During the “exploration” and colonization of Africa, European intellectuals kept stumbling upon a disturbing fact: the Africans were not always the uncivilized brutes they ought to have been. According to racist ideology–summarized beautifully and disturbingly by Hegel–true Africa (and Africans) lacked all historical, cultural, and intellectual development. To account for the appearance of progress and civilization within Africa, Europeans restructured the “biblical” basis for enslaving Africans, the Hamitic Hypothesis.
According to the Hamitic Hypothesis, Africans descended from Ham, the son of Noah. The curse of servitude upon Ham’s descendants, therefore, applied to the Africans: African enslavement was divinely-ordained. During the early 19th century, this hypothesis was flipped upside down. Now, the Hamites were not Africans; they were more like a middle ground between Europeans and Africans. The Hamites were the civilizing force within Africa; they were not indigenous to Africa, but came to Africa, settling there and bringing cultural advancement along with them. By the 1870’s, this hypothesis gained such strong ground that a group of theologians and missionaries at the Vatican I council could call on a mission to rescue the “hapless Hamites caught amidst the Negroes” (Mamdani, 86).
In Rwanda, this Hamitic hypothesis was used to explain the differences between Hutus and Tutsis. Even before colonial times, Tutsis had been the leaders over Hutus (which became a single ethnic identity only after Tutsi rule: Hutus were all those who weren’t Tutsi). During the colonial period, this hierarchy was altered in two ways. First, the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi became racialized. Earlier, one could “become” Tutsi by climbing the social ladder. In other words, the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi was permeable: it wasn’t common, but one could–and some did–move from one group to the other. The colonial period made the distinction a racial distinction, and hence closed: one was biologically either Hutu or Tutsi and there was no movement between the two.
Secondly, the colonial workers explained Tutsi rule through the Hamitic hypothesis: Tutsi’s were natural leaders because they were not, properly speaking, African at all! They were a foreign and superior settler race (Hamitic). They represented, therefore, a kind of degraded Caucasian presence. Tutsis were not white, but they were not African (like the Hutus).
Missionaries and church leaders recognized this “Tutsi” superiority from the outset and organized Rwandan society around it. At one point, many Tutsi leaders were resisting conversion to Christianity. The Belgian authorities started deposing these non-Christian leaders–they were “unredeemable” and hence unfit to rule. To fill the vacancies, the Belgian officials appointed Hutu leaders. Christian missionaries (here, Catholic) were shocked: the colonial officials were undermining the “traditional” and natural social arrangement (Mamdani, 91).
It is an interesting shift: the Belgian colonial administration thought it was more important to have Christians (whether Hutu or Tutsi) in leadership positions, whereas the missionaries believed Tutsi leadership was essential. To place Hutus in positions of power undermined not just the missional-colonial structure in Rwanda, it undermined the very logic and rationale of the European civilizing mission: racial superiority justifies European hegemony, and if the logic of racial superiority is denied (between Hutu and Tutsi), the justification of European rule will be denied as well. Only the racially advanced can rule in a civilized fashion; accordingly, any instability in the racial order (European–Hamitic/Tutsi–African/Hutu) undermines the whole project of Christian civilization.
One of the many problems in this situation–and there are so many–is that the state’s pragmatic interests would have better served the Rwandan people than the Church’s Christian convictions. If Hutus had been allowed positions of power, perhaps the sharp distrust between the Hutus and Tutsis would not have escalated. Perhaps the identities between the two would have not have become hardened, perhaps the Hutus would have had ways to protect themselves….But the Church was committed to a particular vision of the world (and its place in it, at the top). The Church “acted as both the brains and the hands of the colonial state” (Mamdani, 99). It governed the state–prophetically, one might say. It challenged the state to live beyond mere pragmatic calculation, to see things from a biblical perspective, to understand what was at stake: not just Belgian power, but the Church, Europe, [and] the kingdom of God!
Why tell this long history? Why implicate the church so heavily? What does that mean for us–for me–today? First, the situation in Rwanda highlights the problem of modern theology. Fanon (my last post, May 2nd) points out in the 1960’s what was true back in the 1800’s and even before then (to the medieval era): Christianity and the Church were the expression of European civilization, and more importantly, the project of European civilization (to bring all others into the true and authentic expression of human existence, Christian/European culture). Without a doubt, this problem still exists (think of the “clash of civilization” and the “culture wars” rhetoric prominent today); we are still in it. Though very few would endorse the Hamitic hypothesis or use the language of race, most Christians can’t help but feeling that Christianity has something central and essential to offer to the project of modern civilization (whether through direct oversight or through outside “prophetic” witness to the state). The terms have certainly changed, but are we certain we have left the problem behind? Do we even know how to diagnose the problem?
Secondly, to move beyond Hutu-Tutsi difference in post-genocidal Rwanda, one cannot just appeal to the “baptismal” unity, to “Christian” identity, or to “Rwandan” identity. Unless we analyze how all of these identities can be articulated as forms of cultural possession (we know who we are, and who we are is set off against, separate from, and opposed to some others, whether Congolese, Muslim, or whatnot), none of them will help move us beyond the problem.
Thirdly, as a white American male looking into the situation from afar, I have to find ways to speak into the problem without positioning myself as the new western missionary, possessing the truth–the latest gospel–of who we all are and how to effectively bring everyone else into it. How can I preach or teach in this situation? That is a real question and a real problem.
*All references to Mamdani come from Mahmood Mamdani, __When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda___.*