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Understanding Evil, Encouraging Forgiveness: Lessons from Rwanda 20 years on

Date:07 April 2014
Author:Religion Factor
A gacaca trial taking place in Rwanda in 2006. Photo: Scott Chacon, Dublin, CA, USA. Ontained from Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 generic license
A gacaca trial taking place in Rwanda in 2006. Photo: Scott Chacon, Dublin, CA, USA. Ontained from Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 generic license

Today marks the 20thanniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide. Both then and now, the international community had many unanswered questions about how the genocide occurred and how the evil that was perpetrated could have happened. In today’s post,  Erin Wilson reflects on what religion teaches us about evil, but also about forgiveness, reconciliation and hope for the future.

“The hearts of men, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead.” Ecclesiastes 9:3b

For 100 days in 1994, an estimated 800,000 to 1 million members of the Tutsi minority in Rwanda were murdered at the hands of the Hutu majority. Often their killers were not random strangers, members of some rebel gang or terrorist organization, but neighbours, friends, schoolmates and in some cases family, ordinary people incited to violence by the propaganda of military, political, business and church leaders in the country who designated the Tutsi minority “cockroaches” to be exterminated.[1]

One of the enduring legacies of the genocide is the question of evil. Events like Rwanda, the Holocaust, the massacres under the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, Srebrenica, are frequently dubbed “evil” in the news media. Somehow seeing the events as acts of “evil” gives us a kind of reassurance. We think of “evil” as some kind of force that exists “out there”, external and far removed from ourselves. Judeo-Christian doctrines that emphasise the existence of the devil and images in popular culture of “good angels” and “bad devils” sitting on people’s shoulders encouraging them one way or the other have done much to perpetuate this idea of evil as something external to ourselves. But this is a misunderstanding of the teachings of the Judeo-Christian religion and also a theme that is found in other world religions – evil is not external to ourselves, but part of us, something that we must be aware of, that we must monitor and hold ourselves accountable for.

This is one of the key reasons we find events like the Rwandan genocide so disturbing and confronting – that they are so ordinary, that they are carried out by ordinary everyday people, people who, but for random circumstances of birth, are like ourselves. It was this that Hannah Arendt highlighted in her penetrating account of the Eichmann trials.[2] Evil is not something extraordinary, but extremely ordinary, in Arendt’s words, banal. There was nothing remarkable about Eichmann that contributed to him facilitating the transportation of Jews from all over Europe to Nazi death camps, nothing that hinted that he was capable of greater evil than anyone else. And this is what disturbs us about such atrocities – if that were me, what would I do? If Eichmann and the other ordinary Germans who took part in the Holocaust, if the ordinary teachers, farmers, family, neighbours and friends who massacred Tutsis in Rwanda 20 years ago, are just like us, what would prevent us from behaving in exactly the same way as they did in the same set of circumstances?

What Rwanda teaches us, 20 years on, however, is that it is not just evil that exists in the hearts of men, as the writer of Ecclesiastes so bleakly observed thousands of years ago. There is also tremendous capacity for good and for forgiveness. A touching recent article in the New York Times[3] shows images of Rwandans, former perpetrators and victims, standing side by side, having confessed, asked for and granted forgiveness to one another. It is not something they take lightly, nor do they assume that once forgiveness is granted that everything is fine. They remember and honour those who died, but they must move forward together for themselves and future generations of Rwandans.

Forgiveness is something else we learn from religion. Danielle Celermajer has argued that there is no secular equivalent of the idea of forgiveness, that if you trace its historical origins back, the first evidence we find for it is within religion.[4] Celermajer analyzes the increasing prominence of public apologies in contemporary politics, arguing that their form is taken from the rituals of atonement found in the Jewish tradition.

Perhaps it is because of the recognition within religions that evil exists in the heart of men that they also emphasise the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation and the capacity of humanity to engage in such acts. This is religion’s response to the existence of evil. Wherever it cannot be prevented, it must be forgiven, for the sake of the victim as much as the perpetrator. Desmond Tutu’s famous book  No Future Without Forgiveness  neatly highlights this necessity.[5] Forgiveness and reconciliation have the power to reset a relationship that has been destroyed by evil, to reformulate individual and community identities. Julia Kristeva once likened forgiveness to being born again, a religious experience that does not wash away the evils of the past but creates the opportunities for a peaceful future.[6] In Tutu’s home country of South Africa, this principle was applied through the Truth and Reconciliation commission following the end of apartheid. In Rwanda,  gacaca  trials have been held to encourage truth-telling and forgiveness-seeking amongst former victims and perpetrators.[7]

While these ordinary, everyday people carried out unspeakable acts of violence and harm against their neighbours, family and friends, they have also in the aftermath of the genocide enacted remarkable acts of contrition, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. The memory of the genocide is by no means settled and stories are mixed regarding how effective efforts at forgiveness and reconciliation in the country are. Indeed, World Vision Australia CEO Tim Costello describes the whole country as an experiment in reconciliation. Yet there are small indications that this experiment may be having producing significant outcomes. Rwanda is now considered one of the most stable, safest and least corrupt states on the African continent, after being considered “nonviable” in the wake of the genocide 20 years ago.[8]

This suggests that maybe there is more for us to celebrate than to fear in the case of Rwanda. At the same time as we acknowledge that ordinary people, including ourselves, are capable of extraordinary evil, we must also remember that ordinary people, including ourselves, are capable of extraordinary good, and that forgiveness, courage and hope, just like evil, are to be found in the hearts of humanity. It remains for each of us to constantly encourage forgiveness, reconciliation and hope in one another and ourselves.

Rwanda is engaging in an official mourning period – “Kwibuka” meaning remember in  Kinyarwanda, for the next 100 days, ending on 4 July.[9]

The photographs that are the subject of the New York Times article were part of a larger collection  on display in The Hague until 11 April 2019. 

Erin Wilson is the Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen. She is currently researching the visual dimensions of political apologies, with Prof Roland Bleiker, School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland. For more on their research, see their chapter in  Memory and Trauma in International Relations edited by Erica Resende and Dovile Budryte .


[2] H. Arendt. 1963.  Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of Evil . New York: Penguin Classics


[4] Celermajer. 2009.  The Sins of the Nation and Ritual of Apology . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[5] D. Tutu. 1999.  No Future Without Forgiveness . London: Rider

[6] quoted in J. McGonegal. 2009.  Imagining Justice: The Politics of Postcolonial Reconciliation and Forgiveness . Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press

[7] L.S. Graybill. 2004. ‘Ten Years After, Rwanda Tries Reconciliation’  Current History , May 2004: 202-205

[8]; Kagame, Paul. 2014. “An interview with Paul Kagame”  Foreign Affairs  1 April 2014 Available at

[9] ;


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