Currently, I am reading “The Key to My Neighbor’s House: Seeking Justice in Bosnia and Rwanda.” As the title suggests, it is a book that describes the atrocities that occurred in both Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990’s, and the lengths that both countries took to get their nation on a path to peace and reconciliation. I started reading the book with prior knowledge of Rwanda, but did not know much about Bosnia’s situation at all. It is shocking how the two countries realities parallel each other’s so much – mass genocide of a people who were not only different but who were also blamed for their country’s problems.
To me, what went on in Bosnia and Rwanda was unthinkable. How could people, in spite of their differences or past grievances, turn on each other to the point that they are willing to kill? How could people justify their actions not only so that they make excuses for them, but even legitimize them?
Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, an African American judge who presided over the war crimes tribunal in Bosnia looked for these same answers herself. Finding none, she drew from her own experiences with racism and oppression in the United States. She discovered that Bosnia’s ethnic division and America’s struggle with racism were quite similar and said, “What has happened in the former Yugoslavia of course is nothing that we would ever expect to occur in the U.S. but is an example of what can happen when you don’t resolve your ethnic divisiveness.”
I agree with McDonald here. We would never expect the same manner of injustice that took place in Bosnia or Rwanda to occur in the U.S. Hopefully, prayerfully, we understand the gravity of such acts on our society, and would never go there. But still, these two countries can serve as a wake up call for us. Bosnia never dealt with the ethnic divisions in a healthy manner. Yes, Serbs and Muslims – lived next to each other with hardly any distinctions among them besides their name. However, there was a deep, dark, history between them that begged restitution and no amount of forgetting or suppressing the pain would take care of that.
Likewise, the pain of racism runs deep in America’s fabric and we have not even begun to scratch the surface in dealing with it. Because people of color and American Indians are afforded more opportunities today than they were even 40 years ago, many people are led to believe that we live in a post-racial society and thereby conclude that the race problem has been dealt with. Still, the race problem is alive and well in America, and the more that we try to deny it, the worse it gets. It ends up coming out sideways, and bubbles up in situations that almost paralyzes us to inactivity. It causes us to be numb to the other’s reality, and in fact, gives us permission to wish another dead, and unfortunately, some are even comfortable enough to pull the trigger.
Even so, I believe that there is an opportunity here and that opportunity lies within the Church. As people of faith, I believe that God has given us the ability to speak to things in this world that are dysfunctional, that are unjust, that are evil and see authentic transformation. I believe that God, by the power of His Holy Spirit, has instilled in us the ministry of reconciliation so that people do not have to live divided among racial, economic, or gender lines but can instead live renewed in Christ with one another (2 Corinthians 5.17 – 20; Galatians 3.27, 28; Ephesians 2.13 – 16).
But it will take us dealing with the racism and prejudice in our lives, and in our churches. We will have to acknowledge where we have allowed race to play a role in oppressing, exploiting, and marginalizing people in our own congregations instead of simply moving on as if these injustices never existed. It is only after we have acknowledged these things that we can do, and preach the deep work of reconciliation – healed and restored relationships. And this is quite different from diversity. Yes, we can have diverse, multi-cultural churches and have friends, and even relatives, that make up different cultural backgrounds. But diversity, in my opinion, is a transient solution to a problem that demands a much more targeted and invasive approach.
So let’s do the work of reconciliation. Although it is costly, meaning that it will cost us time, resources, and perhaps even relationships with others who would prefer that we stay quiet, I believe that it will cost the world a whole lot more if we do nothing.