Thursday, August 11, 2011

Left Untried

My lunchtime reading recently was Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, a memoir by ImmaculĂ©e Ilibagiza. The author hid for nearly three months in a tiny bathroom with six other women. There was little food, little water, no bathing; and it was still preferable to what would have been their fate outside. These women were not criminals hiding from the law but members of the wrong tribe in a time when their country had gone mad with hatred and resentment. They were hiding from machete-wielding rapists and murderers who had the full backing of their government.

While she sat in the bathroom, Ilibagiza prayed all day. And while she prayed, she came to know that God required that she forgive the people who were slaughtering so many of her fellow countrymen and who would kill her if they found her--that the command to forgive our enemies is not just empty words, but a requirement if we are to continue to grow in holiness. By then her closeness to God was the only thing keeping her going, so somehow she did find the will to forgive them (though as you can imagine that was an act that took renewal as further news of atrocities reached.)

The mind boggles.


I can think of no better illustration of the G. K. Chesterton line, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried."

No human acting alone--i.e. without God's grace--could forgive such an enormity. It is hard enough for us to forgive relatively small insults from the petty-minded among our relatives and neighbors, but to forgive the utterly senseless murders of our family and countrymen, having our home burned and the whole course of our life disrupted, being forced to huddle together with strangers in fear of our life for week after week--everything natural in us recoils at this idea. But Christianity requires it.

I know enough from my own small troubles about how it can feel to rely on God in a time of stress, that I can understand something of the way she was resting in God's presence in that bathroom. No one would want to lose that closeness. So I know why she had to choose forgiveness, but that she actually succeeded at it is an enormous thing to me and I'm sure that this is one of the rare instances in my life when I'm firmly in the majority--utterly normal, fitting right in.

Forgiveness in a situation like Ilibagiza's would be impossible without God, and many of us would think God is not only cruel to allow the situation but unnatural to expect us to forgive those who caused it. But what's the alternative to forgiveness? Carrying the burden of resentment and hatred and vengeful desires all our lives? Letting the (justifiable) anger go on so long it poisons everything else we have? Letting it all build and grow in the society until it becomes another round of violence, with different names on the victims list?

So what to do? Forgive. Temper justice with mercy. Seek God. It's all easier said than done (!), and in the end it comes down to each of us in our own heart and head, deciding what to do, whether we will listen to God or to the Evil One.