We Think Our Bitterness is Sweet
Forgiving those who hurt us can be a long and difficult journey, and a challenge at the core of it came home to me this week during a visit at Duke with genocide survivor Josephine Munyeli of Rwanda.
Josephine has become a precious friend through the growing fellowship of Christian leaders who make up the African Great Lakes Initiative. She works with World Vision Rwanda, and her presence brought me back to the numbing memory of my first visit to Rwanda in 2004 ten years after the genocide. She is a survivor helping other survivors toward a new future. Many of her own family members were killed in 1994. A group of killers hunted from house to house for her as well. “My Christian neighbor was among them,” she said.
As Josephine spoke to about forty of us Tuesday, what struck me most profoundly was the empathy she has come to have for many of the killers. “We think demons come from hell,” she said. “But [the killers] were regretting [as they were killing]. When you are forced to do something you don’t want to do, can you understand that kind of feeling?” Josephine’s own life was saved by one of the killers who went out of his way to protect her because he had met her on market day weeks before. But even while he protected her, he continued to kill others. “If I leave (the group) I’ll be killed” he told her.
Josephine was clear – such empathy is a journey. “I was very bitter,” she said. “There was poison in my heart. I couldn’t see the heart I had.” At a healing workshop “The words of Ezekiel came to me, ‘Comfort my people,’ says the Lord. “We think our bitterness is sweet. We don’t want to give it to God. But for me my bitterness became a burden and I thank God for that. God healed me so I can contribute to the healing of others.”
There is a sweet “fairness” in holding tightly to what we deserve in the face of the undeserving. Unless we understand this “no future without forgiveness” (Desmond Tutu’s call) can become a cliché instead of the scandal which mercy is, a scandal which can only be interrupted by a story bigger than holding onto how bitterness becomes sweet and fair to us.
Two footnotes: We were delighted to learn that Josephine’s work with many others in World Vision Rwanda won the inaugural World Vision Global Peace Prize. What makes friendship with witnesses like Josephine worth it is the joy and laughter even as we share our pain. Emmanuel, Donna, and I took her to dinner Sunday. She had us in stitches as this was her first visit to the U.S. and her first night was in the gargantuan Grand Ole Opry Hotel in Nashville. It took her two days to find the restaurant.
[Read more about the witness of Africans like Josephine in my Christian Century article Post-Traumatic Christians.]