As I continue to try to remedy my ignorance of Africa, I recently read Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, by Jason K. Stearns, and The Teeth May Smile But The Heart Does Not Forget, by Andrew Rice. The former centers on the Congo, the latter on Uganda. Both have seen their share of horror since independence. Actually, particularly for Congo, it would be more appropriate to date the travails from the 19th century and the meddling of the execrable Belgian King Leopold, if not before.
With the arrival of European power, untold millions of Africans in Congo died in the decades spanning the turn of the twentieth century. Now, in the decades around the turn of the twenty-first century, five million more congolese have died, primarily due to famine and disease induced by incessant conflict, rebellions, civil wars, and foreign invasions. In other words, more people have died here in central Africa in recent times than in any of the other conflicts and tragedies that you've heard about in the news. The news business will remind you quickly, if you were not aware, that people are not that interested in Africa.
The scale of death in Uganda has mercifully been smaller, but has measured in the hundreds of thousands, through the despotic regime of Idi Amin (portrayed by Forrest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland) and the ensuing years of civil war. These were brutal conflicts. As a Christian, I was particularly struck by one account. Amin was a Muslim from the West Nile region, whose people had more in common with their fellows across the artificial borders of Sudan and Congo than they did with the Ugandan south. Amin's rule exacerbated tensions as he privileged the people of his homeland. After he was deposed, Christians in the village of Kiziba rounded up all the Muslims, men women and children, tied them together with ropes, and hacked them to death with machetes.
It is, of course, extremely easy to assume that these people were not, in any real sense, Christians. But I think that assumption is as uncalled for as it is easy. I would not be at all surprised if they were every bit as Christian as we are. What would you be like after eight years of dictatorship, hundreds of thousands of deaths, the loss of friends and family members? Christians, in any society, must be the glue, the folks who refuse to abide by the differences that animate everyone else. In Uganda, they appear to have failed, as we usually have here as well.
The theme that ties Uganda, the Congo, Rwanda, Nigeria and more together is the enormous destructive power of ethnic, racial, religious, and class divisions. Now, what we absolutely cannot do is pretend that this is a uniquely African story, that Africa is uniquely violent or prone to conflict. Such a charge is absurd on its face. The story of the twentieth century is an unending chronicle of mass murder on the basis of race, ethnicity, and class. And the focal points of this story are in Europe and East Asia, not Africa. There remains a deep-seated sense, rooted in nineteenth century racism, that African is uniquely primitive, violent, wild. How quickly we forget. In the scope of the twentieth century, for the sheer scale of mindless death and destruction, Europeans have the most to answer for.
But, to be clear, I'm only turning the tables to point out that this is not a particular story; it is a human story. And humans at different times and in different places are, by and large, much the same. I have often talked about the importance of the church here in America breaking down barriers of race and class and not sharing in the segregation and misunderstanding so common to American society. I've seen fellow Christians act like I'm talking up a provincial interest that doesn't really matter in the real world. To them, it is as if the twentieth century never happened. Indeed, it is as if Christianity itself is false, that humanity actually isn't fallen, that the things that divide us are not dangerous.
If we think that the story of the twentieth century could not play out here in America, we are not taking either history or Christianity seriously. History shows us that racial, ethnic, and class tensions can be exacerbated and inflamed incredibly quickly under the right circumstances, leading to spasms of mass violence. And our faith teaches us that we are all, in fact, just as fundamentally flawed as history seems to imply.
Christians, then, must be the glue that holds society together. We are not, we must not be, just another tribe or interest group looking out for ourselves first. We must be the defenders of anyone who is mistreated, of anyone who is marginalized. We don't stop to ask whether they have the right belief, the right race, the right social class. We defend the weak, we refuse to isolate ourselves from poverty, we seek out relationships with people who are not like us. If all the people who claim the name of Jesus had done this, had cared for humanity rather than tribe, the story of the twentieth century would surely have been different.