“Is the blood of tribalism deeper than the water of baptism?”
Fr. Emmanuel Katongole, who teaches at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, asked that question Monday in Chicago. He was at Catholic Theological Union to give the 2014 Louis J. Luzbetak, SVD, Lecture on Mission and Culture, entitled “On Learning to Betray One’s People: The Gospel and a Culture of Peace in Africa.”
Katongole is a priest of the archdiocese of Kampala, Uganda. He holds a doctorate from the Catholic University of Louvain (KU Leuven), Belgium, one of the theological centers of Europe. In 1994, while Katongole was studying at KU, the Rwandan genocide began.
In the context of the Rwandan civil war, members of the Hutu majority undertook a mass murder of Tutsi and moderate Hutu. In three months, from April through July, between half a million and one million people died. The slaughter shook Katongole to the core.
He asked himself who he was and what that meant. Katongole was born in Uganda and considered himself Ugandan. But his parents were from Rwanda. One was Tutsi. The other was Hutu.
Katongole also asked what it meant to be a Christian. The people who were doing the killing were Christians like him. Yet their Christianity did not stop them from killing. They had, in fact, begun the genocide during Easter week.
Katongole finally asked whether, in the context of suffering and death, his PhD was useless and irrelevant. He decided his research must shed light on the violence and how to stop it. He had been writing a purely theoretical dissertation, but now he shifted his focus to politics and theology. He developed some central insights on Rwanda and the Rwandan church.
First, he realized that the genocide was not an ethnic conflict. It was not the explosion of “age-old animosities” that the mainstream media portrayed. Historically, Rwanda was a culturally homogeneous country.
Instead, the real distinction between the Hutu and Tutsi in 1994 was political. Ethnicity, Katongole said, was a tool of distraction in contemporary politics. This was an African problem, not just a Rwandan one.
And in such a political situation, he asked, what difference did Christianity make? His conclusion: very little. The missionaries who came to Africa decades earlier had accepted a neo-Thomistic division of “grace” and “nature.” The church was there to dispense grace. Missionaries and clergy stayed aloof from politics, which was the realm of nature.
Thus the institutional church never mounted any successful critique of the existing colonial and post-colonial structures. The church offered no alternatives when those frameworks collapsed and took the people down with them. Christianity provided no bulwark against violence.
Katongole said that the big question for African Christians now was whether Christianity could radically interrupt conflict situations. To do so, it had to cease being politically neutral. But it also had to transcend existing politics.
Katongole therefore proposed a new direction he called “Ephesian communities.” The term, drawn from missiologist Andrew Walls, refers to the Letter to the Ephesians. There, Paul writes that whether Christians in Ephesus began as Gentiles who were “far off” or Jews who were “near,” they were nevertheless “no longer strangers and sojourners, but…fellow citizens” and “members of the household of God” (2:17, 19).
The togetherness of Ephesian Christians was something new. The local church drew from both Jews and Gentiles. Their backgrounds were so different that they might well have gathered in separate communities. Instead, they formed one entity that was pointedly neither Jew nor Gentile.
This was not an abstract “spiritual” togetherness in Christ. Rather, it was mundane and day-to-day, rooted in table fellowship. Ordinarily, the meal table was a place of division, and you did not invite “outsiders.” But the Christians did otherwise, and did so as a constitutive element of the Gospel. No radical table fellowship, no Good News.
Katongole described a Catholic high school seminary in Burundi that lived as an “Ephesian community.” Burundi had its own violence between Hutu and Tutsi, and the school was a mix of the two groups. But there was no atmosphere of conflict.
Under the guidance of the rector, the classes reread and reinterpreted local history, showing students that there were no absolute victims or absolute perpetrators. They had nightly community forums for dialogue. They had communal manual labor and recreation, especially dance. And the boys formed clubs and associations that reached across all lines and invested themselves in the local community. As with the Ephesian Christians, their unity was concrete and quotidian.
The seminary built a reputation for reconciliation. It earned the praise of the prime minister. It also provoked resentment. Killers raided the school, shooting 40 of the students dead.
Yet the massacre, in a perverse way, highlighted the school’s success. One reason the death toll was so high was that the students refused the killers’ demand to sort themselves into Hutu and Tutsi groups. “They told us to separate, Father,” a dying seminarian told the rector. “We didn’t. We have won.”
The water of baptism could indeed be deeper than the blood of tribalism. If one had an expanded vision of one’s people, then one did not betray one’s people.
Katongole concluded that “Ephesian community” does not necessarily make the world safer. It didn’t at the high school seminary. But it does interrupt the cycle of violence. To interrupt, and to keep interrupting, is the only “winning.”