Thursday, January 7, 2010

The power of prayer

Last night I attended a very moving talk by Immaculée Ilibagiza, author of No One Left To Tell, a memoir of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

I didn’t know what to expect. Would this be a book signing kind of event? A talk? A Q&A? When I arrived I found a sold out crowd filling the auditorium at Cathedral High School here in Springfield. And the event itself was unique – Last night, I found the most real and convincing justification for forgiveness and the foundations of Catholic faith that I’ve ever heard. That’s not to say I accept Catholicism – I’m not a member of any formal church – but the talk was very powerful and well reasoned.

Immaculee’s event opened with a short documentary film that set the stage with what happened in Rwanda in 1994. Following the assassination of the president, the ruling Hutus set out to kill the country’s Tutsi population. Over a three month period between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people were killed. Some estimates say 20% of the tiny country’s population was murdered in this killing spree. The victims included Immaculee’s parents, brothers, and extended family.

She talked of her experience in that unimaginable time.

Immaculee was hidden and protected by a local pastor. She spent 91 days in a 3 by 4 foot bathroom with six other women. When they emerged from hiding, she had lost half her body weight but she was still alive.

She explained how faith came to her in the bathroom. At first, confinement was merely uncomfortable, and hard to believe. Then it got more uncomfortable. Finally, it became unbearable. That’s when a Hutu mob arrived to begin a house to house search for Tutsi to kill. They were armed with grenades, machetes, and spears. At that point, she says, she began to pray. She asked God to show himself if he was there.

The mob spent several hours searching the pastor’s grounds. They looked through the front of the house, under the shrubs, in the outbuildings, and even on the roof. For some reason – she attributes this to God – they turned away from the locked door at the rear of the house.

She said she heard two voices in her mind as the mob searched the house. One said, “You have no chance. Open the door and get it over with.” The other voice said, “Be calm, and I will protect you.”

She says it was very tempting to open the door, and she was terrified, but she stayed quiet. That first search seems to have solidified her faith in a protective God in a way that her earlier religious education had not.

That strong faith sustained her for three months in the bathroom, until the violence ended and she walked out into daylight to see her village - littered with decaying bodies being eaten by wild dogs.

She began to teach herself English from the bible, saying the words in her mind since she could not say them aloud for fear of discovery. She relied heavily on the Book of Job and the Lord’s Prayer, but there was a problem.

The Prayer speaks of forgiveness, but she was not ready to forgive the killers at first. She spoke at length how she arrived at a point of forgiveness and found herself able to accept the totality of the prayer. She says that brought her a feeling of release and freedom.

I can understand how forgiveness can set you free. There is indeed a deep good feeling that comes from that. But is forgiveness unlimited in scope and applicability? I don’t think it is. I can honor and admire Immaculée’s letting go and forgiving. History is full of priests and ordinary people who have forgiven their tormentors and prayed for them to see the light and change their evil ways right to their awful ends. Such people are seen as giving their lives for a noble principle or belief and they are held out as role models for the rest of us.

But ultimately, evil is put down at the point of a sword, not through the good words of the preacher. Preachers can have a powerful impact, but sometimes the evil runs too deep, and overmatching force offers the only solution. The horrors of Rwanda, like all other such situations throughout history, were resolved and enforced with military might.

To me, that defines the limit of forgiveness. At some point, a person who is purposeful and evil becomes an unacceptable threat. The threat may be to me individually or to society at large. To forgive and pray for such a person in the hope that they may change while knowing they have a long and continuing history of evil becomes a harmful act as long as that person is allowed to remain on the loose.

Some would say, who are you to judge? My answer is that I don’t presume to judge unless the choice is forced upon me. If a person approached me with a knife in an alley, I would rather shoot him and face the consequences – moral and legal – of firm self defense rather than pray and take my chances with an unknown but certainly malign force.

I can forgive the drug addict who breaks into my house when I am gone. But if he comes in the window at night when I am home, I'm probably going to shoot him before the question of forgiveness can be raised. When someone demonstrates a proclivity for killing children, society's primary goal should be to remove him permanently from our presence. Whether he should be put to death or caged forever is a subject for another discussion but I submit that forgiveness is an abstract that has no place in that conversation. However, forgiveness has a place to help victims heal. Those of us who are not yet victims have a duty to act preventatively for our own good and that of our fellows.

I suppose you might say I believe in acting firmly, and forgiving when the aggressor is on the ground. Removal of threat comes first to me; forgiveness comes later. I know that’s not the priest’s view, but I am not a priest.

Immaculee's message was very powerful and I could see that it resonated with many in the audience. Clearly, if she could survive that reality, the challenges many of us face here in America are trivial in comparison however awful they may feel to us at the moment.

I thought about her words alone, and in the context of my own life.

Her explanation of finding absolute faith in a protective and caring God, and following a path to forgiveness and freedom, makes perfect sense once you accept the idea that there is a God to protect you.

That’s where she and I differ.

While she has a wonderful story of salvation, and she lived to tell it, I am sure there were countless people just like her praying for the same salvation, yet they were mercilessly put to death at that same time.

Why would a God save her, and allow the others to die?

I can accept the theological arguments that there is both terrible cruelty and great kindness in the world. But I have a hard time believing in a protective God as applied to any of us individuals because I can see no evidence of a pattern of salvation. It seems just random. Or maybe it’s planning . . . after all, I have long believed fortune favors those who prepare for it.

I have never been able to get past that point in my own life.

I thought back to times I was in grave danger, and what I did. There were times I prayed to live another day, and some would argue that it worked because I am still here. However, I always felt I am here because I kept going; I felt like salvation came from my own effort or perhaps luck more than divine protection. When I push myself beyond the limits and I come out the other side, it seems natural to believe my survival was a result of my own effort and my damaged but recovering body is a testament to that.

I can see how it would feel different to watch an external threat approach, come close, and then recede. Seeing the soldiers carefully search the house, and then turn away from her locked door is a good example. If I had been there, and the only action I took at that time was to pray, I might well believe (as she did) that God intervened. But nothing like that has ever happened to me.
I have heard that people experience such feelings in the face of certain diseases like cancer, at times when they are in retreat. I suppose that’s something we all face at the end, and maybe I will come to believe then.

Until then how could I be expected to believe in a higher power? I don’t know. I know many people do believe, but I don’t know where their faith comes from. Should I believe? I don’t even know the answer to that.

So her talk was inspiring, and I’d recommend you go hear her if she comes to your town.

What I got from her was a very good understanding of why she believes, and what that belief has done for her. But where do I go from there? Steps 2, 3, and 4 in her life all depend upon acceptance in step 1, and I don’t see how to achieve that for myself, or even if I should try.

Until then, I believe I continue to live a reasonably moral life. I do my best not to hurt others, and I practice kindness whenever I can. I even receive regular feedback from others that suggests I am succeeding at this. I reach out and help people, through my writing, my workshops, and in daily life. I do the best I can. I believe it’s possible do good even though I am uncertain about the questions of higher powers and divine protection or salvation.