How should Christians respond to atrocities overseas? A look at the ethical implications of Nazism, Rwanda, and Darfur



According to most estimates, violence in the Darfur region of Sudan has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people since 2003, with many more forced to flee their homes. Charges of genocide have been leveled by many in the international community, including President Bush and Congress. The goal of this study is to evaluate responses to previous genocidal actions in Rwanda to gain perspective on Darfur.


For the group leader


Opening prayer: Loving God, though Jesus' death ensured our salvation, we are painfully aware that we still live in a broken and hurting world. Guide our hearts and minds as we seek your will. Let us always remember what we pray, that your will be done, Lord. Give us the wisdom and compassion we need to seek and do what you desire. In the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen.


The violence in the Darfur region of Sudan since 2003 presents the challenge of a situation in which clear moral wrongs exist alongside daunting complexity. The "Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to the United Nations Secretary-General," released in early 2005 concluded,

The roots of the present conflict in Darfur are complex. In addition to the tribal feuds resulting from desertification, the availability of modern weapons, and the other factors noted above, deep layers relating to identity, governance, and the emergence of armed rebel movements which enjoy popular support amongst certain tribes, are playing a major role in shaping the current crisis.[1]


This complexity makes it extremely difficult to bring peace to the situation, both for would-be peacemakers within the Sudan and concerned members of the international community.


As Americans, we see foreign genocides purely as outsiders, largely blind to our own murderous history with the Native American population, and thus find it difficult to place ourselves within these events overseas. If anything, we remember the liberation of European concentration camps at the end of World War II and see ourselves as rescuers waiting in the wings, ready to free the oppressed. However, past and present experiences in Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq have left many Americans hesitant to support putting troops on the ground in any more complex and dangerous political situations.


With all of these circumstances in mind, how are we to respond as Christians in the United States? The Darfur conflict, genocide or not, is often thought about in light of the slaughter in Rwanda in the 1990s. While the situations do not parallel exactly, examination of the Rwandan genocide may provide useful insights for developing Christian response to Darfur.



Useful articles

Two Journal of Lutheran Ethics articles deal with Hotel Rwanda, the 2005 film about the Rwandan genocide. Congregations are encouraged to arrange viewings of the film and use the film and these articles as starting points for discussion of American Christian responses to atrocities overseas.


John Rutsindintwarane's study guide provides some initial questions, along with suggestions for more in-depth resources on the Rwandan situation.


Matthew Bersagel Braley's review deals with issues of human identity and the history of abandonment in genocidal situations. The article forces the reader to confront both the internal and external factors that combine to cause these types of human disasters.


Braley also wrote an article for JLE that focused on the Gacaca courts in Rwanda. This longer article is helpful for those interested in going further in depth regarding the Rwandan violence and its aftermath. Braley's article deals with questions of political structure, justice, and reconciliation in Rwanda years after the horrors of 1994. Helpfully, Braley also provides historical background, including a discussion of the accuracy of the term "genocide" in identifying the violence in Rwanda.


D. M. Yeager's "God, Church, and Country: Berggrav's Leadership in the Norwegian Resistance" tells the story of Norwegian Lutheran bishop Eivind Josef Berggrav, who became famous in the resistance to the German occupation of Norway during the Second World War. This article may allow readers to place themselves within the context of a genocidal regime and see the paths one man chose to follow in order to remain within the bounds of his conscience.


These resources can be connected to information on the situation in Darfur. The ELCA's Washington office maintains a page on Darfur ( that is useful for background and current information. In addition, many news organizations have quick fact sheets available online. More in-depth information can also be found from many other online sources. By thinking and talking about Hotel Rwanda, Berggrav, and Darfur, American Christians can become engaged in crucial international matters from a grounding in Christian faith.



Discussion questions


"A Study Guide for Parishioners and Classes viewing Hotel Rwanda," by John Rutsindintwarane


Discuss the questions within Rutsindintwarane's article.



"Who Counts? A Review of Hotel Rwanda," by Matthew Bersagel Braley


Braley says that "reciting escalating death tolls cannot bring us any closer to understanding, much less responding constructively to, the horror of social breakdown" (paragraph 5). What are some of the differences in how you tend to respond to individual stories compared to how you respond to statistics? How can we maintain awareness of the personal stories, like that of Paul Rusesabagina and his family, while also grasping the numbers of people affected?


How do you think the international community should be involved in situations like Rwanda and Darfur? How can we help while also respecting people already working in these places? What does this mean for people like Paul?


In the fourth paragraph, Braley states the following: "To live as fully human beings is to exercise our capacity to affirm possibility in impossible moments. It is to affirm life in the midst of death." The foundation of Christian faith is that Jesus' death brought about life for sinners. How do you think our faith should affect our engagement with situations like Rwanda and Darfur? Does faith demand that we attempt the seemingly risky or impossible? Compare the United States' invasion of Iraq with its caution in Darfur. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each approach?


Braley discusses the ambivalent reaction to the triumph of Tutsi rebels in terms of a continuation of a cycle of violence. How do you think Jesus' command that we be peacemakers and turn the other cheek should play out in real political situations? Discuss how this might or might not apply in Afghanistan, Iraq, modern-day Israel, and Darfur. What do you think the differences should be in our response to direct attack on us (U.S.S. Cole, September 11, 2001) versus attacks on others (Madrid bombings, Darfur)?


It is often said that for Americans, an American life is worth more than the life of a non-American. Do you think this should be part of our thought process when engaging situations like Rwanda and Darfur?



"Rooting, Reforming, Restoring: A Framework for Justice in Rwanda," by Matthew Bersagel Braley


How does the use of the word "genocide" affect your thinking about a conflict? How do you think this plays out on the world stage?


Braley talks about how one dynamic in the violence in Rwanda was the development over the years of a Hutu inferiority complex. The violence of 1994 was the result of a reversal of power, accompanied by retribution from the new ruling class. Can you think of any ways that injustices can be remedied without resulting in efforts for revenge? What role might the church have in these efforts? Think about American, South African, and Iraqi history.



"God, Church, and Country: Berggrav's Leadership in the Norwegian Resistance," by D. M. Yeager


Yeager says "that one of the most important things that Berggrav did was to bind the entire Christian community in Norway together into a single powerful voice of opposition to Nazi operations" (paragraph 15). What are some ways that American Christians can work to speak together on issues where there is agreement without needing to resolve disagreements in other areas? Can you think of issues where this might be possible? What are some potential roadblocks to this approach?


Berggrav's captivity seems benign compared to images of Rwanda and Darfur. Do you think that his experiences are relevant to these later situations? Why or why not? If so, what can be learned from Berggrav and applied to other situations?


Do you think that God demands that Christians engage in resistance to unjust rulers? What if these rulers are in power in a different part of the world?





These final questions help to place the issues that have been dealt with up to this point within the context of Christianity as understood in the Lutheran tradition. Particularly relevant are the theology of the cross and the doctrine of the two kingdoms. A bit of background on these topics may be helpful.


For an explanation of the theology of the cross, see Carl R. Trueman's "Luther's Theology of the Cross," available online at


For a short introduction to Two Kingdoms theology, see Robert Benne's "The Twofold Rule of God" on JLE. More detailed discussions of this doctrine are found in other JLE articles, including Anders Nygren's "Luther's Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms," Heinrich Bornkamm's "Luther's Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms in the Context of his Theology," and John R. Stephenson's "The Two Governments and the Two Kingdoms in Luther's Thought."


As Americans observing the situation in Darfur, what do you think it means to be in the world but not of it?


What do you think Martin Luther's insight that Jesus' revelation was most fully manifest in the suffering of the cross tell us about God's involvement in Darfur?


If the church sees temporal authority failing to act as it should, how do you think the church should respond? Should the church submit to the civil authority's role or should it take the place of a government failing to act? (Note for group leader: Luther's writings on the relationship between temporal and spiritual authority argue that the church's role is to admonish the temporal authority to act as it should.)



Closing Prayer: Father, as we have discussed the violence in our world, we have seen the power of sin. Give us faith to know that your love is stronger than our sin. Help us to love as you have loved us. Let your mercy rain on this world. We ask this boldly in the name of your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.


International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur, "Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to the United Nations Secretary-General," 25 January 2005, 22.



© June 2008
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 8, Issue 6