If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Congo, it’s that most aspects of human nature are universal. Sometimes this place seems like another world altogether, but again and again I’m reminded that we’re really not all that different when it comes down to the essentials.
Politicians are greedy, corrupt and will almost always say what they think you want to hear. Mothers will do anything to save their children’s lives. Unsupervised teenage boys with weapons will make stupid decisions and someone will be killed. People will often do the selfish thing, but sometimes choose to sacrifice their own well-being to serve another. At some basic level, we’re all the same.
So it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that the Baptists here don’t get along with one another either.
I’m not sure I completely understand what their split was about; it has something to do with ethnicity and long-ago grudges. So instead of there being one, unified Baptist group here in the eastern Congo, there are two separate associations, with separate bureaucracies, separate hospitals and separate schools.
Last month I wrote about my hopes for reconciliation in Baptist life, and how excited I am about the opportunity the New Baptist Covenant gives us to practice working together and living as God has called us to do. But after six weeks in the Congo, I’m remembering just how difficult a task that reconciliation is.
There’s a lot of talk about reconciliation in this corner of the world. Just yesterday I visited an NGO whose stated purpose is helping people to find a common basis for identity, work and peace.
There are many projects here designed to help women, children, former soldiers and almost any imaginable group of people from different backgrounds work together to improve their lives.
Goodness knows central Africa needs reconciliation. After nearly 15 years of instability and war, and after 4 million deaths at the hands of countless armies, militias and armed gangs (and the poverty and sickness they leave in their wakes), it’s easy to see why one person might not trust another, especially if that “other” speaks a different language or comes from a different village–even if that person is also Baptist.
Reconcile. What does it mean to be reconciled to one another and to God? Does it mean we agree to tolerate one another’s differences, while privately holding the conviction that the other person is wrong? Does it mean we must all be alike in thought and word and deed? Does it mean that we must have identical theologies, worship styles and sermons?
I don’t believe it does. I’m not the sort of Christian who believes that the only true Christians are those who believe and worship exactly as I do. I’m just not convinced that God works that way.
God’s grace is too wide, God’s mercy is too deep, God’s creation of a diverse world suggests so clearly that we’re not all meant to be the same. I think that applies to thought and theology as well as to physical appearance and temperament. If we’re all created in the image of God, then we all have something to learn about God’s nature from one another.
When I was 21, I met Desmond Tutu, who, of course, led South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. About a year later, I met Xanana Gusmao, who would later become the first president of independent East Timor. Both of these men had an incredible presence, a charisma that drew you in and wouldn’t let you go.
I don’t know how to describe it any better than that. I thought about it for a long time, and finally realized that what both men had in common was, that after a horrible experience of suffering, each made the choice to forgive. Neither sought revenge against his political enemies, though both would certainly have been justified in doing so.
They could have punished their oppressors financially or otherwise, they could have allowed bitterness and anger to rule their hearts and their countries. Instead, they chose to forgive. They chose to call others to forgiveness. They chose to reconcile.
What they didn’t do, however, is let go of their principle convictions–about the nature of God, about the dignity of all people, about the right thing to do. Reconciliation is not synonymous with selling out.
I don’t understand reconciliation. It has something to do with forgiveness, and it has to do with choosing to believe that our commonalities are more important than our differences. It must mean realizing that in a world in which we are so much more the same than we are different, the cost of not reconciling is too high.
The Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant will be an exciting opportunity to see what reconciliation looks like firsthand. It’s a chance for us to find out whether we’re capable of forgiving, capable of working together for a common cause.
It’s a chance to say that we are not going to allow our fears of change and difference, and our longstanding disagreements to stand between us and the mission of serving others. After all, we’re mostly the same.
Laura Seay is an Assistant Professor of Government at Colby College. She studies African politics, conflict and development, with a focus on central Africa.