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.

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

The Detroit News published a column yesterday that I wrote about Catholic identity and the controversies sparked by President Obama’s visit to Georgetown and his planned speech at Notre Dame. National Review Online also published a variation of the same column last week under the title, The Catholic Identity Crisis.

Here’s the Detroit News column:

President Barack Obama made an interesting comment on economics during his April 14 speech at Georgetown University. “We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand,” he said. “We must build our house upon a rock.”

I doubt anyone would accuse him of plagiarizing here, but what he is paraphrasing came from Jesus’ parable. The man who built the house on sand paid the price. The winds took down the house. The man who built on stone enjoyed a house that withstood the storm.

It is quite appropriate that the parable was quoted at this Catholic university founded by Jesuits. Crucifixes, statues of Mary and other religious items are everywhere, revealing the rich tradition here. (more…)

Sam Gregg marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Alexis de Tocqueville whose great work “Democracy in America” warned about the dangers of a comfortable servility. “The American Republic,” Tocqueville wrote, “will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.”

Read the commentary at the Acton website and comment on it here.

In this piece John Pisciotta, a professor of economics at Baylor University, offers a number of sound reasons for getting rid of earmarks on appropriations bills, including their tendency to invite corruption. “Those who seek them are tempted to skirt the law to win favor with a legislator so as to be graced with an earmark,” he writes. “We should not be surprised that a handful of former members of Congress now receive free room and board at federal prisons.”

Read the commentary at the Acton website and comment on it here.

Kevin Allen, host of The Illumined Heart podcast on Ancient Faith Radio, interviews writer, attorney, and college professor Chris Banescu, an Orthodox Christian, about the economic, moral and spiritual issues surrounding the market economy. Kevin asks: Does the capitalist system serve “the best interests of Christians living the life of the Beatitudes?”

Listen to Chris Banescu on Orthodox Christianity and Capitalism:

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Read “A Primer on Capitalism” on Chris’ personal Web site.

He is also the author of two articles on home schooling (here and here) for Acton Commentary.

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Monday, April 20, 2009

patriots-day Patriots’ Day commemorates the opening battles of the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. It is officially celebrated in Massachusetts and Maine, and is now observed on the third Monday in April to allow for a three day weekend.

Patriots’ Day is also the day upon which the Boston Marathon is held and the Boston Red Sox are always scheduled to play at home with the only official A.M. start in Major League Baseball.

My Patriots’ Day post last year references an excellent book that studies the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord titled Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer. This is a terrific account that can’t be recommended too often. I can think of no other book that does a better job of capturing the intensity, seriousness, and overt bravery of the men who took up arms against the British Crown.

The history of colonial American militias is in fact unique. All the men who took up arms that day may not have been able to envision a final outcome or even a final political solution for their grievances, but they knew they were living in a historic time of change. The idea that rights were bestowed not by man but by God had already taken root in the colonies. Furthermore, if government was empowered, it’s purpose in empowerment was to protect the people not to subject them. It’s important to remember Patriots’ Day and ask ourselves about its relevance today.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, April 20, 2009

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.”

The First Amendment rights of religious groups are under assault in the public square. As Kevin Schmiesing reminds us in today’s Acton Commentary, “History’s tyrants recognized the progression that some of us have forgotten: Where people are free to act according their conscience, they will demand the right to determine their political destiny.”

Read the commentary at the Acton Website and comment on it here.

Blog author: eschansberg
posted by on Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Just in time for April 1st and April 15th, let’s talk about taxes.

On April 1st, the excise tax on cigarettes was increased dramatically—from $.39 to $1.01 per pack. It’s fitting that this occurred on April Fools’ Day, since it served to break President Obama’s campaign pledge not to increase “any form of” taxes on any family making less than $250,000 per year.

Independent of breaking a campaign promise, such a tax is attractive for non-smokers since the costs are imposed on other people and it reduces a harmful behavior.

But the tax is troubling on several levels. First, what are the limits to the government’s paternalism in the consumption of a legal product? Second, to the extent that people reduce their smoking, this will undermine state tax revenues based on tobacco (by an estimated $1 billion)—in a time of already strained budgets. Third, taxes reduce economic activity and jobs, by definition—not a good idea during a recession.

But I want to focus on one final aspect: since smokers are disproportionately low-income, is it fair to increase taxes in such a regressive manner on the poor? And if Democrats are seen as defenders of the poor, why are they increasing their taxes? These are great questions—and ones that should be asked more often, because the government imposes all sorts of taxes on the poor.

Many of these burdens are indirect. Corporate income taxes are borne by consumers as higher prices; property taxes are borne by tenants as higher rent. Environmental regulations and “card-check” legislation would increase costs for firms and thus, increase prices for consumers and drive away jobs overseas. A wide variety of trade restrictions on food and clothing serve to dramatically increase the basic costs of living.

But here’s the biggie: federal payroll taxes. Lower-income families rarely pay any significant federal “income tax”—the tax on income that we celebrate on April 15th. And they face modest state and county income taxes. Meanwhile, they’re hammered by the 15.3% federal payroll tax on income. Every dollar earned by the lower and middle classes is exposed to payroll taxes; there are no deductions or exemptions.

A family at the poverty line is nowhere near paying federal income taxes—and in many states, will not pay state income taxes either. (Unfortunately, a working poor family in Indiana pays hundreds of dollars per year.) Even an upper-middle income family like mine loses more than twice as much money to federal payroll taxes—compared to federal, state, and county income taxes combined!

It’s amazing that payroll taxes receive so little attention given the staggering burden they place on workers, especially those in the lower and middle classes. Why are they ignored? Two reasons. First, half of their burden is hidden as the employer’s share of the tax. (Don’t be fooled; we pay that half too—in the form of lower wages and compensation. Do you think gas stations pay the gas tax for you?) Second, because it is withheld from our paychecks and we never file a 1040, we tend to overlook it, despite its amazing bulk.

This April 15th, feel free to toss a few choice words at the Tax Man. But make sure to spend some time looking at your pay stub and thinking about payroll taxes.