Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage (Ezekiel 9) transports me to the red brick building of the Catholic Church in Nyarubuye, Rwanda, mid-April 1994. The Hutu men of Rwanda have heard the clarion call for a “final solution” – the execution of all the Tutsis, and in the town of Nyarubuye, the killing begins in the marketplace. Thousands of Tutsis flee to the Church for sanctuary. A statue of Christ hangs above the door, welcoming people into the sanctuary. For four days, the Hutus pass beneath that statue to brutally kill all who have sought refuge there; in the end, 20,000 lose their lives. The statue of Christ above the door has been shot, and has lost one hand. The story is told by one of the few survivors, Valentina, a 13 year old girl who, like the statue of Jesus, lost part of a hand when she shielded her head from a machete blow. She wound up beneath a pile of corpses, left for dead. She spent 43 days there in the church, watching as packs of wild dogs came and feasted on the dead. Her survival is a miracle, as is the survival of the country of Rwanda after such a horrific experience of genocidal massacre. My friend Janet Parker visited Rwanda ten years after the massacre, and wrote about her experience in an article for Sojourners magazine entitled “Can These Bones Live?” She visited a church very similar to the one in Nyarubuye, also a site of a massacre, and Janet articulated the inexpressible feelings of horror as well as the possibilities for hope through the vision of the prophet Ezekiel, when he envisioned a valley full of dry bones.
I re-read Janet’s article today as I was trying to come to terms with another vision of Ezekiel, the vision that led to the valley being full of bones in the first place. In today’s passage, the Glory of God, like the statue of Jesus in Rwanda, was located above the threshold of the temple. This image of the presence of God was not a welcoming symbol, though. Ezekiel heard the clarion call of God’s Glory giving instructions to a man wearing linen, Go through the city and put a mark on everyone’s head who is grieving over the sorry state of affairs, and then, sounding more like a Hutu warlord than the Lord of heaven and earth, the Glory spoke to the group of executioners gathered around the temple: “Follow him through the city and kill, without showing pity or compassion. Slaughter the old men, the young men and women, the mothers and children, but do not touch anyone who has the mark. Begin at my sanctuary.” So they began with the old men who were in front of the temple. Then he said to them, “Defile the temple and fill the courts with the slain. Go!” So they went out and began killing throughout the city.
There are many ways people have approached texts of terror like this one. Some, in Hutu fashion, celebrate the cleansing and purification such an apocalyptic slaughter brings about, and have no problem with the idea of God commanding the killing of children. Others will allegorize the story so that it signifies a symbolic battle and the death of spiritual powers. In a different way, I connect the rhetoric of the story to the crucifixion, and what Jesus accomplished on the cross. The scripture tells us that on the cross Jesus “bore our sin” and “became sin” and when he died, the power of sin suffered death and defeat. I have to believe that of all the sins Jesus bore and became there on the cross, one of the most horrific was the sin of assigning God’s voice to the authorization for mass slaughter of men and women and children. Surely one of the evils that Jesus defeated there on the cross was the sin of spiritually motivated genocide. The Ezekiel story marks the tragic failure of trust in the covenant, as the man in linen and his sword-wielding followers forgot the prime directive given to the covenant community; to be a blessing to all the families of the earth, opting instead for destruction. And that failure of trust was nailed to the cross. The power of divinely inspired violence was rendered null and void, utterly defeated.
The Christian faith tradition throughout its history has likewise struggled to remember its prime directive, the directive to love everyone, even our enemies. We often suffer the tragic failure of trust in the transforming power of that love, opting instead for the destructive power of physical force. Oftentimes the violence-authorizing Glory of God resides above the threshold of our sanctuaries, instead of the wounded and welcoming Jesus. Like Valentina, the witness of Jesus is sometimes buried beneath the corpses of those victims of religious violence. Like her miraculous survival, we can say it is a miracle that the witness to the universal and unconditional love of God, expressed in Jesus, is still alive.
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.