I remember watching the movie “Hotel Rwanda” when I was about 18. I hadn’t heard of the historical events behind the movie, but I remember that it was one of the first films that startled me about the reality of injustice in the world. I had seen violence on film through action and horror movies, where we de-humanize fictional characters for the sake of a thrill, but this movie put violence in the context of humanity for me, and its story was real.
As the world is remembered 20 years since Rwanda, I decided to take some time myself to read about the event. The reality of what happened stirred and disturbed me. It is one of the deepest reminders in recent history that we live in a fallen world. It sent me thinking about human nature. Because this was not an evil committed by an anomalous individual. It was a whole society. What in human nature could allow for such massive atrocity? What causes people to do such horrendous things? These are some of my attempts to work through this:
Prejudice and division is normative to human nature
For years, the people of Rwanda had been torn by civil conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi people. That conflict came to a climax in 1994 when a plane, carrying the Hutu Rwandan president, was rocketed out of the sky. The Hutu majority used it as an opportunity to blame the Tutsi minority and, within the span of 100 days, an estimated 800,000 Tutsis were systematically slaughtered under Hutu military pressure.
Human history is littered with instances of violence and hatred due to national, racial, political, religious distinctions. From the Crusade era, to the Nazi concentration camps, to the Sunni/Shia divide in the Middle East, to the Western slavery and segregation, to the polarization of American politics, to the East/West divide in Ukraine, human being have always had a tendency to categorize each other with irrational spite.
We see such prejudice on our own turf, less tragically manifest. A positive to the current Western tolerance movement is that it is clearly a recognition of and reaction to such intolerance; however, as we have seen in current media, even our attempts at tolerance tend to turn quite spiteful and intolerant . It doesn’t seem that the answers lie in an unrealistic attempt to neutralize disagreements, but the communal attempt to disagree civilly.
Group-think is powerful
What causes people en masse to commit such massive atrocities? What causes an entire military alliance of Hutu soldier to systematically kill 800,000 people? What causes an entire military to get behind the systematic execution of Jewish people, and what caused a nation to stand back and only few to react? What causes the Syrian nation to slaughter each other in civil war, the constant violence in the Middle East? What causes the polarization of the American political parties today?
Ultimately, I think that we are seeing a combination of the moral, noetic, and societal affects of the fall on humanity. Sin makes people both wicked and ignorant. Both our capacity to and willingness to think issues out is very limited. We default to follow the majority. If everyone agrees to it, it must be right. We don’t have the intellectual fortitude or the time to think through each issue on our own. We follow, like sheep, those before and beside us. We follow those whom we have a tendency to prefer into opposition (sometimes violently) against those whom we are predisposed to dislike. Part of it is that human nature is societal. So, likewise, is fallen human nature. We are unoriginal in our sins. The rogue sinners achieve headlines because they are the minorities. It is group-think that causes most of us stray.
This is not to minimize the military pressure that many were under during the horrible events in Rwanda. I don’t know what I would do under such a situation. I hope I would be brave, but it is easier said than done.
The only hope that I know of is found in what God has provided the church: redemption through Jesus Christ, the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, the means of grace, the Word, prayer, the sacraments, church community. I find all of these things to be the only hope for humanity as we combat the effects of sin in our world.
The human capacity for hatred is deep
Hatred has an ability to dehumanize another, to cover their personhood with some cloak of prejudice. Sometimes, hatred can be caused by a deep-seated hatred of a person, but this kind of mass hatred has to be the cause of a minimalization of personhood. It is a lumping of individuals into a single identity.
A Rwandan mourning service said it well, as they recollected the horrible events, “‘Dehumanization started,’ the narrator shouts over loud, hard-pulsing music. ‘And humans became objects.'”
The willingness and ability for other to help is sometimes minimal
One of the great regrets on the United States side of the matter is that the US and the UN, though aware of the genocide, did nothing. Bill Clinton later publicly recognized that he wished the United States would have taken some action.
Hindsight is always 20/20. It is easy to look back on an event and wish we did something, but it is difficult to act in the present. It’s easy to think that I would have been openly abolitionist if I lived in early America, openly anti-Nazi in WW2 Germany, but the truth is, many otherwise good people were not. Those who are heroes are such by the very fact that they do what most are unwilling to do. I have to ask myself, what separated those who did do what was right? What made those like Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer braver than the rest? What is going on now that we will have wished we would have acted upon? Granted, these men had a unique position in history were they were called to act in a way that many cannot. But, surely, none of is can be inactive.
I thought immediately of the Syrian crisis and, what I as an evangelical am obligated to believe is a type of genocide, the mass amount of abortions in our country. I don’t know what to do about these things. But, as I think, I don’t want to find my place in history with the masses who were silent about injustice.