6/26/2010 | Share this article: View CommentsBy Valerie Tarico --
I’m in Rwanda, winding south from the capital, Kigali, toward a village called Banda. Banda is on the edge of Nyungwe National Park, one of the last remaining fragments of montane rainforest in Africa, and Brian and I and our girls are on our way two see two things.
Image by rytc via FlickrOne is a family of chimps that live in the rainforest. The other is a rural development project aimed at providing sustainable prosperity for villagers who live on the steep hillsides adjoining the park boundary. As we drive through towns and farmland, I see the facets of Rwanda that we as first time visitors have been trying to synthesize since we first arrived in the country: green misty beauty; fragments of ecosystems that precede the last ice age; hard working people whittling away at those ecosystems as they go about the simple tasks of everyday life; and ubiquitous presence of the ’94 genocide in roadside memorials each of which, actually, is a mass grave.
It’s hard to put the pieces together: the serenity of this place, the big dreams—to become an African success story, the Switzerland of Africa—with the stories and graphic images in the Kigali genocide museum which is also the burial site of 250,000. I look at my daughter, Brynn, who was born in 1994, and I think about where I was then. The ordinariness of my life blends with the ordinary photos hanging in the museum of victims before the violence erupted. Family photos, wedding photos, graduations, a casual snap shot of two teens with a car or a freshly scrubbed child in a doorway. After spending an afternoon at the museum, Brynn and her younger sister Marley decided not to visit two churches south of the city that have been preserved as memorials to the people who died there: one left empty with blood and fragments of fabric on the walls and floor, the other with the bodies of the dead, preserved in lime, scattered where they fell lest anyone deny this holocaust.
Our driver on the ride south to Banda, is Africa, an animated father of four who shares his country’s bright hopes for the future. As we stop at a cultural site I walk behind his SUV for the first time. There on the hatch is a bumper sticker that reads: God Never Fails. I take another step, then turn back and stare. What the hell does that mean in a place where 800,000 people were hacked to death, most of them Christians, many of them in churches where they had sought refuge, some with clergy opening the doors or directing the slaughter? (One such Rwandan pastor was convicted in Finland just this month.)
Invoking the presence of an all powerful caretaker echoes coping strategy that we learn quite young. I don’t have the guts to ask Africa what it means to him, but over the next hour, the question haunts me. At first I am simply incredulous. In my imagination I see those ordinary people who put their faith in the Christian God and his sanctuaries and his servants begging him for their lives or the lives of their children as mobs of young men armed with grenades and machetes batter holes in the church walls. To no avail. If something so horrific could ever be reduced to a slogan--which it can’t-- what comes to mind is the phrase, repeated occasionally in testimonials by former believers at places like exChristian.net: “Nothing fails like prayer.” What can the opposite, “God never fails,” possibly mean in Rwanda?
But then I become curious. What does it actually mean anywhere? Certainly not what it seems. On the surface, God never fails, is phrased like a statement of fact. It would appear to mean that God is in control of everything that happens. If you define “God” as Einstein did—the impersonal powers that shaped the universe made manifest in the laws of physics—then the statement is factually accurate. It is also supremely irrelevant to human preferences. The natural order holds regardless of how much suffering is inflicted on innocents. If you define God, as most Christians do, as an all powerful, benevolent, interventionist being, then the statement is factually false –or benevolence must be defined in such a way as to again make the statement supremely irrelevant to what most people care about.
I think the phrase “God never fails” isn’t about facts. It doesn’t express something rational but rather something emotional. It is a way of saying, “I trust that I am going to be ok, that as I venture out into the world, good things are going to happen and bad things won’t. I entrust my wellbeing to something beyond myself.” Like a mantra, it may be a way of inducing an altered state of mind, in this case a sort of assurance or comfort that makes the world more manageable. More specifically, I suspect that invoking the presence of an all powerful caretaker echoes coping strategy that we learn quite young.
When children first become mobile, they need confidence to venture forth into the world, and they draw this confidence from a secure attachment to a parent figure. In a new situation, most two year olds will cling at first, then loose their hold on mom or dad’s pants, and begin to check out objects around them. They look up frequently or even loop back to make sure that their reassuring presence is still there. In the absence of a parent, toddlers are more likely to become stressed. They explore less and fuss more. Many children become attached to an object (psychologists call this a ‘transitional object’) that they cling to for comfort when a parent is absent, often a tattered blanket or stuffed animal.
In Hinduism, a guru or spiritual teacher often gives his disciples a unique mantra, a word or phrase chosen specifically for that person. The mantra, which represents both the guru and God, is then repeated during meditation to help the initiate attain a sense of peace and closeness with the divine. Evangelical Christianity instead tends to use certain stock phrases that are shared among believers. Jesus loves me is one of these. Born again is another. His eye is on the sparrow. Pray without ceasing. Saved. Washed in the blood. Trust and obey. God is love. One in the spirit. In the world not of it. Praise the Lord. God never fails. Phrases like these are repeated in community and individually, in song, prayer, and conversation. Some of them have little objective meaning if you analyze them, and yet they are resonant and powerful. I suspect that they act as transitional objects that allow a person to invoke a sense of spiritual community and union with God. A phrase doesn’t have to be factually accurate or even rationally meaningful to serve a powerful attachment function. It needs to work emotionally.
God Never Fails—taken literally in Rwanda—might suggest that the speaker is naïve or narcissistic—that they have insulated themselves from the magnitude of what happened or they so prioritize their own well being that all else pales in comparison. In Kigali, the genocide museum bookstore sells an autobiography described as the “miracle” story of a young women who survived a machete blow to the head after watching her family killed. The young author and the–I think—American missionaries who helped to pull the story together and get it published seem unaware of how self-focused one has to be to claim God’s guiding hand under the circumstances.
But under the circumstances, there is another way of looking at it. Self focus, or the conviction of a miraculous purpose, or a belief that in a god who can’t and won’t fail because he never does—these may be the stuff of sheer survival. There are situations in which alternatives (empathy, a sense of life’s caprice, the belief that there’s no one in charge) may feel unbearable. Indeed, they may be unbearable.
In the aftermath of a trauma that defies our sense of justice and goodness—anything from an unexpected divorce to the death of a child to genocide-- some people lose their religious beliefs. Others find their devotion reinforced. Both, though, embark on a similar quest to reestablish equilibrium, to find some way to face life again with a coherent sense of self and purpose, with faith in some community of humankind and in a new or newly reaffirmed world view that they hope will never fail. We don’t have to agree with the answers or even respect their surface meaning to accept the basic human needs that drive the process.