Roger W. Bowen has an essay called “Genocide in Rwanda 1994 – An Anglican Perspective” in the book “Genocide in Rwanda Complicity of the Churches.” Bowen served in Rwanda at the time leading up to the genocide as the representative “of the main Anglican mission society relating to the Anglican Church in Rwanda.”
He traces the surface level “apolitical” stance of the Anglican Church in Rwanda to conflicts over higher criticism of the Scripture back in England during the early part of the last century:
They were heirs of theological controversy at home, which focused around the authority of Scripture and attitudes to Biblical criticism. It was the background to the splits between the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU) and the Student Christian Movement (SCM) in 1910, the separation of the Bible Churchmen’s Missionary Society (BCMS) from the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in 1922, and the establishing of the special relationship between the Rwanda Mission and its parent society, the CMS, in 1926. The more conservative attitude to Scripture, and the associated controversy, led to an emphasis on evangelism rather than any engagement with the public life of the nation or critique of the sociopolitical context. Indeed, the missionaries were dependent on the goodwill of the colonial administration and sought to be apolitical.
I must protest here that “a conservative attitude towards scripture” does not necessitate being apolitical, quite the contrary! But Bowen is correct to say that for this group of British evangelicals (Keswick influenced) it did.
Bowen says that the early missionaries were also under the influence of the dispensationalist Scofield Bible. Bowen says that the premillenialism in Scofield’s notes:
…can lead to one of two reactions: either the withdrawal from the public life of the nation into a spiritual ghetto, or a naïve and uncritical support of whoever is in power, with Biblical justification being frequently drawn from Romans chapter 13. Both these reactions are discernible within the life of the Anglican Church in Rwanda.
Bowen points out that the pre-genocide Anglican Church did not speak up for the Tutsi exile from the early 60’s who were never allowed to return to Rwanda. He says, “The Church in Rwanda failed to plead their cause, perhaps because, in the Anglican Church at least, the leadership was exclusively Hutu.”
He says that the Rwandan Anglicans used a canon within a canon based on the revival template:
In some cases, all Scripture in interpreted to give the same message, often interpreted through the lens of the revival experience, rather than letting the diversity within the Bible be heard. Inadequate exposure to the whole counsel of God has meant that Church leaders were often left without the theological tools to engage with the complexities of relating to newly independent African states, to issues of economics, development, justice, human rights, and ethnicity.
Bowen says that the practice of sharing testimonies from the East African Revival led “to a lack of Biblical input and instruction, with the danger that personal experience becomes more important than the Word of God.”
He also points to a culture of obedience that went too far, violating the Apostles’ injunction in Acts 5.29 to obey God rather than man. He says:
In Rwanda, people killed because they were told to do so by the government, local burgomasters and the radio. Obedience to authority is inculcated within African culture and we need to ask whether the Churches have adopted the same approach. Within the Catholic tradition, there has been an unquestioning submission to Papal authority. Within the Protestant tradition in Rwanda, you are wise to obey your Bishop because your livelihood depends on his goodwill.
Bowen also turns the blame on himself and on the Churches of the West who wanted to avoid offending their African partners:
Partnership in mission is the dominant theme in Anglican relationships. But one may ask in the context of Rwanda, as perhaps elsewhere in Africa, whether the mission agencies at least have so leaned over backwards to avoid the charge of colonialism that they have failed to challenge their partner Churches? Within both Rwanda and the Rwandan Church, we were aware of many of these issues and yet, as their partners, we largely failed to challenge them as equal partners and to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). In Ezekiel 33 the prophet is challenged to be a watchman for the House of Israel to warn the people of God of impending danger. Both the national Church of Rwanda and its partners overseas have largely failed in this role of watchmen.
Reading this essay is sobering. On almost every issue that Bowen raises, I have to ask if we are repeating the same mistakes?