It is estimated that over 3170 civilians were killed in and around the Bosnian town of Prijedor from 1992 until the end of the war in late 1995. 97% were Muslims, their remains scattered in over 96 mass graves, identified through DNA analysis by international observers. Since 2012, on the 31st May each year, relatives of the victims of this particular genocide create this disturbingly beautiful garden of remembrance in an old Muslim graveyard in Sarajevo. Immediately after the war, up until 2012, this memorial was displayed in their home town of Preijdor, now located within the Republika Srpska. However, in 2012 the town’s new mayor was reported to have banned any form of public remembrance, whilst rejecting the term ‘genocide’ altogether, stating that any future public gatherings would ‘undermine the town’s reputation’ and describing them as purely political in nature.
In 1994, some eight thousand kilometers away, over 1,000,000 men, women and children from the Tutsi minority were murdered by a predominately Hutu majority. What brings an uncomfortable link to these crimes is the difficult recognition that many of the perpetrators of both atrocities were clearly identified with the Christian faith.
There’s a great little jazz bar called Pink Houndini in Sarajevo; admittedly well past its heyday, it is still an oasis of smoke free space away from the tourist trail. It’s impossible to miss the banners and billboards that decorate its facade, painting an uncomfortable and sometimes difficult to acknowledge picture, revealing that there are many that see the Christian faith not as means of sharing its message of unconditional and accepting love, but one that brings hatred, abuse, violence, division and despair. Whilst visiting the genocide museum just around the corner, I read a beautifully written, yet tragic account of a Muslim women (then a child) in the town of Srebrenica who was forced to watch soldiers, as they made the sign of the cross, push her family into a pit and machine-gun them to death. As a Christian, it’s difficult to know how to respond to such soul destroying divergence from the truth of Christ.
Having spent some time in Aweil with the Anglican church of South Sudan in early 2017, I then revisited them as they now sought refuge in a refugee camp in northern Uganda later that same year. Having lived through the bitter civil-war that eventually brought a separation from their Muslim neighbours to the north, and relative peace, once again they were refugees, this time escaping from a resurgence of tribal infighting; tribe upon tribe, and in some cases Christian against Christian. In an attempt to begin to understand how such things could take place within the context of the Christian faith, I turned to searching out what lessons could be learned from what had happened in Rwanda. Amongst the various articles I read, one stood out, written by Christine Schliesser from the Institute of Social Ethics in Zurich, published early last year in Religions. In it, she proposed four key factors that led to the suggested complicity of the church in the genocide; the historically strong link between the church and the state, the acceptance and active involvement of the church in ethnic policies, power struggles within the church itself, and finally, problematic theology.
It would be both clumsy and foolish to extrapolate from this any suggestion that, for example, a strong link between the church and the state leads to genocide. And yet to dismiss the lessons that we too can learn from any extremes of behaviour simply banishes them to the confines of their own contexts, rendering them impotent; genocide rarely happens overnight. Complicity may well simply look like silently allowing the social, political and religious conditions for any form of extremism to develop, unchecked and unchallenged. Edmund Burke’s popularised quote, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’ is a paraphrase of his much more significant sentiment. “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” Something very powerful happens when still, small (but not silent) voices unite together in the shared cause of social justice.
I was so encouraged by the forthrightness of the Archbishop of York in his book On Rock or Sand supporting the role that faith communities have within the political debate, and how Justin Welby often echos the same. Speaking out early against any form of systematic oppression is not liberalism, it is simply the Christian tradition of social justice. When faced with the long list of accusations levied against the church, displayed on the wall of Pink Houdini, my initial response was one of defensive dismissal. And yet something made me stop, look hard and listen to history. ‘Hear this now, O foolish people without understanding, who have eyes and see not, and who have ears and hear not;’ I remembered Jeremiah saying. Standing with Joel, identifying with and acknowledging the mistakes that history reveals to us and having the courage to repent and where necessary apologise is not weakness. For it is only from the humility of repentance that we can ever hope to prevent that same history from repeating itself; this was one of Miroslav Volf’s key arguments in Exclusion and Embrace. Further more, Orwell’s observation that the most effective way to destroy people is through denying and obliterating their own understanding of their history, gives us a view of how we should approach own own perhaps, as Christians. We are not asked to necessarily agree with all of the voices that call to us from the plethora of historical perspectives that exist in our world view, but we do need to both acknowledge and listen to them. I wonder what history will assign as the greater crime, to simply deny a genocide has taken place or to prevent the families of the victims from commemorating it within the community itself.
I came away from the Preijdor memorial in Sarajevo with some resolutions, the first of which I found in the Book of Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite, a nation that at the time was often skirmishing with Israel, a nation suffering from the significant internal turmoil of tribal conflict; she could easily have been seen as ‘the enemy’. She was destitute and at serious risk of sexual harassment, especially in the light of the appalling treatment of women at the time. She was a foreign refugee, and in more contemporary language perhaps, a drain on the economy. And yet, society was established in such a way that embraced the foreigner, especially one like Ruth that wished to become part of Israel’s family. We see through the character of Boaz, the Kinsman Redeemer that he was willing to risk not only his own security (where others were not) ensuring that the blood line of a distant relative was preserved, but also his own reputation by agreeing to a mixed marriage, a politically and ethnically controversial one at that. If we truly partake in the divine nature of Christ, surely we also share his call to ‘sit at the gate’ and become part of his redemptive plan, stewarding our resources to protect the weak. Not simply in ways that will benefit our own lives or further our own cause, but perhaps in ways that will embrace the cause and desires of others, for which we will see no benefits..in fact maybe quite the opposite. Maybe Boaz shows us most clearly what it is like to love our neighbour, who is so often our enemy, and the lengths that we are called to go to include those that seek to be included, regardless of their ‘difference’.
Secondly, I return to Volf. When St Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus’, surely this was not to dismiss nor suppress the beauty of humanities’ diversity [he argues]. No, it is only in Christ, within the Father’s embrace, drawn together mysteriously through the work of the Spirit that we find the inner security to celebrate difference.
And finally, perhaps I need to be a person that listens more, making space for the discomfort that hindsight sometimes brings and not shying away from the uncomfortable perceptions that others have of my faith [or tradition for that mater], but engaging with them in painful humility. In this way, even though I cannot change the past, I may just be able to shape the future.