Célestin Musekura: Christians forgive neighbors -- and enemies

Photo by Cameron Rogers

Christians must let their identity as those who have been reconciled to Christ lead their work for reconciliation, says the director of African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries.

When Célestin Musekura saw Christians killing Christians in Rwanda in 1994, he knew it was not just a tragedy but a failure of Christians.

“I believe that this happened because most of them were acting based on their tribal identity instead of their Christian identity,” Musekura said.

To begin the process of healing the region, he founded African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries (ALARM) to train leaders in the process of restorative justice.

“In restorative justice, we restore the brokenness,” he said.

Rather than seeing retributive punishment as the core response to the widespread tragedy, Musekura wanted to focus on how the Christians of the area were called to something more transformational.

“The church needs to be an instrument of forgiveness and reconciliation so that we can forgive past injustice,” he said.

Prison time won’t necessarily transform anyone, Musekura said, but Christians living into their call of reconciliation can.

In addition to being the founder and president of ALARM, Musekura is a Baptist minister who earned his Ph.D. from Dallas Theological Seminary. He is the author of “An Assessment of Contemporary Models of Forgiveness”; and (with co-author L. Gregory Jones) “Forgiving As We’ve Been Forgiven: Community Practices for Making Peace.”

Musekura spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Katie Rosso while at the Summer Institute of Duke Divinity’s Center for Reconciliation as a keynote speaker. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: We interviewed you last in 2010. What are some of the big projects you’ve been working on since then?

Célestin Musekura: There are two major projects that our staff is working on. We have the Pastoral Leadership Training Institute, which is focused on training the trainers.

Most of the pastors in the program have never had a theological education and have not had time to reflect on current social issues from a biblical perspective. They have no training that enables them to reflect on the biblical responses to social issues or Christian issues that we are facing.

We bring them in over a period of three years, and they meet four weeks per year and take 12 courses that focus on theology and Bible and pastoral ministries -- care, preaching, counseling. They also have courses on leadership and peace, reconciliation and forgiveness. We have that program in each of the eight countries that ALARM works in.

We also have a similar program for women called the Women’s Leadership Training Institute. This is for women who are leading women ministers in the church or women who are leading Christian organizations who want to understand leadership.

The other main project I have been working on is training law enforcement -- Christians who are police, army, lawyers, judges -- in biblical justice and how to respond to corruption and bribery through the Bible. We teach them to hold up restorative justice and help them begin to shift from punitive justice.

Often in Africa, you can win the case, but it's not because you have actual justice. You win because you can bribe the judge. You win because you can afford a lawyer. So we train Christian lawyers in how to prioritize justice.

I train Christian lawyers to not only take up cases for widows or orphans or people in need, but I want them to begin to change the legal system that has created winners and losers and divides families for eternity, because most of the cases are between siblings over land.

We train them in mediation, too. We are creating mediation centers where we use the Bible. The Bible is full of ways to deal with conflict, but even with Christians, we end up in the court. I win, you lose, we become enemies forever -- but that’s not the intention of God.

We have been teaching restorative justice. Not punitive, retributive justice that creates winners and losers, but really restorative justice, where even the victim and the perpetrator can have hope: “Yes, I was wrong, what I did was wrong, I hurt you, but how can we create a better future, how can you forgive me?”

And with the police and army, most of the police in the region where we are involved were freedom fighters. So they don’t know how to de-escalate conflict.

They escalate the conflict, because they have no skills in conflict management or negotiation. So we say, “Yes, you are police, you are an army man, you are a member of Parliament or a government official, but your identity is not that job. As a Christian, your identity is a Christian.

“Your first identity is a Christian identity, but you happen to be a lawyer or a judge or police. Your Christian values that you have must dictate how you lead and what you do: You shall not kill. You shall not rape. You need to give the weak a voice.”

For the last two years, I’ve been involved in training police officers in Uganda, in South Sudan, members of Parliament who are Christians and senators who are Christians.

This summer, I’ll be back in Burundi training another 60 members of Parliament in servant leadership, good governance and biblical justice. Dealing with biblical justice and servant leadership and good governance for government officials has been my focus with those countries where ALARM works.

F&L: How do you get people to think about the differences between their jobs and their identities?

CM: So really, most of the people we are working with, they already have a base. They call themselves Christians. But no one has sat with them to tell them that their identity is in Christ.

They begin to say, “I am a policeman,” and I say, “No, that’s not your identity. That’s your job.”

So we begin to help them understand that as soon as they say they are Christian, they need to be asking, “How is my policing different from someone who is not a Christian?”

Then they begin to identify the differences: Others will take bribes. Others will loot. Others will not be ashamed. Others will handle people badly.

Then when we ask, “What will you do different as a Christian?” they can begin to think that their way of treating people has to be like Christ would treat them. So how did Christ treat them? Then you go to the Scriptures.

F&L: When you say “reconciliation” or “restorative justice,” what do you mean?

CM: The reconciliation we talk about means a process that will include the acknowledgment of where we have failed, the repentance and confession that this situation needs to stop, and then that process of beginning to create friendship where there was hatred.

Reconciliation means that there’s not overlooking of past wrongs -- we go back to identify the evil committed, who committed it, who are the victims, and then how do we repent and ask for forgiveness and build the friendship again. Really, reconciliation is bringing the former enemies together in friendship. But it’s not just [automatic] -- just push the button and hey, we are reconciled. No. It’s a process.

When we talk about restorative justice, it is also the bringing of the victim and the perpetrators together in their communities to really discuss what has taken place, why it took place, why the victim was a victim, how the perpetrator did this, why the perpetrator did it, and then what are the solutions so that it doesn’t happen again.

It is not just punishing the perpetrator because he committed a crime against the law. That’s what most people think justice does, but strict punishment doesn’t deal with the person, the community, and the reason why that person did what they did. So there’s no real change of heart.

Sometimes the perpetrator committed the crime because something was broken in his life, in his community, and that brokenness in his life made him do what he did and therefore commit this crime. If we don’t solve what was broken in him, the jail will not change it, so when he is out of jail, he will do the same thing again.

In punitive justice, you are an evil person forever. Restorative justice is really to create a better future for the community by bringing both the victim and the perpetrator, along with their communities, to discuss what happened. The goal is not just to find justice but also to find healing for both the victim and the perpetrator, and to create a better future for the community as a whole.

F&L: What pushed you to do this kind of work? A lot of people have an idea to take on a big justice-related project but then don’t see it through, because it’s hard work. How did you keep going?

CM: In 1994, Rwanda lost one million people within three months. Within three months, one million people were killed. Between 60% and 70% of the pastors across the nation were murdered, and unfortunately for us, it was Christians killing Christians.

God called me and said, “They will not kill each other if they’re taught that their core identity is Christian.”

Our goal is if we can develop leaders in the church who disciple people beyond tribalism, beyond racism, who help people come to Christ to begin to think as Christians, then we’re going to see fewer Christians killing each other. So that’s how it began.

If the church in Africa is going to make a difference, the church needs to disciple the people beyond tribalism.

ALARM believes that the message of peace and reconciliation is not the government’s mission. It’s not government. It’s not Washington, D.C. The message of reconciliation begins with the church. That’s what the Bible says.

F&L: Reconciliation generally has been a big conversation, especially in the Christian church in America. How can churches, regardless of country, begin to have these difficult discussions?

CM: In the church in America and the church in Africa, we need to realize that we have only been teaching the good part -- that God does the work. We have forgotten our part -- our obligation toward those whom we have sinned against and those who have sinned against us. The church needs to realize that we need to bring back the message of horizontal forgiveness, the message of reconciliation, into the gospel.

We have an obligation to live out the gospel by loving our enemies. We have to forgive those who trespass against us by forgiving even those who murdered our families.

I have to go back to find the people who murdered my father, my brother, his wife and kids, and forgive them. I have to say, “How can we live a better life?” Then we’re creating new hope.

That’s what the gospel needs to be, and what the church in America needs to be doing. We need to go back and say, “We have taught that God has forgiven us. Have we taught about our obligation to forgive our neighbors -- and our enemies?”