AFRICAN STUDIES QUARTERLY

Volume 9, Issue 3
Spring 2007

The Angels Have Left Us: The Rwanda Tragedy and the Churches (with foreword by Desmond Tutu). Hugh McCullum. Geneva: WCC Publications, 2004. 132 pp.

The subject of the complicity of everyday citizens in the tragedy of the genocide in Rwanda has been thoroughly explored in both scholarly and popular literature. However, the issue of the complicity of churches of all faiths has a particular fascination. In fact, the title of perhaps the most widely read popular account of the genocide, We Wish to Inform you That Tomorrow we Will be Killed with Our Families by Philip Gourevitch comes directly from a letter written from Tutsi victims to the leader of the Adventist church in Mugonero. McCullum’s book deals explicitly with only the religious relationship, including historical context, in Rwanda and is admittedly a journalistic account of such events.

The introduction to the book examines some of the historical myths and details surrounding the Tutsi-Hutu divide in Rwanda and although the information presented in the opening chapters is basic and lacks detail, it is factually sound and makes no attempt to promulgate the “ancient tribal hatreds” myth often found in journalistic works on the subject. A chapter briefly glosses over the international dimension of the genocide, including arms transfers, training, etc., although once again, it’s short on detail, but long on well-known criticisms of Mitterand’s France and Mobutu’s Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo). The chapter detailing the gruesome anatomy of the genocide criticizes the international community, especially the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), but McCullum avoids the derisive condemnation found in other eyewitness accounts and these have largely been addressed in other, more complex works.

The best elements of this work are the descriptions of the various churches and their behaviors during and immediately following the genocide, as McCullum was a journalist-observer during the actual conflict, and thus provides detailed eyewitness accounts. An interesting note is McCullum’s brief detail of the church’s response to the largely Hutu refugees in Eastern Zaire immediately following the genocide. The meat of McCullum’s work is essentially concerning the Catholic and Protestant (Adventist and Anglican) churches in the country, placing blame on the churches for their inability or unwillingness to help during the genocide especially given the power of the Catholic Church as an institution in the country. The close relationship between Habyarimana’s regime and the Catholic Church is touched on, but not given much explanation. Especially crucial to understanding the church’s behavior is McCullum’s portrayal of the post-genocide meetings of the Presbyterian Church and others examining the church after the events occur. The author attempts to reach an understanding of why the churches failed to respond and his discussion of leadership, problems and solutions is clear, concise and well-meaning. A larger part of the book is actually devoted to the churches’ role in Rwanda post-genocide as opposed to complicity during the event itself. This is somewhat frustrating, as a clearer answer on exactly how entangled the churches, especially the Protestant denominations, were involved in the genocide is missing from the current literature on the subject. A deeper discussion on the relationship between the new Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF)-led government and the churches would have added to the quality of the material.  McCullum essentially introduces the question of how much the various religions and African governments should collude, but never entirely answers it.

I find a number of things lacking in this account. For one, the sources of actual information are scant and are mostly reports either put out by churches or other non-governmental organizations. While sometimes effective sources, these reports often suffer the burden of bias and subjectivity. The book certainly opens the subject of religious bodies and political conflict up to those casual observers of the genocide, but more seasoned scholars will almost certainly find nothing new in the narrative. While many significant inquiries are raised, both as a matter of general interest and as one worthy of scholarship, their treatment remains unsatisfying. The author poses some interesting questions and seems to suggest answers, but never completes the thought process and investigation behind them. The book’s brief length (121 pages) is indicative of the quality of data given by the book- it provides only minimal coverage. Thus, the book is really meant for the introductory reader into the study of the Rwandan genocide.

However, even given the lack of fine detail and the glossing of historical record, the book challenges us both as scholars and world citizens to probe the way in which we act during tragedy, and ask ourselves to grapple with the notion of religious responsibilities during acts of violence. This is certainly a thought provoking dilemma, whether one is a scholar investigating religion and politics, a development worker trying to find post-conflict solutions, or simply an interested spectator. McCullum succeeds in presenting an easily digestible, accurate, and accessible account of the events that took place April-July 1994 and the immediate efforts of post-conflict reconciliation involving the various religious entities and the sheer difficulty all parties involved face in doing so. While not necessarily adding to the body of work available on the subject, McCullum certainly helps to survey another component of the genocide in the hopes that through historical dissection and review prevention is possible.

Cara Hauck
University of Florida