Category: PowerBlog Ramblings

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, April 22, 2009

main-book1Catherine Claire Larson’s book As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda is an exploration of forgiveness and reconciliation in the years following the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Fifteen years ago this month, a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down on a return trip from Tanzania, sparking widespread ethnic violence across the country. By the time the civil war was declared over on July 18, 1994, between 800,000 and 1 million Rwandans had been killed.

As We Forgive tells the tale of the war through the lives of seven survivors of the genocide. “Rwanda’s wounds,” writes Larson, “are agonizingly deep. Today, they are being opened afresh as tens of thousands of killers are released from prison to return to the hills where they hunted down and killed former neighbors, friends, and classmates.” Larson’s book is a study in the personal experiences of both the perpetrators and the victims who are seeking some way to live together after such a troubled past.

Through these individual stories Larson places the reader in the recent history of Rwandan society. She writes, “One of the most haunting things about living in Rwanda after the genocide is that killers still walk among survivors.” After the commission of such unspeakable evil, how can a society survive and prosper?

The need for forgiveness is deeply personal. Many of the killers have come to regret their actions, whether soon after the deeds were done or only after years of imprisonment and reflection. But in order for reconciliation to be achieved, both the offender and the victim must seek it. A traditional system of retributive justice, in which the evil committed is simply countered by punishment, lacks many of the tools necessary to bring both parties together.

In this sense As We Forgive is a book about the practice of a different form of justice. “Restorative justice,” writes Larson, “is a process in which victim, offender, and community are involved in dialogue, mutual agreement, empathy, and the taking of responsibility. In contrast to retributive justice, restorative justice focuses on balancing harm done by the offender with making things right to the victim, and on restoring human flourishing.”

But the important thing to note is that restorative justice is not simply about changing the institutional application of criminal justice. Many of the most critical aspects of processes of restorative justice are not achieved by courts, prisons, or police. Indeed, as Larson writes, “there are ways to infuse restorative elements into already established systems or to offer such programs on a voluntary community-wide level.” Larson explores the establishment of these systems and their influence in the lives of Rwanda’s victims, especially from a perspective that emphasizes the Christian doctrine of forgiveness.

Many of the most effective organizations working toward reconciliation in Rwanda do so out of specifically Christian convictions about the nature of sin, repentance, and forgiveness. The title of the book is taken from the petition in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” (Matthew 6:12).

One particular case in which this aspect of the book comes through is in the story of Claude. He was a thirteen year-old boy in 1994, when a grenade woke him from sleep and tore his world apart. Years after the end of the genocide, Claude held on hatred and lust for vengeance against those who had mutilated, hunted, and killed his family. Even while he was in school, Claude joined a group called the Survivors Club, which was intended to bring students together to share stories of their survival. But for Claude, “These tales only fanned the embers of something that had begun to burn deep within him and haunt his waking and his sleeping: revenge.”

It wasn’t until Claude became part of a different group, called Solace, that his perspective began to be transformed. “Like the Survivors Club at his school, this was a gathering of Tutsi who had managed to survive the genocide,” writes Larson. “The people who gathered were mainly divided into two groups: widows and orphans. But unlike the Survivors Club, this group sought consolation not simply from each other, but from God. Claude found that this wasn’t like being a member of an organization or society. Solace was like family to him.”

Interspersed between the seven stories of reconciliation in Rwanda are short reflective chapters that apply the moral and spiritual lessons to a North American context. Each one of us knows what it is like both to be wronged and to commit wrong against another. And therefore each one of us knows what it is like to need to forgive or to need forgiveness. While many of the wrongs we experience pale in comparison to the grisly crimes committed in those 100 days of horror fifteen years ago, these exceptional evils prove the necessity of overcoming even seemingly more banal and daily sins.

As We Forgive is a must-read for anyone interested in the recent history of Rwanda, the practice of restorative justice, or the Christian understanding of forgiveness and reconciliation.

This review has been cross-posted at Blogcritics.org.

This year April 6th marked the 15th anniversary of beginning of the genocide in Rwanda. Catherin Claire Larson, a senior writer and editor at Prison Fellowship Ministries, has written a new book called As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda, which focuses on how such wounds opened up fifteen years ago are being healed today. (Larson’s book is inspired by the award-winning film of the same name, which debuted in April 2008. Comment carried an interview with Laura Waters Hinson, the driving force behind the documentary film.)

Larson writes,

Rwanda’s wounds … are agonizingly deep. Today, they are being opened afresh as tens of thousands of killers are released from prison to return to the hills where they hunted down and killed former neighbors, friends, and classmates. In the everyday business of life—purchasing corrugated metal for roofing, burying bananas in the ground to make urwagwa, and hauling harvested sorghum to the market—survivors commonly meet the eyes of people who shatter their former lives. How can they live together? This is not a philosophical question, but a practical one that confronts Rwandans daily.

Indeed, this question is one that impacts all of us who are called to forgive those who trespass against us just as we hope to be forgiven.

In recognition of the Rwandan genocide, Larson is conducting a blog tour to commemorate the anniversary, and the PowerBlog is honored to be the second stop on the tour over the next 100 days. Larson has already made a visit to the Dawn Treader blog and discussed the costly nature of forgiveness.

Larson’s book is a deeply moving exploration of the political, religious, and civil aspects of sin and forgiveness, told from within the context of Rwandan society. You can look forward to a full review of her book later this week.

For our stop on the As We Forgive blog tour, we’ll be exploring some of the social aspects of reconciliation, especially as related to the Rwandan situation, throughout the week. The government’s role in both the initiation of the genocide and the practice of reconciliation is an important theme in Larson’s book. One of Larson’ subjects, a Hutu man named Saveri, notes on the former point, “What brought us the conviction to commit genocide was the indoctrination of divisive ideas by bad government.” But Larson also touches on the role government can play in promoting reconciliation.

There are important theological, religious, and spiritual aspects to forgiveness as well, and the church as an institution and other ministries have important influences on the ability of a society to heal after such terrible crimes committed by neighbor against neighbor.

So too are there important economic realities at work, as a team of Acton Institute staffers found on their own recent trip to Rwanda. Larson writes, for instance, of the redemptive nature of some form of work or economic restitution as both symbolic acts of repentance and concrete acts of economic interdependence. Larson writes of Saveri’s involvement in the work of a group of volunteers who prepare the sorghum harvest for one of the surviving victims of the genocide:

Within the gate, the work itself was monotonous and dragged on from morning into the afternoon. Yet even so, it held a strange beauty. The deep crimson of the kernels, the smell of the burning fire, the way the bodies of the men and women swayed as they tossed and shook the baskets, and of course, the percussion of labor. The scene took on a symphonic quality, as the rhythmic thud of the pestle pole marked a beat and the swish of the kernels tossed up in the baskets settled into the offbeat, survivors and perpetrators creating the point and counterpoint to reconciliation’s song.

As we look forward to discussing Larson’s book and the political, economic, and religious aspects of forgiveness and reconciliation in more detail, this week’s PBR question is: “What social conditions promote reconciliation?”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, April 17, 2009

This Sunday I’ll be giving a talk at Fountain Street Church on the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His unfinished Ethics is a tantalizing work, full of insights and conundrums. Here’s what he writes in the essay, “On the Possibility of the Church’s Message to the World,” with regard to the church’s engagement in social justice:

Who actually says that all worldly problems should and can be solved? Perhaps to God the unsolved condition of these problems may be more important than their solution, namely, as a pointer to the human fall and to God’s redemption. Human problems are perhaps so entangled, so wrongly posed, that they are in fact really impossible to solve. (The problem of the poor and the rich can never be solved in any other way than leaving it unsolved.)

This kind of perspective flies in the face of the arrogance of so much of the contemporary transformationalist social justice movement among Christians. It allows us to see the possibility that the brokenness of the world is not meant to be solved in the end by anything other than God’s own redemptive work in Jesus Christ. It provides a boundary against any kind of post-millennial triumphalism.

One of the charities my wife and I make a point to support is Compassion International. There are a great number of things that could be said about the work of this ministry. But I want to point out a piece by Tim Glenn, Compassion International’s U.S. Advocacy Director, called “Why We Can’t End Poverty.” In this post you’ll find none of the high-handed presumption that the only thing keeping us from “making poverty history” is our political will to do so: our governments just aren’t giving enough.

Instead, Glenn discusses the end of poverty within a framework that agrees with that presented by Bonhoeffer above. “I don’t think we’re called to end poverty. I do think we’re called to be obedient to God’s command,” writes Glenn. “I think God allows poverty so that His glory may be shown … through His people doing His work … obeying that command.”

Starting this year, the Acton Institute is planning to give out the Samaritan Award every other year. This will allows us to better streamline the award process as well as to more smoothly integrate the results of the award into our Samaritan Guide database.

In recent years the Samaritan Award finalists have been profiled in a special issue of WORLD Magazine (here’s the link to the 2008 issue). But this year the folks at WORLD are taking the opportunity to highlight some other ministries. To that end they’ve announced a contest, and here’s what Acton senior fellow and WORLD editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky has to say about it:

During the past three years WORLD, working with the Acton Institute, has reported on and helped to evaluate finalists in Acton’s Samaritan Award competition.

That competition has revealed grassroots compassionate conservatism (not the Washington-centric kind) from sea to shining sea. It’s been great to see and report such ministries, but almost all of the finalists profiled have been rescue missions for the homeless or rehab centers for alcoholics and addicts.

Those organizations do great work and deserve attention, but as journalists we don’t want to be repetitive. Acton is not having a competition this year, so we have the opportunity for stories about some unconventional ministries.

Olasky goes on to point out that “Our approach will be journalistic rather than scientific: We’re looking for good stories of God’s grace to feature in WORLD.”

You can read more details about the WORLD competition on their site, but we’re also taking this opportunity to highlight ministries and nonprofits that hold a special place in our hearts.

This week’s PBR question is: “Which ministries do you make a special point to personally support?”

Share your answers in the comments section and look for answers from PowerBlog contributors throughout the week.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, April 9, 2009

AS NYT columnist Frank Rich observed earlier this week, it’s hard to find much sympathy for Rick Wagoner. “Sure, Rick Wagoner deserved his fate,” writes Rich. “He did too little too late to save an iconic American institution from devolving into a government charity case.”

The delusions of the CEOs who lined up on Capitol Hill last year to lobby for bailouts extended beyond the arrogance of flying to congressional meetings in private jets. Duly chastened, the CEOs next made the pilgrimage in a caravan of hybrids, but still didn’t realize that some of them might be lobbying to lose their jobs.

If they had realized that in getting a government bailout they would be getting far more than they expected, they might have thought longer and harder about taking public money. I’m sure that Ford CEO Alan Mulally is happy that his company is the only one of the Big 3 that isn’t currently beholden to the whims of the federal government.

Companies who take government money are going to learn what charities who have gone on the government dole learned long ago: he who writes the checks ultimately calls the shots. In biblical parlance, “the borrower is servant to the lender.”

The fate of Rick Wagoner should be a cautionary tale to all those companies who are considering government bailouts, just as the fate of so many faith-based nonprofits serve as warnings to those who want government subsidies.

President Obama took time out over the weekend to respond to this week’s PBR question: “Let me assure you in the days ahead my administration intends to do to every industry in this country exactly what we are doing to the automakers.”

This past week, President Obama forced the CEO of General Motors to resign. The real significance of this may be lost on most people. Some might say, “Well, if General Motors is not doing well, the CEO should be replaced.” The major difficulty with this is that this is a special power of the GM Board of Directors, not the President of the United States. Effectively, this makes President Obama the Board of Directors of General Motors, and any other company he wants to control, and makes the Board a mere figurehead. Slowly but surely, this is moving us to a fascist form of government. In fascism, the companies still exist, but the government tells them what to do. This was similar to Mercantilism, which was the predominant economic system in Europe from about the 1600s until 1800, more or less. Mercantilism was the system of economics that Adam Smith wrote against in his famous An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, which most people shorten to the cryptic Wealth of Nations. Smith was trying to show that government control of business impoverishes nations. Instead, he posited “a system of natural liberty,” which allowed people to follow their natural pursuits, take on the risk of doing so, and allow the market, that is, the countless decisions of people, to decide the outcome. It was the realization of the truth that Smith expressed in his work that subsequently brought prosperity to countless nations.

Now we are returning to the old system, under a new guise. Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner recently asked Congress to grant him unprecedented power to shut down any company that, in his opinion, is dangerous to the overall economy. Note that there are no specifics to this power—it would be at his discretion. For those who have read my blog entries “The Economics of Politics,” you can see that all of this is a grab for what politicians live for—power, and power alone. Politics attracts those kinds of people. When asked by a Congresswoman where in the Constitution he went to get justification for this type of power, Geithner expressed incoherent babbling. It did not seem ever to cross his mind that he needed Constitutional justification for such an assumption of power. Again, this is typical of fascism. A crisis is, if not created, then hyped, panic flamed up, and people in this panic are willing to trade their freedom for security. Only too late will they realize that the situation was not as bad as the self-interested government officials portrayed it. The power will have been granted, and only a miracle will pry it away from the hands of the government. Once taken, government almost always keeps a power.

Getting back to General Motors, its problems go all the way back to government-imposed protective tariffs, which are a remnant of Mercantilism. Corporations seek to be protected from foreign competition so they do not have to work to keep up. The government, bowing to pressure and false economic theories, puts tariffs and quotas on imports to raise their prices higher than those of the domestic product; in this case, cars. The car makers then can do whatever they want because consumers face a choice of either us or nothing. In the 1970s, when we began allowing imports, the American car companies were caught, and almost went out of business. They finally got their act together when a new wave of government regulation on cars was imposed, thus raising the cost of domestic cars. To boot, the latest situation is that the Federal government is dictating to the car companies what types of cars to make, all in an effort to be “green.” The problem is that the market does not want these cars, so the company is forced to spend millions on cars they cannot sell. Then the government says, “Oh, it would be terrible if the companies failed; so many would be put out of work. So we have to bail them out again, and since we are ponying up the money, we now have a controlling interest in them, we can call the shots, we can tell the company what to produce, we can fire the executives, and when the company comes in with a loss, we blame the company again, bail them out again . . . .” And the circle continues. Remember, this government is the same one that has brought us the Post Office, the Department of Motor Vehicles and the public school system. All those who believe that the government can bring us out of a recession should remember that it was the government that caused it in the first place. Remember the housing bubble?

What a racket!

Read more from Dr. Luckey at “Catholic Truths on Economics.”

It made headlines last week when General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner was asked to resign by representatives of President Obama. Fritz Henderson, G.M. President, was announced as Wagoner’s successor to the top spot in the troubled car-manufacturer.

Henderson faces a series of directives from the Obama administration intended to retool G.M. As New York Times reporter Bill Vlasic notes, “The government has mandated that at least two-thirds of the debt of bondholders be swapped for G.M. stock, and that half of the retiree trust obligation also be financed with company stock.” If Henderson is unable to meet these demands, then the Obama administration has made it clear that bankruptcy is the alternative.

“We will either do it out of court or we will do it in court,” Mr. Henderson said. “But we will get the job done in terms of recreating and reinventing General Motors as a competitive enterprise.” In the sacking of Wagoner and the hands-on approach to forming G.M.’s future the federal government has flexed its muscles, refusing to be a passive partner following the extension of bailout funds to a host of corporations.

Given the precedent this might set, this week’s PBR question is: “Should the government control bailed-out companies?”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, April 3, 2009

Sports are still able to foster human virtues, especially classical virtues like courage and fortitude. Like any good thing, sport all too often risks becoming an idol, not because of any fault within the institution itself so much as the fault lying within each human participant.

If there’s anything that distinguishes modern sports from classical antecedents, I suppose it would be the wealth that is often attached to high-profile sports today. You might call it the professionalization of sport. Yesterday’s cover story in USA Today examined the extent to which nominally non-professional sports, like college basketball, have become major industries. This is even more the case with overtly professional sports. It seems to me that in the ancient world, there was a great deal of glory or prestige that was associated with victory. But in addition to that aspect of sporting endeavors, we have the added prospect of great wealth for those who excel at golf, tennis, basketball, or football.

Glory may have been an appropriate motivation for pursuing sports in the ancient world, although there’s no doubt that this kind of fame-seeking can become idolatry in its own way. But I’m sympathetic to the view that sports’ ability to foster human virtue is at least potentially compromised by the additional motivation of wealth-seeking. For every athlete that excels today from a deep “love of the game,” there are a dozen others who are in it just for the paycheck.

Blog author: kjayabalan
posted by on Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Fr. Kevin’s talk raised a number of questions about the status of sports in our society. Here are some of them:

  • Have we lost a healthy sense of leisure and play, to the point where sport and entertainment have become similar to a religious ritual or duty?
  • Is the desire to win at all costs inherent to sports? What’s the point of playing a game if not to win?
  • Why don’t religious leaders criticize athletes who cheat, such as flopping Italian soccer players? Are such standards culturally conditioned?
  • Are there different virtues associated with different sports, depending on the rules and culture of the particular sport?
  • Do big business and corporate sponsorships entice athletes to cheat?

Obviously, there were not many clear answers to these questions, but Fr. Kevin did his best to encourage an healthy appreciation of sports, and reminded us that while St. Paul most probably was not an athlete himself, he definitely knew that living with, in and for Christ is the greatest prize of all.

I think most thinking sports fans are aware of the ambiguities of their passion and try to keep it in check. But at the same time, the desire to train, compete, and win helps us recognize that excellence/virtue actually exist. This recognition is essential to fighting the good fight against egalitarian complacency and mediocrity; it is also essential to the entrepreneurial vocation.