In May 2012, I travelled on the Reflections on Rwanda program, a two-week trip for Canadian students to visit the Republic of Rwanda and study the genocide that occurred there in 1994. The purpose for studying genocide is to gain insight into human nature through studying the extremes in human action. Listening to the stories of rescuers and survivors prompts me to study the virtues required to affirm the sanctity of human persons.
Confronting profound evil is a difficult experience that challenges my faith. We toured dozens of memorial sites throughout the country. Many of these sites were former churches where people had fled seeking refuge and peace. At each site, we saw hundreds of skulls and bones of victims. Looking at those skulls and bones, I thought about my own skull and my own bones. I thought about how these bones and skulls fall short of truly representing the victims. What the skulls and bones do emphasize is equality, but what they deemphasize is individuality. When I observed a display with rosaries and identity cards among the skulls, it made me think about the dynamism of the life that once animated those bodies that were so violently destroyed.
One day, our group went down through a valley on a rickety white bus in southern Rwanda and came upon a hill in the middle of the valley. We were led into classrooms of a once-destined technical school filled with tables on which the bodies of victims were laid. These bodies had been preserved using limestone and so we saw bodies frozen in form showing the positions in which they had died. Some of the bodies had their arms crossed, some with their arms in the air, some bodies were sprawled out in utter defeat. There was one room with children and infant victims’ bodies. Sometimes clothing was attached to the preserved corpses. We saw the full bodies of the victims whose families had hurried to the site quickly enough to claim them. These bones testified to the horrors of genocide and to the fragility of human life. Did they also testify to the finality of death?
That evening, I was praying fervently and struggling with the experience. My roommate asked, “May I share with you a reading from scripture that I read today while we were at the memorial site called Murambi?” With my encouragement, she began to read Ezekiel 37 aloud.
“The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.” I shivered recalling the valley through which we had driven and the hill upon which we had ascended. “He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.” I could still smell the putrid smell of the limestone that looked like chalk upon the dry, preserved corpses. My friend continued reading: “‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.'” I reflected on each body I had seen preserved. For none were the machete blows deserved.
“Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.'” During the day, across the distance, I saw some children running quickly to greet us Muzungus, a local word meaning aimless wanderers used to refer to foreigners. Oh, we of little faith, I thought. We saw new life upon this hallowed hill.
The reading from Ezekiel continued, “‘Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’ So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.”
Children had been playing on the hill were their ancestors were massacred. Life was continuing where thousands had been slaughtered. I have seen life after genocide, I thought. And if there can be life after genocide then it is not so difficult to imagine life after death. “I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.” Those risen from the ashes of genocide offered a glimpse of the hope of the resurrection. With their lives and their faith they declared life in a former place of death.
“Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” As my friend read this I could feel the breeze that we had felt that day upon that hill. I reflected on the juxtaposition of the memorial site with the beautiful new lives being lived there now.
“Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.” I then imagined all those bodies that I had seen rising again.
The reading continued, “I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king over them all. Never again shall they be two nations, and never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms.” What a message of hope! This message of reconciliation and healing written in the sixth century Before Christ took on so much meaning in light of the genocide in Rwanda. While the country is striving to eliminate tensions between Hutus and Tutsis, the Word of God affirms that these divisions will cease when there is restoration to the unity found in His peace.
I was in awe of this reading’s relevance to our activities of the day. My friend concluded the reading: “I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary among them forevermore. My dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” What had been an incredibly challenging day and a great test of faith ended with the reassurance of God’s providence and with the joyous hope of life after death.
This blog is dedicated to my dear friend Rebecca Mattea Chadwick-Shubat who shared Ezekiel 37 with me and we both found consolation in scripture. Thank you for your friendship and encouragement. Philippians 1:3.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” – Psalm 121:1