My Theology of Peacemaking

By David Zarembka

Revenge or Reconciliation?

Do you believe that reconciliation is possible between enemies? Is revenge and retaliation a basic human trait that makes true reconciliation remarkably unlikely?

Western literature considers the discussion of “revenge” as a serious issue. Homer and the Greek classics are filled with stories of revenge. When driving from Washington, DC to St Louis one day, I happened to turn on the radio just as the female protagonist in an obscure Italian grand opera whose name I don’t remember was exuberantly praising her brother for killing their mother in revenge for her participation in helping to kill their father. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is based on the issue of whether Hamlet should revenge the death of his father by killing his uncle. In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab is seeking revenge against the white whale because he bit off his leg – when you think about it, this is a rather absurd reaction and the story “works” only if one considers Captain Ahab to be obsessed. Then the United States has the late nineteenth-century example of the Hatfield and the McCoy families who killed each other in revenge for thirteen years until the Kentucky and West Virginia state militias were called in to restore order.

When I was a boy and went to Sunday school, I was told the story of Joshua and the Battle of Jericho where his army walked around the city for seven days and then blew their trumpets and the walls fell down. I remember drawing a picture of Joshua, his soldiers with trumpets, and the falling walls. As I grew up I thought this might be a nice example of a non-violent method of warfare. It was only when I was an adult that I read the following verse of Joshua 6:21: 21

 They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it – men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.

In other words, Joshua committed genocide and these days would be in front of the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and genocide.

Although revenge and retaliation are still an accepted concept in the international community, for instance, the 1998 Clinton bombing of a factory in Sudan in retaliation for the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, I do not think this is the way to a more peaceful world.

When Laura Shipler Chico finished a twenty month tour in Rwanda as a volunteer with the African Great Lakes Initiative (AGLI), she wrote the following passage in a report:

Is it the Quaker notion that there is that of God in each of us that gives the Friends here such gall? Is it that unwavering hope that even a man who has butchered and hated and thieved can be redeemed? Or is it simply a thirst that comes out of raw hurt, to find each other again? Whatever it is, Rwandan Evangelical Friends, through Friends Peace House, are doing something that very few other groups in Rwanda have tried. They are bringing killers and survivors together. They are inviting them to sit down and look each other in the eye.

Venancie is a Tutsi survivor of the 1994 Rwanda genocide. In 2007 she attended a Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC – pronounced HE-rock) workshop. Before the workshop, she said that she didn’t think she could ever forgive the killers. The workshop was also attended by the Hutu man whom she witnessed killing her two brothers and younger sister. He had just been released from prison. On the third day of the workshop, there is a trust walk done in pairs.  One person is blindfolded and the other leads the “blind” person around; then they switch places. Here is what Venancie said when she was, by chance, paired up with the man who killed her siblings:

During the trust walk, the person who killed my family was my partner. I was shaking because my partner was a known killer and very strong. I thought he might throw me down. But he also had fear and he took me gently, kindly. I asked, “Will you lead me in peace?” After the trust walk with him, I felt it was not good to stay in my grief and had no fear against him.

Bethany Mahler, a master’s student from the School for International Training, attended this workshop and wrote:

When you come from a place of comfort and security, where there was always someone to tuck you in at night, trust is easily built because there is no reason not to trust. In Rwanda, there is every reason not to trust. To behold a shy, widowed woman close her eyes and offer her hand to the man that destroyed her once-happy life was singularly beautiful. This small movement, this slight touch was everything. You imagine there is that kind of strength and benevolence in the world, but you rarely get to witness it. That day in September, I saw a world transformed through the eyes of every Rwandan in that room, a transformation in the richest, most profound sense of the word.

Here is an example from a Hutu prisoner after he confessed and was released:

I have accepted what I did in the genocide and I have been released. Through this workshop I see that I caused trauma to many people, especially those whose relatives I killed. I traumatized myself because I had an animal heart. I had done that, but I ask pardon. Forgive me. I did bad to you, to all Rwandans, even to myself. I believe since now we become brothers and sisters, we can all say together, “NEVER AGAIN.”

When people, usually mothers, see their children fighting with each other because of ethnicity, they begin to think, “When these children grow up, will there be another cycle of violence worse than the last one?” “Worse than the genocide” is hard for me to imagine. But the next round will not be genocide, rather a mutual slaughter, so perhaps it will be much worse. People who have survived this kind of experience realize that reconciliation and return to normal living with the neighbor (enemy) is essential for long term peace. As Salvator Ndayziga from Burundi said, “We adults ought to find ways to get along together as different ethnicities so that our children would start from there.”

Sylvain Toyi, a Hutu from Burundi, makes another point:

Before the workshop, I liked to be alone most of the time. My heart was exhausted from carrying all the bad stuff I had. After the workshop, I remember that is when I slept more deeply than any other single night since 1993 [when the Burundi civil war began].

This is a frequent comment. People who have been carrying around anger, bitterness, hostility, and fear for years talk about how a great load or burden has been lifted off of them when they realize that reconciliation is both possible and necessary. When reconciliation occurs, people report feeling that they have rejoined the human family. Frequently their first step is to stop beating/screaming at their spouse, children, family, and neighbors. It is these who are closest at hand who suffer from the anger and bitterness of those traumatized by events. I think it is backwards when we say that peace begins in the family. Rather trauma frequently originates from conflicts in the larger world which then brings violence into the family as wounded people take their anger and bitterness out on those closest to them. We need a peaceable community, meaning more than just the absence of violence but the right ordering of human relationships including, most importantly, economic ones.

What strikes me most about the peacemaking theology in the New Testament is that it goes beyond the usual responses of flight or fight. Jesus’ time was one full of repression and resistance. Some of the common people passively endured the oppression by the Roman Empire and the Jewish high priests. This included the Essene who migrated to the caves near the Dead Sea awaiting a more propitious time. Others resisted by banditry or in religious revivals such as were led by John the Baptist. Jesus indicated that there was a third way as in this passage written by the apostle Paul:  17

 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12: 17-21.

This third type of response can lead to reconciliation, to the reforming of normal human relationships between the oppressor and the oppressed, the perpetrator and the victim. This allows for the establishment of the “peaceable community” here on earth.

The Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities program really is no more than an attempt to implement, in a concrete, personal way, this third method of resolving violent conflicts. Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were well known in the last century for using the concepts of non-violent direct action in specific campaigns to end oppression. There are hundreds, even thousands, of other less well-known examples. This, I feel, is the path the world needs to pursue if it wishes to have lasting peace rather than continuous cycles of revenge and retaliation.


My understanding of forgiveness has been transformed through my work in the African Great Lakes region. I have traveled throughout Rwanda, Burundi, the eastern Congo, Uganda and Kenya, listening to the people who have attended our HROC programs. Prior to this work, I had assumed that someone who had wronged a person had to ask for forgiveness. Then the victim needed to assess the sincerity of the perpetrator’s remorse and decide to forgive or not to forgive. My concept of forgiveness was challenged when I read the following testimony of a Tutsi survivor from Burundi who attended one of the early HROC workshops.

I am a Tutsi living in the internally displaced person’s camp. I was around ten when the war reached our area. I remember that day when a Hutu beat my young brother. My mum asked our Hutu neighbor to escort her so that she could take my brother to the hospital. Pitilessly, he told her “Don’t you know where you have buried your husband? Take him there too!” Hopelessly, my mum and I went to the hospital but my brother died in mum’s arms before we could reach the hospital. We turned back and took the trail to the cemetery. Only two of us, two females, buried my brother. This would never have happened before the war. After we were done, we went home crying. Since that time, I considered the Hutu man as a monster as well as his wife and children.

…After the HROC workshop I attended, I used to sit and meditate. One day, I decided to rebuild the destroyed relationship with that family. Unfortunately, the man had died. Still, I went to his daughter, who is almost my age, and told her my sad story. I openly told her that this was the only reason that I hated them. She was very sorry to hear what her father did to us. In tears, she humbly asked if I would be eager to forgive her father though he had died, her family and her too! I responded to her that that was my aim for coming and talking to her. We are now friends, real friends. I have forgiven! Without HROC workshop skills, especially the tree of trust, I am not sure if I would have come to that decision.

Clearly if a person had died since the offense, he or she can not ask for forgiveness. My assumption that the offending person needed to ask for forgiveness was invalid. In another case, a rape survivor from the North Kivu district of the Democratic Republic of the Congo indicated that she did not even know who her attackers had been and she would not want to meet them anyway. She forgave them nonetheless. This made me realize that forgiveness is an internal action on the part of the victim.

Often times, victims report how they were filled with grief, anger, hostility as well as thoughts of revenge and retaliation. When a victim releases these ideas by seeking forgiveness in his or her heart, we frequently hear about how that person feels like a heavy load had been lifted off his or her shoulders. One man commented, “Now, I feel human again.” In another case, a woman who had been badly treated by her relatives realized that her anger and bitterness towards her relatives was not hurting her relatives, but herself. She went to forgive and reconcile with those relatives who had mistreated her.

The first half of this verse is one of my favorite Biblical passages. 34

And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. Luke 23:34.

The question, though, is “Who are the ‘them’ that should be forgiven?” I think that it is first of all the Roman soldiers who were executing Jesus, the Roman administrators of justice including Pontius Pilate, and the Jewish religious elite that wanted him out of the way. I think it also includes Judas Iscariot.

In 2001 I attended an inter-denominational prayer breakfast in Bujumbura, Burundi at Novahotel, which was supposed to be the finest hotel in Bujumbura, but was rather run down at that time because of the Civil War in Burundi. More than fifty people, mostly pastors of various Protestant denominations, were in attendance. The pastor leading the discussion used verses in the Bible about Judas Iscariot as his text. He gave the usual explanation that Judas was an evil person because he was the one who betrayed Jesus. Judas has come to mean “one who betrays another under the guise of friendship.” When the pastor had finished his ten-minute presentation, others in the audience were encouraged to give their opinions. Other speakers were not so hostile to Judas. One pastor said that Judas did not think he was doing anything particularly important when all he had to do was to identify with a kiss on the cheek the person who was Jesus. For this he was paid the small sum of thirty pieces of silver. “Didn’t everyone at one time or another do some simple, seemingly minor transgression like this?” Another participant commented, “Didn’t Judas, when he realized the implications for what he had done, throw the money on the ground and commit suicide and thus atone for his betrayal?” I have wondered why I have remembered this discussion so vividly. I think it is because I was seeing Judas, the betrayer, from a completely different, much more sympathetic angle.

In the healing from the violence in Rwanda, Burundi, and the eastern Congo, the survivors many times forgive the perpetrators as they realize that they didn’t know what they were doing. In Rwanda for instance, genocide survivors say that the perpetrators were under “bad government” because it was the then Rwandan Government that asked, even forced, people to kill their neighbors. Many of those in Rwanda who refused to participate in the killings were killed themselves for refusing. Rather than focusing solely on the transgression, the survivors were looking at the conditions that made the acts of violence possible.

Forgiveness is how a person can recover from anger and bitterness and become again a normal, loving person. The following testimony from a Kikuyu pushed out of his house during the 2008 post-election violence in Kenya illustrates this point:

HROC has really changed my living style with my neighbors. During skirmishes, my house was burnt down by people I knew. I had promised never to forgive, talk, or even greet them. But after learning in the workshop that when one wants to heal, you start with yourself then others, I cooled my temper down, took action of forgiveness, and now my enemies are my great friends. Some came last month to help me boma [build] my house.

This testimony from a HROC participant from North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo, also shows the benefits of forgiving.

[Before the workshop], forgiveness was not in my vocabulary. If you offend me I will keep it and sometimes I used to write it in a certain book for reference. I never thought of others when I do offend them. When we did the mistrust tree, I realized how I am filled with hatred, anger and pride. I realized what kind of fruits I am producing especially in my family.

There are people who offended me when I was not yet married. Now I have three children and I keep on talking about it. Maybe my children have heard me talk evil about those people and they will also hate them because of me. My first step is to burn the record book. If someone offends me, it’s better to talk to the person. And she may, in her turn after realizing her fault, ask for forgiveness. Even if she doesn’t ask for forgiveness, it’s ok because I will have done my part.

Forgiveness is often the first step in resolving a conflict, a restoring of the wounded relationship. It looks forward towards the future rather than dwelling on the past injustices.

I cringe when I often hear people ask, “Do you forgive the person who harmed you?” Forgiveness is something internal, the Inner Light, as Quakers like to say. It must be completely voluntary, a self-realization on the part of the forgiver. It cannot be induced by a question. For this reason the HROC program does not push or ask for forgiveness, but allows it to develop naturally. As people go through the process of recovery from trauma – feeling safe, remembering and grieving, reconnecting, and realizing their commonality with others in the group, they begin to reassess their inner wounds. As they listen to people who have similar or even different stories to tell, they realize that they are not alone. I remember the testimony of one woman who said that others had worse stories than she did — she survived by being at the bottom of forty-eight people who were killed around her. I myself can’t imagine what could be worse! This, then, can lead to real, restorative forgiveness.

Conflicts are not resolved when they are suppressed by violence. They only fester and later explode. Resolving conflicts, including those large, seemingly intractable international ones, can only happen when the various sides are given opportunities to both speak and listen. This can lead to true, internal forgiveness, as one HROC participant commented, “Hatred is replaced by love.”

The soldiers, the Roman judges, and the Jewish elite crucifying Jesus did not ask for forgiveness, but Jesus, in his wisdom, forgave them anyway.

Transforming Power

In January 1999, when I visited Rwanda for the first time after the genocide, Rwandans had a good understanding of the mechanics of the genocide. They understood how the Hutu Power genocidaires used the downing of the plane carrying the Rwandan president as an excuse to seize power and eliminate the Tutsi and those moderate Hutu who opposed them. They also understood how the genocidaires had organized the interhamwe youth militias who – with the support of the army, police, and government apparatus – had perpetrated the genocide. They knew how the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front had militarily defeated the interim Hutu Power government and took control of the country. What they couldn’t comprehend was “How could we have killed each other like this?” Essentially this is a religious question.

The trappings of Christianity had been brought to Rwanda early in the Twentieth Century – churches, priests and ministers, songs, prayers, holy days – but the essence of the religion had been missed. Killing one’s neighbor was clearly not part of the ethics of the Christian Bible. Before the genocide, Catholics were estimated to be more than 80% of the Rwandan population. The Catholic Church was heavily involved in the genocide. The Catholic Archbishop of Rwanda, Vincent Nsengiyumva, had been part of the Hutu Power inner circle until he was told by the Pope that he had to withdraw from such a politicized position. He was later assassinated by Tutsi soldiers. Many priests encouraged their Tutsi parishioners to congregate in the Church compound and then brought in the interahamwe to slaughter the Tutsi members of their congregation. One of my former Tutsi students told me that none of his children would now walk into a Catholic Church because of what the Church did during the genocide.

This existential question of “How could we have done this to each other?” is one of the main reasons that the AGLI programs of Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) and its offshoot, Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC), have resonated so well with Rwandans.

AVP is based on the Bible verse Romans 12:2, which says,

Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind. Then you will be able to know the will of God – what is good and is pleasing to him and is perfect.

The AVP program was developed in 1975 as a nonsectarian program to attract people of all faiths or no faith to develop non-violent methods of conflict resolution – particularly for long-term prisoners in US prisons. The program emphasizes the transforming power to do good that everyone has regardless of what he or she has done in the past. Unlike some other religions that emphasis the evil in people and that people are born in sin, the Quaker theology is based on the idea that there is that of God and that of goodness in everyone. The reason AVP workshops are so effective in Rwanda is that they answer the question posed above thusly: “Perhaps we did terrible things to each other, but we can be transformed again.” This is a statement of hope, a statement of love, and a statement of the power to change.

Immediately after the genocide over 120,000 suspected perpetrators of the genocide were imprisoned;  often for ten or more years. If a prisoner confessed to what he had done, he went before a local gacaca; a grassroots court in his community. If the community/court felt the prisoner adequately confessed to what he had done, he was released back into the community, but required to do restitution work. We must realize that the perpetrators of the genocide are wounded and traumatized like the survivors. Here is the testimony of one Hutu perpetrator:

Prison, it was bad, beyond understanding. You could not sleep lying down, there was only room to sit; many died from disease. Even sometimes there was no water, and once I went four days without food…I realized I had many symptoms along with the others who had been in prison. When I remembered sleeping among the dead in prison, it made me want to be alone and not speak. Even though I was released, I still felt imprisoned and didn’t trust others…I was only doing my thing, I could not talk to people about my problems. I thought I could only live with prisoners. But after the workshop I felt free in my heart, it let me release my fears and helped me to form relationships with survivors… even if I have a conflict with someone, it no longer destroys the relationship

The purpose of Quakerism, of Christianity, of all religions, is to make people better. That is to love, support, and interact so that, as the Lord’s Prayer says, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” There are no evil people, but only people who have done evil things. Anyone can be changed for the good, anyone can be transformed. In evangelical terms, anyone can be “saved,” anyone can be “resurrected.”

Evangelical Quakers have complained that the AVP and HROC programs are not explicitly “Christian” and sometimes do not support these programs. I think that this misjudges the programs. It is the implicit nature of the workshops that allows people to decide on their own volition to become “better”; to realize that they can leave behind whatever very bad or evil things that they did in the past and become model human beings. The punitive nature that is common in too many American religions and that has made American society a leader in retribution and punishment, is, in my opinion, an unchristian one as it denies that of God in everyone; it denies that anyone can be transformed into a caring, loving human being.

I once sat in front of almost 1,000 Rwandan genocide perpetrators in a re-education camp before they were going to be released back into the communities where most had done atrocious things. I have met the killers and their accomplices face to face. I was in a workshop where one of the men had killed another participant’s son during the genocide and have looked them both in the face as they reconciled.

The world of hate, bitterness, animosity, and violence can be transformed, if and only if, we try; only if we open our hearts and minds to allow it.

Leave a comment