Wineskins Archive

February 4, 2014

Psalm 133, Rwanda, and Unity (Jan-Apr 2006)

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by John Barton
January – April, 2006

Editor’s Note:

John Barton delivered the following as a keynote address at the Detroit Metro Lectures in 2005. In order for you to imagine the lecture and experience its impact, we have left the audience directions, such as standing for the reading of God’s word in this article.

Please stand for the reading of God’s word.

Psalm 133:

How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!

It is like precious oil poured on the head,
Running down on the beard,
Running down on Aaron’s beard,
Down on the collar of his robe.

It is as if the dew of Hermon
Were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the LORD bestows his blessings,
Even life forevermore.

Prayer: Unity is close to your heart, God. Open your word to us, open our hearts and minds as we seek you tonight.

Hotel Rwanda trailer

If you haven’t seen this movie yet, you need to. It is the story of Paul Rusesabagina, and how he offered hope in hopeless times during the Rwandan genocide.

My purpose tonight is not to talk about the movie per se, but the situation in Rwanda does provide a powerful illustration to get is started tonight.

Rwanda is a small East African country with a difficult history. Traditionally, the citizens of Rwanda have been divided between two main groups: Hutus and Tutsis. There have been long tensions between these groups.

In April 1994, chaos broke out between the groups. Historically, the violence has gone both directions at different times, but this time it was primarily the offensive of Hutu extremists who referred to Tutsis as “cockroaches” and spread widespread, violent sentiment against them.

The result was what many describe as one of the worst cases of attempted genocide or ethnic cleansing in recent history. There have been many debates since concerning things like: First, Is “genocide” a proper term for what happened? Second, Are Hutus and Tutsis actual ethnic distinctions or arbitrary ones created by the Belgian colonial presence? Third, Should blame for the violence be placed more on the Rwandese themselves, or the Belgians for imposing an atmosphere of oppression and violence which left a social powder keg in place? And finally, How should we think about the failure of the UN and USA to intervene despite warnings?

Those are important questions and issues. But regardless, the terrible results were the same: in a period of one hundred days, 800,000 were killed, according to official estimates. To put it in more perspective (as if it needs that) that’s 8,000 people a day for one hundred days in a country the size of the southeast corner of Michigan, metro-Detroit area. Can you imagine?

My family and I lived in one of Rwanda’s neighboring countries, Uganda, when this took place. I remember seeing UN convoys go through Kampala on their way to Rwanda. We tried to help some Rwandese refugees who had fled to Uganda. We were warned not to eat fish out of Lake Victoria or the Nile for many months because the waterways of East Africa had been contaminated by the killings.

I don’t want to give details that are unnecessary, but I also want us to experience tonight some of the horrors that many lived through.

Five years later, I traveled into Rwanda with team members and some visiting university students, and saw first hand some of the effects. At one point we visited a church just outside the capital city of Kigali in a village called Ntarama. The church was not much bigger than this stage, mud and brick walls, corrugated tin roof. A massacre had taken place there, and the church had not been touched since that day . . . in memorial.

On the day that the violence broke out, many hundreds of Tutsis left home in fear, carrying their children along with whatever clothes, food, cups, plates, blankets, and other things they could carry. Many looked to churches as a possible safe place, and on this day many hundreds (some say thousands) packed into this small little church.

But they were not safe . . .

An army of Hutu extremists came, having been tipped off by a back-stabbing clergyman (who thought he was acting in the name of a greater good). Using AK-47’s and grenades and machetes, they killed all the people in the church. By the time we visited five years later, it had been left pretty much as is. Bullet holes . . . bones of adults and children . . . blood-stained clothes . . . cups . . . plates . . . blankets . . . bags that had once had food.

It is hard to explain the impact of such a visit. Some say we shouldn’t talk about such things—it is too disturbing. But we must.

Leading to Psalm 133, I know this an extreme case, but it is also a stark reminder of what a broken world we live in, a violent world, a world of division which creates pain and tragedy and injustice. We live in a world of walls based on money, and skin color, and gender, politics, culture, and religion.

How awful and terrible it is when people live with such disunity.

And before we start pointing fingers and assuming that such tragedy is just “out there” or “over there,” let us acknowledge that we are all a part of the problem, we all contribute in some way to the brokenness of this world. When telling this story I have had some say things like “how could that happen? How could they do that to one another?” Implied in that question sometimes is a “those people” assumption that implies that “we” are fundamentally different, fundamentally unable to do something similar if put in the same situation.

I understand those questions and sentiments to a point, and I am in favor of holding the perpetrators responsible. But as we were standing there in that atmosphere of murder, the verses that I couldn’t get out of my head were from Matthew 5: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not murder’ . . . But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment…anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

Rwanda is an extreme example of brokenness and injustice and the kind of disunity we all are guilty of. I am guilty of it in my own marriage, and with my own friends (let alone with any possible enemies). All division has violent potential and creates injustice. Whenever we erect walls and create divisions that God would not create, we take part in the same activity. I am part of the problem.

And in our churches . . . disunity is everywhere. Among God’s people it is supposed to be different, but churches can be places of division and agony of some of the worst kind. Disunity, segregation, there are often walls of hostility erected between people who sit on the same pew on Sunday morning. And between churches and church movements, Christians act in ways they claim to be for the greater good or for righteousness, and in the process break one of God’s deepest intentions, not to mention his heart.

Disunity among God’s people is awful for us, painful for God, not the way it is supposed to be, not what Jesus prayed for, not what creates a “thy Kingdom come” situation. (Note: In 1996, the New York Times reported that Islam is the fastest growing religion in Rwanda, in part because people were disgusted with Christian response to the country’s disunity).

How awful and painful and damaging it is when God’s people live in disunity and division.

It is a broken situation that begs for divine intervention and healing . . . and when divine intervention and healing happens . . .

Psalm 133, a Psalm of David: In contrast to the awfulness and pain of a broken world, how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live in unity. That kind of unity is so great, so refreshing, so wonderfully Godly, what analogies can even be used to illustrate how wonderful it is? In a parabolic tradition that Jesus himself would use centuries later (“the Kingdom of God is like a . . .”), David seeks for analogies. “Unity? “It’s like . . . it’s like . . .”

Oil on the head. OK, that doesn’t connect to us as much. We don’t want oil poured on our head. We buy special shampoos to get the oil out. But use a little historical imagination—imagine a different culture, climate, time. Think hot, dusty, dry, before A/C and Lubriderm. A daily struggle with cracked skin, painful cracks on the feet, elbows . . . and scalp. (Not unlike cracked lips and hands in a Michigan winter.) In that context, oils, lotions, soothe, cool, and moisturize. It is “pleasant” and was connected with hospitality and luxury and royalty (the use of “precious oil”).

So unity is like oil poured on the head, running down . . . soothing, refreshing . . .

But notice, unity is not just a soothing feeling. This isn’t anyone’s head that we’re pouring the oil on—it is Aaron’s head! High Priest, Moses anointed in the Wilderness, Priest over people. This reflects and represents God’s blessings, promises, work. The oil goes down on the robes, where Aaron would have had the names of the twelve tribes engraved on stones and fastened to his robes, bringing our attention to God’s work and people.

In other words, this unity that is truly great is not just a 60s flower child, lets-all-just-get-along unity. This is not unity at all costs or as the highest ideal. This unity is only a result of God’s work, his truth, his anointed one. True unity is always built on truth. “Make every effort to keep unity . . . for there is One Body, One Spirit . . . ( Ephesians 4). And Christian truth is always built around the primary foundation of God’s anointed one, Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 3:11, 15).

God’s unity is great! So great! What other analogy, David wonders, can be used? “It’s as if . . . It’s as if . . . it’s as if the dew of Hermon were falling on mount Zion.”

Hermon, tall mountain in the Northern part of Palestine, north of Sea of Galilee. Snow-capped year round, lush, cool. Its waters form the major source of the Jordan River. Zion, often synonymous with Jerusalem, Gods dwelling place, in the south near the Dead Sea, hot, dry, arid, no dew, looks like pictures of the moon (5 cm of rainfall per year!)

The dew of Hermon falling on Zion is like “summer snow,” it just wouldn’t happen naturally (if the dew of Hermon were really to fall on Zion, it would get 24 hour coverage on the Weather Channel). We might picture this as the original Mountain Dew commercial. Trashy western town café, tumbleweed, banging screen door, loud metal fan, sweat on t-shirts, cranky waitress. Then someone opens a Dew, and the whole scene turns into an oasis party with rain and dancing, and joy . . . Unity is like that . . . “when I eat a York Peppermint Pattie . . .”

So unity is cool and refreshing, but it is also a miracle. Unity is not something we achieve on our own by our own good intentions or philosophies. Unity is ultimately only possible with God’s presence. (Unity in churches reflects God’s presence, which means disunity reflects what?)

People sometimes express surprise at the high levels of disunity in the world. Not David. That’s what is to be expected in a broken and diseased world. But David tells us what is really surprising, though, is when people achieve radical unity! That is awe-inspiring, it produces joy beyond measure. That is miraculous and reflects God’s presence.

In closing, back to Rwanda. Extreme situations create extraordinary injustices as well as extraordinary heroes. In Hotel Rwanda, the story of Paul Rusesabagina is one of those heores. Let me briefly tell you about two others, one that I met. Antoine Rutaisire is a Tutsi Pastor, after the war he publicly confessed his “ethnic hatred” and started a ministry of reconciliation which has ministered to many Hutus, including some who killed his family members. Fabien Nzabagurira is a Hutu clergyman who hid Tutsis in his home displaying miraculous solidarity with people his culture told him to hate.

In line with the theme of these lectures, let us remember: Unity “really matters,” it is very close to God’s heart. “Tearing down walls of hostility” is of central importance to God. God values peacemakers, those who make “every effort” to keep unity of the spirit. He wants to do this through us. Are we allowing him? Do we handle God’s truth in a way that reflects this key value and creates an atmosphere for the miraculous?

Please stand again for the reading of God’s word.

Psalm 133:

How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!

It is like precious oil poured on the head,
Running down on the beard,
Running down on Aaron’s beard,
Down on the collar of his robe.

It is as if the dew of Hermon
Were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the LORD bestows his blessings,
Even life forevermore.

New Wineskins

John BartonJohn Barton teaches philosophy and religion at Rochester College in Rochester Hills, Michigan. He and his wife, Sara, have two children, Nate and Brynn. The Barton family lived and worked as part of a church planting mission team in Uganda, East Africa before moving to Michigan.

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