A lesson on moral courage from Rwandan genocide


I am racking my brain to remember what I was doing 25 years ago this week. April 6, 1994, was the Wednesday after Easter in the tiny Nebraska town where I lived. I was likely still enjoying the afterglow of my favorite Sunday of the year.

But on the other side of the world an apocalypse was unfolding. Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana’s private jet was shot down as he returned home from a regional peace accord. The U.S. State Department believed that he was assassinated by his own Presidential Guard because they were unhappy that the accord required them to share power with their political opponents.

Be that as it may, the Presidential Guard working with the Rwandan army and militia blamed the Tutsi minority and began a pre-planned pogrom of arresting and assassinating political opponents. On April 9, a massacre of hundreds at Pallotine Missionary Catholic Church in Gikondo, was the first clear evidence that the goal was the indiscriminate killing of all Tutsis — ranging from their leaders to the youngest children in the arms of their mothers.

The bloodshed raged for 100 days killing 800,000 Rwandans. Meanwhile, world politicians engaged in fantastical word games designed to avoid using the word “genocide.” 

The civilized world was committed to the doctrine of “never again.” Never again would it permit a genocide like what happened to the Armenians (800,000) or the Jews (6,000,000). United Nations agreements were exceedingly clear: any genocide would be stopped by the united military might of civilized nations. 

The only thing that could keep the United Nations from military intervention was for politicians to pretend that the wholesale slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda was not a genocide. So, pretend they did. Who can forget the infamous press conference where the president’s press secretary performed verbal summersaults to avoid stating the obvious truth?

This was a shameful moment in U.S. foreign policy. It is tempting to recriminate. If we blame the politicians who stood before the cameras, we remain blameless. But that would be wrong. The sad fact is that the politicians were reacting to polling data from the American people. They tortured language and avoided the obvious because we, as a nation, did not have the political will to stop yet another genocide. 

It is easy to take the moral high ground after an atrocity like Armenia, the Holocaust or Rwanda and firmly say, “never again.” It is infinitely more difficult to take the moral high ground in the middle of an atrocity and say, “not on my watch.”

Taking the moral high ground in the middle of a battle is always costly. The forces of evil will always make it costly to oppose them. That’s how they prepare the battle ground. That’s how they keep civilized people sidelined.

They will always muddy the waters to obscure what is really happening. They will always claim that the people being oppressed are actually the oppressors. They will make sure that any opposition to their pogrom will cost Good Samaritans money, reputation, political standing — and sometimes life itself.

Anyone who thinks that opposition to evil will leave the white knight in shining armor unbloodied and unsullied by the rigors of battle will likely never engage the fight. He will not actually stand to protect his innocent neighbor in anything. This is true because there is no circumstance ever where the forces of evil will admit that they are evil. There is no battle — ever — where the victory is assured. There is no warrior who does not risk the loss of everything.

Moral courage to stand for the oppressed will never be the popular and easy road. That’s why courage never consists in following the crowd. Courage swims against the current. 

For a democratic republic to exercise moral courage in the face of the next genocide, it requires a majority of citizens to have personal moral courage. If Rwanda taught us one thing, it taught us that resolutions on a piece of paper at the U.N. are meaningless unless there is an equally firm resolution in the heart of every citizen.

Nations and organizations can always weasel out of their words. It is the heart that matters. And hearts are not found in organizations or nations, but in individual human chests.

If you want to be courageous as a nation the next time America is faced with a duty and responsibility to stand against genocide, train your own heart today. Don’t rage against the cowardice of others until you stand against your personal demons.

If you want your nation to stand together against evil, you can start by standing with your neighbor at the city council or at the school board. There will be a thousand reasons to stay out of the fray. Don’t let them stop you.

Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.

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