Alumnus Chris Rice Promotes Reconciliation Around the World
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.
Practices and situations that contribute to division, such as the homogeneous nature of many congregations, will come under scrutiny as well, says Rice. Churches whose members are generally the same in race, political belief or ethnicity are not as likely as more diverse churches to work toward tearing down walls that keep groups apart.
“Scripture calls on us to form churches with a stranger,” Rice explains. “We must build communities that work beyond boundaries.”
Lobbying those in positions to effect change and making the case for peace are among the group’s strategies: “We must speak prophetically to powerful people and governing authorities about injustice,” Rice says.
Lessons learned from conflicts and divisions around the world can apply anywhere, he adds. Churches in the United States, many of which have congregations that are nearly all white or all black, could learn about racial outreach and harmony.
“Christians live into these historic divisions and separations,” says Rice. “It’s not that we’re hypocrites—it’s more that we don’t see it. Our division has become normal.
“The story of the New Testament is a story of the Holy Spirit seeking to build a community of Jew and gentile, privileged and poor, male and female under the lordship of Christ. This is our story as Christians. We’re supposed to be different.”
Despite the horrors that his group has studied, Rice, author of the book Grace Matters: A True Story of Race, Friendship, and Faith in the Heart of the South, is optimistic.
“Even in the worst conflicts, signs of the quest for reconciliation can be detected in the church,” he says. “This offers hope of our transformation, over time, in the mind and ways of Christ.”
Visit Chris Rice’s Web site (http://chrisrice.typepad.com/) with stories, photos and other information about war in Rwanda and other issues.
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