“Their minds had been infected with the evil [propaganda] that had spread across the country [Rwanda], but their [Hutu extremists] souls weren’t evil. Despite the atrocities, they were children of God, and I could forgive a child, although it would not be easy . . . especially when that child was trying to kill me . . . That night I [Immaculee Ilibagiza] prayed with a clear conscience and a clean heart. For the first time since I entered the bathroom [genocide “sanctuary”], I slept in peace.”
–from Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust by Immaculee Ilibagiz (with Steve Erwin)
I read the words and felt immediate conviction. Perhaps my inability to sleep soundly (without waking at the slightest sound or movement) is directly related to my efforts (or lack thereof) in praying for others. Sure enough I have a prayer life. At times I have been more fervent than others with my prayers. But I’m talking about praying from a deep place within. I’m talking about praying for more than myself, the safety and well being of my friends and family; I’m talking about praying for those who have brought anguish and pain to my doorstep.
When I was younger I was often confused by the language found in my bible (King James Version), I sought to know The Word, but found myself struggling to make sense of the unfamiliar string of phrases. As I grew older I found solace in the myriad of translations that were made available. I still read from the King James Version, but now I find clarity in reading from the Amplified Bible as well as The Message translation.
Luke 6:27-28 (KJV) calls us to “. . . Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you.”
The Amplified Bible translation of the same verses reads, “But I say to you who are listening now to Me: [in order to heed, make it a practice to] love your enemies, treat well (do good to, act nobly toward) those who detest you and pursue you with hatred, Invoke blessings upon and pray for the happiness of those who curse you, implore God’s blessing (favor) upon those who abuse you [who revile, reproach, disparage, and high-handedly misuse you].”
The Message translation of Luke 6:27-30 notes, “To you who are ready for the truth, I say this: Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer for that person. If someone slaps you in the face, stand there and take it. If someone grabs your shirt, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. If someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.”
That call to action can seem like a pretty tall order when you are carrying the load of hurt, pain, anguish, hatred, and/or malice in your heart. Just recently I began reading the book Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust by genocide survivor Immaculee Ilibagiza. Ilibagiza tells the harrowing truth of how she survived the genocide that ripped through her homeland of Rwanda in 1994. The text is not typically one I pick off the shelf; decidedly so, I have been on a science fiction high as of late. Nevertheless, I just began a unit of study with my 8th grade students on the challenge of social justice. While the unit of study initially called for the students to form literature circles and read about the Holocaust of European Jews, my school’s media specialist and I made the executive decision to expand the readings to explore stories of global genocide (fiction and non-fiction). We found half-dozen-or-so titles that cover acts of genocide from across the globe and spanning the past eighty years. Ilibagiza’s Left to Tell is one of the books on my student’s list.
By now you may be wondering where I’m going with all this. It’s actually rather simple. When I reached part two of the text, “In Hiding”, I was confronted with a harsh reality similar to that of Immaculee Ilibagiza—a heart that contained hurt, hatred, and unforgiveness. At this point in the text Immaculee is hiding in a small bathroom in the house of a sympathizing Hutu pastor in her village. One of six women in the cramped space, Immaculee comes face to face with the reality that she must forgive, and pray for the souls of the Hutu extremists hell-bent to rid Rwanda of the Tutsi tribal minority they believe are out to gain control over the government.
The conviction hit me square in my chest. How could I continue to harbor feelings of unforgiveness (hatred and malice) and not pray for those who have despitefully used me, when this woman who suffered a far worse experience, was able to do so in the midst of her turmoil? Right then and there I put down the book and began to pray for those individuals who I felt had wronged me over the course of my life. I prayed for God to forgive me for the things I had said and done to hurt others. I prayed, not because I so desperately want a night full of peaceful sleep (earnestly I do), but because I want a life of peace. We have been given life in an effort to make the world we live in better. Each one of us has something to say and/or do that will leave this world better off, not worse off.
Despite the fact that Immaculee Ilibagiza went through a living hell in Rwanda, she has been able to use her experience to heal a country–a world that is fractured. I have been moved by her experience. Though I have not yet finished the book, I am looking forward to the additional lessons–morals that it holds for me.
Every book that I read leaves me different. It doesn’t matter if it’s a work of fiction or non-fiction; I am never the same person after the book is finished. The same is true about the individuals who bless us with their presence. Every friendship changes me. Every experience of love (breath taking and heart wrenching) has changed me. I firmly believe that we should take away something positive from every person, every experience we encounter—good and bad.
I’ve been challenged to live differently, to pray differently.
What “take aways” have you gleaned from acquaintances, books, enemies, experiences, friends, family, movies, songs, etc?