Friday, September 10, 2021

Lessons from Left to Tell

 “I have killed 399 cockroaches,” said one of the killers.  “Immaculée will make 400.  It’s a good number to kill.”

In high school I read a historical fiction novel by Michael Shaara about the battle of Gettysburg.  I don’t recall the lines verbatim, but there is an exchange between two characters that has always stayed with me.  One soldier quotes a line from Shakespeare's Hamlet: "What a piece of work is man ... in action how like an angel!" His companion, in a dry tone, responds that if man is an angel, then he is a murdering angel.  (Hence the title of the book, The Killer Angels.)

It does seem that at times man is capable of tremendous acts of sacrifice, virtue, and goodness—even comparable to an angel.  Yet, there are seemingly as many examples of man committing heinous atrocities like brutal violence, rape, and sacrilege—much like a devil.

Both of these extremes of goodness and evil are present in Immaculée Ilibagiza’s biography, Left to Tell, which tells of her experiences during the Rwanda genocide in 1994.  The book is gripping and astonishing.

Sadly, Rwanda’s history—like many African nations—was altered for the worse due to the colonizing interference of outside countries.  Rwanda was composed of three tribes: a Hutu majority, Tutsi minority, and a small number of Twa (forest dwellers).  Originally, Rwanda enjoyed many years of peace under a monarchy, ruled by a Tutsi king.  However, German and then Belgian colonists purposely altered Rwanda’s social structure for their own personal benefit.  

Pinning the tribes against each other, the Beglians promoted the minority Tutsi aristocracy, providing them with a better education so they could run the country well … thereby earning more money for their Belgian rulers.  The Belgians distributed identity cards as a way to distinguish between tribes.  The Hutus grew resentful, an anger that perpetuated through the future generations.

When the Tutsis sought independence from Belgium, the Belgians turned against them, supporting a Hutu revolt in 1959.  The revolt overthrew the monarchy and killed many Tutsis (more than 100,000).  This was just the beginning.  In 1962 Belgium officially left Rwanda, leaving a Hutu government in control, which continued the persecution of Tutsis.

Immaculée and her family belonged to the Tutsi tribe, although, as a child, she was unaware of any such differentiation.  Her parents, faithful Catholics and leaders in their community, welcomed everyone into their home and extended a helping hand to those in need, regardless of tribe.  In reality, very little separated a Hutu from a Tutsi.  Due to intermarriage, their physical features often appeared identical.  They spoke the same language and shared a common history and culture. 

Nevertheless, as Immaculée grew, the discrimination against Tutsis began to affect her life in a more direct manner.  The Rwandan government had an “ethnic balance” plan to ensure that the Hutus received a better education.  So although Immaculée finished second in her eighth grade class, she did not receive a scholarship to high school, due to her being a Tutsi.  Her parents had to make a significant financial sacrifice to afford her continued education.

Things escalated in October 1990 when Rwanda was attacked by a group of Tutsi soldiers (called the Rwandese Patriot Front, or RPF).  These soldiers had been living in neighboring Uganda.  Grown children of previous Tutsi refugees, they sought to return to their home country.  Fighting spread and continued, on and off for years, in the north of the country between these Tutsi rebels and the Rwandan government soldiers.

Meanwhile, in local communities, radical groups sprang up.  The President of Rwanda encouraged the formation of these Interahamwe, meaning “those who attack together.”  The Interahamwe attracted homeless teens, many of whom were drug addicts, and became a Hutu-extremist militia.

While away at university one day, Immaculée received an urgent message from her father, imploring her to return home.  She had originally planned to wait until Easter break, but decided to answer her father’s request and arrived home early, armed with books for continued study.  Immaculée joined her parents and two brothers for what seemed like a regular family dinner at home.  Yet, after the jokes and shared stories, her older brother, Damascene, broke out:

“No, I’m not imagining things,” Damascene said, getting to his feet and speaking with urgency.  “And that’s not all I saw.  They have a list of names of all the Tutsi families in the area, and our names are on it!  It’s a death list!  They are planning to start killing everyone on the list tonight!” 

Immaculée was troubled, but her father reassured them that such news was being exaggerated and people were overreacting.  However, unbeknownst to them at the time, that was their last family dinner together.  The next morning news reports informed the citizens of Rwanda that the President was dead, his plane having been shot out of the sky.  The radio announced:

“Stay in your homes.  It is forbidden to travel.  Only military personnel will be allowed in the streets.  Do not go outside.  Public transportation has been suspended.  Do not leave your homes!”

The date was April 7, 1994 and the genocide had begun.  With it came evil of such magnitude, it’s hard to even comprehend.

Local radio stations immediately encouraged Hutu citizens to grab a machete and kill any Tutsi neighbors, no questions asked.  Government officials even handed out machetes at gas stations and the militia went door-to-door, delivering guns and grenades.  

The country came to a grinding halt: all phone lines down; businesses, stores, and schools closed; public transportation ended … all done so that every person could pour every effort toward the goal of wiping out the Tutsi population. 

The radio further instructed the Tutsis to seek refuge at churches and stadiums.  However, this was just a ruse: these became places of mass killings, as Hutus attacked the sites, burning the people alive inside and shooting anyone who attempted to escape.  

Ntrama Church Altar, where over 5,000 people seeking refuge were killed

Immaculée describes the Interhamwe as they scoured her neighborhood, seeking Tutsis to kill:

Hundreds of people surrounded the house, many of whom were dressed like devils … They whooped and hollered.  They jumped about, waving spears, machetes, and knives in the air.  They chanted a chilling song of genocide … These were my neighbors, people I’d grown up and gone to school with—some had even been to our house for dinner.

The evil directly attacked Immaculée’s family, who were all brutally and savagely murdered.  The genocide continued for three whole months and claimed the lives of almost one million Rwandans.  

And yet, through God’s grace, even in the midst of such profound darkness and pain, Immaculée found a way to find light and goodness.

The day the genocide began, Immaculée’s family, concerned what the Interahamwe would do to her (they were known to rape women before killing them), sent Immaculée to a nearby Hutu pastor’s house.  For ninety-one days she, along with seven other women, hid in the pastor’s bathroom.

The conditions these women endured are astonishing.  The bathroom was four feet long and three feet wide.  Near the ceiling was a small air vent.  The women couldn’t flush the toilet unless the bathroom toilet on the other side of the wall was being used.  There wasn’t enough space for them all to sit on the floor, so the tallest women sat with the shorter ones on top of them.  Every twelve hours they would stretch, but aside from that, they stayed in the same position day and night.  The women remained completely silent, communicating only via sign language.  They became emaciated, surviving only on the scraps the Pastor brought to them.

And yet, in this unlikeliest of places and such trying circumstances, Immaculée experienced a profound deepening in her relationship with God.  He became her refuge.  That tiny bathroom became a sanctuary for her soul.

Even as my body shriveled, my soul was nourished through my deepening relationship with God.

Immaculée centered her entire day around prayer.  After awakening, she would begin prayers of thanksgiving—for the Pastor who took them in, for the life she still had, for her faith.  Then she prayed the rosary, using the beads her father had given to her when saying goodbye.  She spent hours meditating on Bible passages, or sometimes even a single world like “hope.”  

God stayed with her and protected her.  When the Interahamwe searched the Pastor’s house, they originally bypassed his bedroom, thus sparing the women.  The killers vowed to return though and God gave Immaculée a vision of a wardrobe, pulled in front of the bathroom door, thus shielding their hiding place.

While war waged outside of the bathroom, at times it waged inside of Immaculée’s soul as well.  She clung to God because there were moments she was tempted to despair due to direct attacks from the devil within the interior of her soul.

I realized that my battle to survive this war would have to be fought inside of me.  Everything strong and good in me—my faith, hope, and courage—was vulnerable to the dark energy.  If I lost my faith, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to survive.  I could rely only on God to help me fight.

Her greatest struggle was being able to forgive the people committing the genocide—those who had killed her own beloved parents and brothers.  The devil taunted her as she called on God, mocking the hatred she had in her own heart and condemning her for her desire to destroy those who destroyed her family.  Immaculée at first couldn’t comprehend how she could forgive these killers.  She listened as, outside the window, the Interahamwe killed a young mother and left her baby alone, wailing the whole day, until the child’s cries weakened and then stopped, presumably dead.  Who could forgive someone callous and dreadful enough to commit such deeds?  Yet God spoke to her in prayer:

You are all my children … and the baby is with Me now.

Immaculée began to view the killers as children, children hurting others without thinking, hurting themselves in the process.  She began to pity them and to forgive them.

Their minds had been infected with the evil that had spread across the country, but their souls weren’t evil.  Despite their atrocities, they were children of God, and I could forgive a child, although it would not be easy.

Left to Tell is a story of a genocide and it’s a sombering look at the egregious deeds man is capable of committing.  Yet, I don’t think Immaculée would want readers to walk away from her autobiography with only that message in their heart.  It is, ultimately, a story of goodness: God’s goodness that triumphs over evil, that loves and protects.  Even though Immaculée lost her family members in the genocide, God gave her a vision of them, joyful in heaven.  God took care of them, too.  Immaculée cooperated with God’s grace and emerged from an unthinkable experience stronger in her faith with forgiveness in her heart, breaking the cycle of hatred that perpetuates persecutions and genocides.

God is taking care of me and you as well.  Like Immaculée, we need to cling to Him and stay as close as possible through prayer.  God will give us the strength to resist our temptations, forgive those who hurt us, and grow in love if we lean on Him.  He will be our shelter, if we allow Him.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Lessons from Far From the Madding Crowd

They spoke very little of their mutual feelings; pretty phrases and warm expressions being probably unnecessary between such tried friends.  Theirs was that substantial affections which arises (if any arises at all) when two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other’s character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality.

When I was in college, I read a book about dating and courtship.  It had a graph in it, depicting the various intimacies a man and woman can develop: physical, emotional, and spiritual.  The author made the point that the physical element of a relationship is the easiest and fastest to grow; the other two require more time and effort.  Yet, when a man and woman focus on the physical piece, to the exclusion of emotional and spiritual intimacy, it won’t be enough to really sustain and foster a true relationship.  

I think Thomas Hardy, author of Far From the Madding Crowd, would agree.  He states that passion, without the foundation of mutual friendship forged through shared difficulties, “is effervescent as steam.”

Written in 1874, Far From the Madding Crowd is Hardy’s fourth novel and first major success.  The title is based on a poem called “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” which Thomas Gray penned in 1751.  It reads:

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife

Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;

Along the cool sequester’d vale of life

They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

The adjective “madding” here means “frenzied” or “raging.”  Gray asserts that the countryside, in contrast, offers a peaceful refuge, where life is calm and unaffected.  Hardy sets his novel in the fictional location of Wessex, in rural southwest England.  The main location is a farm and many characters are at work shearing sheep, going to the corn market, or gathering crops.  These scenic pastoral visions may call to mind the idyllic conditions of country life.  '

However, Hardy employs this line as his title in a stroke of literary irony.  The characters in his novel are “madding.”  His Wessex is far from calm: rumors, gossip, and scandals abound.  Even nature becomes a tempest, between destructive fires, thunderstorms, and even sheep that rush headlong to their deaths, destroying one farmer’s livelihood.  

The flurry centers around the female protagonist and her three potential suitors.  Hardy gives his characters incredibly rich, symbolic names that provide the reader with insight into their natures.  

Let’s start with the protagonist: Bathsheba Everdeen.  When we first meet her, Bathsheba is looking at herself in a mirror, a strong reflection of her proud nature.  She treasures her independence, at one point declaring that she has no intention of marrying anyone.  When she inherits a farm from her uncle, Bathsheba insists on managing the affairs herself, an extraordinary move for a woman in Victorian England.  

The name “Bathsheba” is an allusion to the Old Testament Bathsheba, whose beauty allured King David, who subsequently committed adultery and then murder to have her.  David’s lust for Bathsheba became his downfall, which foreshadows the fate of some of Bathsheba Everdeen’s suitors.  Additionally, the Old Testament Bathsheba eventually became the Queen mother and, as such, wielded great power, similar to this Bathsheba and her power as ruler of the farm.

The word “Everdeen” looks much like “evergreen,” a plant that remains green throughout the growing seasons, even the most rugged ones.  Bathsheba experiences both highs and lows in her dating life, but she never seems to lose her appeal.  Merriam-Webster further defines “evergreen” as “retaining freshness or interest: perennial,” and “universally and continually relevant: not limited in applicability to a particular event or date.”  Hardy’s Bathsheba has lessons for readers today, not just for his audience in the late 1900s.  

Interestingly, Suzanne Collins, bestselling author of The Hunger Games trilogy, chose to name her protagonist Katniss Everdeen, a nod to Bathsheba Everdeen, in recognition of Bathsheba’s proud, independent spirit (and maybe her knack for getting entangled in multiple romantic interests).

A final note on Bathsheba’s name: oaks are considered a kind of evergreen.  This becomes interesting, as Bathsheba’s first suitor is named Gabriel Oak, to whom I will now turn.  Gabriel and Bathsheba are closely related throughout the narrative, and not just by the similar symbolism in their names.  Bathsheba intrigues him immediately.  While both are working in the fields caring for sheep and cow respectively, they become acquainted and Bathsheba actually saves Gabriel’s life.  Shortly after, he asks for her hand in marriage, which she refuses.  

Their paths intersect again later on, though under very different circumstances.  Bathsheba has risen in society, due to her inheritance of her uncle’s farm.  Meanwhile, Gabriel has suffered a terrible financial loss and ends up working for Bathsheba.  

The name “Gabriel”—reminiscent of the New Testament angel—means “God is my strength.”  Many times Gabriel comes to Bathsheba’s rescue, like a kind of providential angel in her life.  Indeed, Gabriel possesses a quiet, humble, inward strength that guides him throughout the novel.  He is a shepherd, a protective guardian who disinterestedly advises Bathsheba, even in her romantic interests, always desiring her good.  The oak tree is known for its very strong and hard wood, a symbol of Gabriel’s strength and virtue, as well as his enduring love for Bathsheba.

One day, acting on an impulse, Bathsheba decides to send a valentine to a neighboring farmer named Boldwood.  Her pride is wounded by him because she is the sole woman present at the corn market and, while the other men are captivated by her presence, Boldwood seems completely indifferent to her.  Bathsheba teases him by sending a valentine with the words, “Marry me.”  

What does Boldwood’s name tell us about his character?  The woods are typically filled with plenty: numerous trees, vegetation, and animals.  Similarly, Boldwood is an affluent farmer—the most sought-after bachelor.  But, like the woods where the trees are so numerous they become almost anonymous, nothing about Boldwood himself really stands out as special and attractive.  He isn’t really singular: nothing specifically about him really attracts Bathsheba, aside from his original indifference to her.  He is actually very replaceable.  His name also might reflect that, when Bathsheba first spies him at the corn market, he seems wooden—unmoved by her beauty.  

This markedly changes, however, once Boldwood receives her valentine and traces its sender to Bathsheba.  He is far from interpreting it as a jest; instead, Bathsheba’s flirting has spawned him from a quiet, taciturn, emotionless bachelor into a courter emboldened in declaring his complete infatuation for her.  Bathsheba finds herself in a quandary, responsible for drawing this man into passionate feelings for her, yet simultaneously not feeling an iota of passion toward him.

She said in the same breath that it would be ungenerous not to marry Boldwood, and that she couldn’t do it to save her life.

Bathsheba’s third and final suitor is named Sergeant Francis “Frank” Troy.  The city of Troy, of course, was the setting of the Trojan War, featured in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.  It was a war of destruction over a woman, foreshadowing the projection of Troy’s feelings toward Bathsheba.  This military connotation of Troy’s name is also reflective of his position as sergeant.  As for his first name, “Frank” is someone who is literally frank.  He wears his heart on his sleeve: he is blunt to the point of rudeness and romantic to the point of indiscretion.  

And Troy’s deformities lay deep down from a woman’s vision, whilst his embellishments were upon the very surface; thus contrasting with homely Oak, whose defects were patent to the blindest, and whose virtues were as metals in a mine.

Bathsheba meets Troy in a very unexpected manner.  She is walking alone through the woods one evening and becomes  literally entangled with Troy, as her dress becomes caught in his coat button.  It is a very symbolic representation of their relationship: she becomes caught in her physical attraction to him, despite the impropriety or imprudence of it.  In fact, Bathsheba lays her independence at his feet, once so highly cherished, just in desperation to be with him.

Bathsheba loved Troy in the way that only self-reliant women love when they abandon their self-reliance.  When a strong woman recklessly throws away her strength she is worse than a weak woman who has never felt any strength to throw away.

If this were the “Dating Game,” I think it would be fairly obvious which one of these bachelors—Oak, Boldwood, or Troy—is the winning match for Bathsheba.  Oak stands out as the man with the best virtues, who proves his genuine love for Bathsheba through selfless action and enduring friendship, which involves charitably correcting her for her wrongdoing.  But of course, Oak is not the man Bathsheba initially chooses.

Isn’t that a dynamic that happens over and over again though—maybe in your own life, or that of a family member or friend?  The man who would make the best husband is passed over for the attractive, enticing, romantic man.  What should seem so clear becomes muddled.  This is because, ever since the Fall of Man, our reason is not always in control.  Instead, our passions like to take over.  Without the reins of reason guiding us, passion is like a runaway horse, blind to prudence and decorum.  It runs the danger of being a headlong flight into destruction.

This is why, in a budding relationship between man and woman, it is wisest to focus on emotional and spiritual intimacy first, reserving physical intimacy only for much later.  With the clear sighted vision of reason, one can objectively observe a potential suitor, weighing his strength of character and virtue—essential qualities of any spouse.  A genuine friendship can blossom, one where both man and woman appreciate the other’s talents, as well as acknowledging their respective flaws (we all have them!).  Yet, in a physically-centered relationship, possession and obsession dominate, glossing over any defects in an effort to glorify the object of desire.

Though we live in a different world from that of Thomas Hardy, today we often find ourselves in a “madding crowd.”  May the true compass of reason guide us, particularly those like Bathsheba who are seeking someone to love.