The same deadly scene plays around the globe in a brutal cycle: Conflict erupts between groups coalesced along racial, tribal or other lines. Violence goes unchecked, and body counts multiply in the face of skirmishes, battles or full-scale wars.
Chris Rice D’04 cites examples both old and new: the Korean War and subsequent division of the peninsula; sectarian violence in Northern Ireland; the ongoing killings among Israelis and Palestinians; genocide in Rwanda. Often these conflicts pit Christians against Christians, Rice says, with some churches and clergy taking part in the violence rather than working toward peace.
“Once you start describing the Rwandas of the world, you can see that the church has been deeply implicated in these conflicts and has contributed to the fragmentation and brokenness of our world,” says Rice, who worked for 17 years to improve race relations in Jackson, Miss., before coming to Duke. “I think that at the center of Christian mission is reconciliation between divided people and peacemaking.”
In late July, Rice met in Rwanda for a week with 15 other leaders of an issue group charged with “Pursuing God’s Reconciling Mission in a World of Destructive Conflict: Particularly Racial, Tribal, Ethnic and Caste.” Rice was invited to convene a 60-member international group in 2001 to explore the topic by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, a 30-year-old organization that promotes faithful evangelism by the church.
This trip was the last of three leadership meetings before Rice and his issue group, which includes ministers, theologians and a variety of practitioners, present their report to the Lausanne Committee in Thailand this fall. Some 2,000 participants are expected to attend the event to discuss more than 30 issues related to evangelization.
Rice, 44, says his group chose to meet in Rwanda because of the great need for reconciliation there. Group members visited mass graves and memorials and spoke with survivors of the genocide, including women and children who became widows and orphans. As many as one million people, including many Christians, were killed in civil war involving the Hutu and Tutsi tribes in the mid-1990s.
One member of Rice’s leadership group, Rwandan Celestin Musekura, whose mother was reported among the dead in a massacre at a village church but managed to flee to safety, lost several other relatives to the violence.
“This is part of the horror that Christians have to grapple with,” Rice says. “People ran to churches thinking they were safe, but the killers were willing to kill in churches. Many of the killers were Christians.”
Divinity student and project assistant Abby Kocher D’06, who participated in the Rwanda meeting, said the location was central to the group’s understanding and mission.
“[Meeting in a place] where the pain is very recent and real, and the reconciliation efforts are still current and ongoing, will help ground the writing and the thinking of our group,” she says. “We met with government leaders and church leaders and people who are engaged with their lives in this. We’ve learned from our brothers and sisters there, recognizing that we’re all part of the universal body of Christ.”
Twice during the past year, members of Rice’s group, which includes Duke Divinity Associate Professor of Theology and World Christianity Emmanuel Katongole, met at the divinity school to interact with students and share its findings through public panel discussions.
Dean L. Gregory Jones has served as an advisor on both theological and logistical issues and hopes the divinity school’s partnership leads to even greater involvement with racial reconciliation.
“We’re working with Chris to take what is learned from the Lausanne Conference and looking at ways to build that into an institutional initiative,” he says. “We would like to expand the scope of and deepen our involvement in issues of reconciliation, both in the United States and internationally.”
Rice says the group will compile a list of places where Christians most need to make witness and shed light on division—such as Israel and Palestinian territory—and also list situations in which they believe the church failed to act appropriately to stop violence. In addition, it will develop case studies of progress and hope, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.
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