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Home > Church Leaders > Current Trends & Columns > Leader's Insight

The Passion of Hotel Rwanda
A year after Mel Gibson's movie, I found an even more Christian film—one that most Christians are ignoring.
by Brian McLaren, Leadership columnist

Maybe it's because I spent time last summer in Burundi, the poorer twin-sister country of Rwanda, which shares a similar history, tribal make-up, geography, culture, and terrifying undercurrent of genocide. Maybe it's because while there, I met some Anglican priests serving in Rwanda, who told personal stories of the tragedies there and their efforts to bring healing and reconciliation in the aftermath. Maybe it's because (I know some readers will be tempted to write me off after reading this sentence) I was so frustrated by last year's promotional hype surrounding Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, and I was so frustrated by the movie itself, although I know many good people found it moving and spiritually edifying. Maybe it's because I have deep concerns about the alignment of major sectors of Christianity with "red-state Republicanism," and I worry that a kind of modernist, nationalist neo-fundamentalism is trying to claim all Christian territory as its sovereign domain.

For whatever reason, when I walked out of the recent film Hotel Rwanda, the story of a hotel manager who saves more than a thousand Tutsi refugees from Hutu-led genocide, this thought wouldn't leave me: If we really had the mind and heart of Christ, this is the movie we would be urging people in our churches to see.

It's been well over a week since I saw the film, and I still feel a churning inside me, a disquiet, a rumble in my heart that feels to me like "burden" that the old prophets used to speak of, maybe even a simmering heat reminiscent of Jeremiah's "fire in my bones." And now, I realize that even raising these kinds of questions very possibly has stimulated defensive and divisive temptations in many readers. "This guy must be a liberal," some readers are thinking. "Go get 'em, Brian!" others might be saying.

Then I go back to the film again. I think about Tutsi and Hutu locked in a cycle of fear and aggression, insult and revenge, attack and counterattack. And I also think of the Twa (the literal "little people" of our world) whose story is so little known, who suffer in the crossfire between the larger, more powerful tribes. And I think about how our community of Christian believers is divided by tribes also caught in long-standing cycles that seem to defy reconciliation: Protestant, Catholic; liberal, conservative red-state, blue-state; contemporary, traditional; postmodern, modern; seeker-driven, seeker-sensitive; purpose-driven, tradition-driven, and so on.

And I go back to the film, and think of the hotel and its manager, himself a Hutu, but one who loves Tutsi as well. I think about his distinction early in the film between family (who deserve help) and non-family (who one can't worry about), and how in the course of the genocide, he comes to see that all neighbors are family. And I wonder why so few of us see our neighbors in the Christian faith in anything close to a similar way, not to mention our non-Christian neighbors who may also be modern-day prostitutes, tax collectors, and Samaritans. I wonder what kind of tragedy it would take to bring us to the insight gained by that hotel manager.

Then, I realize that in some ways at least, the tragic tsunami of December 26, 2004, did that. I didn't hear anyone saying, "Let's raise money for Baptists in Indonesia," or "Let's send help to evangelicals in Sri Lanka," or "Let's be sure no liberals get any of our help, or any Hindus, or Buddhists, or Muslims." I think about the words of a Sri Lankan-whether he was a Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, or Christian, I don't know-who said that a wave of destruction had crashed upon them, but when he looked to the horizon, he saw another wave rising: an even taller, deeper and more powerful wave of compassion.

Then I realize that's why Hotel Rwanda seemed to me an even more Christian film than The Passion of the Christ. Forgive me if this sounds crazy to you, but try to understand; it evoked in me a wave of compassion for my neighbors around the world, whatever their color or tribe, whatever their religion or politics. And I hear our Lord saying, "As you have done it to the least of these … you have done it to me."

In fact, I can't think of a more worthwhile experience for Christian leaders than to watch Hotel Rwanda and then ask themselves questions like these:

  • Which film would Jesus most want us to see, and why?

  • Why did so many churches urge people to see Gibson's film, and why did so few (if any?) promote Terry George's film? What do our answers to that question say about us?

  • What were the practical outcomes of millions of people seeing Gibson's film? And what outcomes might occur if equal numbers saw Hotel Rwanda as an act of Christian faithfulness?

  • In what sense could Hotel Rwanda actually be entitled The Passion of the Christ?

  • What do we make of the fact that a high percentage of Rwandans who participated in the 1994 genocides were churchgoers?

  • What do we make of the fact that a high percentage of the Americans who ignored the 1994 genocides (then and now) were and are churchgoers?

  • What kind of repentance does each film evoke in Christians in the West? Why might the kind of repentance evoked by Hotel Rwanda be especially needed during these important days in history?

For a wave of compassion to arise, we know there must first be a wave of repentance. How odd that re-thinking (which is what "repentance" means) must precede emotion, but then again, perhaps it is bad thinking that numbs us and steels us, blinds us and distracts us from the sufferings of our neighbors.

I wonder if I can look to the horizon and see, by faith, a wave rising, a wave we could call "the compassion of the Christ." Could that wave rise and catch us all, bringing us together for the sake of the least of these whom Christ is not ashamed to call sisters and brothers, whom he loves with greatest passion of all: compassion?

Brian McLaren is pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Maryland and a regular contributor to Leadership journal.

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February 11, 2005

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