in scope and applicability? I don't think it is. I can honor and admire Immaculée's letting go and forgiving. History is full of priests and ordinary people who have forgiven their tormentors and prayed for them to see the light and change their evil ways right to their awful ends. Such people are seen as giving their lives for a noble principle or belief and they are held out as role models for the rest of us.
But ultimately, evil is put down at the point of a sword, not through the good words of the preacher. Preachers can have a powerful impact, but sometimes the evil runs too deep, and overmatching force offers the only solution. The horrors of Rwanda, like all other such situations throughout history, were resolved and enforced with military might.
To me, that defines the limit of forgiveness. At some point, a person who is purposeful and evil becomes an unacceptable threat. The threat may be to me individually or to society at large. To forgive and pray for such a person in the hope that they may change while knowing they have a long and continuing history of evil becomes a harmful act as long as that person is allowed to remain on the loose.
Some would say, who are you to judge? My answer is that I don't presume to judge unless the choice is forced upon me. If a person approached me with a knife in an alley, I would rather respond with force and face the consequences - moral and legal - of firm self defense rather than pray and take my chances with an unknown but certainly malign force.
I can forgive the drug addict who breaks into my house when I am gone. But if he comes in the window at night when I am home, I'm probably going to shoot him before the question of forgiveness can be raised.
When someone demonstrates a proclivity for killing children, society's primary goal should be to remove him permanently from our presence. Whether he should be put to death or caged forever is a subject for another discussion but I submit that forgiveness is an abstract that has no place in that conversation. However, forgiveness has a place to help victims heal. I believe those of us who are not yet victims have a duty to act preventatively for our own good and that of our fellows.
I suppose you might say I believe in acting firmly, and forgiving when the aggressor is on the ground. Removal of threat comes first to me; forgiveness comes later. I know that's not the priest's view, but I am not a priest.
Immaculee's message was very powerful and I could see that it resonated with many in the audience. Clearly, if she could survive that reality, the challenges many of us face here in America are trivial in comparison however awful they may feel to us at the moment.