A tale of two Christianities is now playing out in Bangassou, a city of about 25,000 in the Central African Republic.
U.S. News & World Report on Thursday reported that Muslims in the city have been paying huge sums of money to U.N. contractors to smuggle them to the relative safety of the nation’s capital. The reason: they are being hunted and murdered by “Christian” militia groups.
Muslims are a minority in CAR, making up about 15 percent of the population, compared to 25 percent each of Protestant and Roman Catholic Christians and 35 percent followers of indigenous religion.
Conflict between Muslims and their Christian neighbors in CAR dates back to 2013, when Muslim militias called the Seleka violently overthrew President Francois Bozize.
The Seleka committed more than their share of atrocities, as did their opposition, the predominantly Christian anti-Balaka (meaning invincible) militias.
Thousands of people died in the fighting and more than a million were displaced inside and outside the country, according to the USNWR article.
The fight spread beyond armed militias this spring when the anti-Balaka started rounding up and murdering unarmed Muslim civilians in and around Bangassou. In one incident alone, in May, the Red Cross reported finding 115 bodies outside the city.
These were not militia fighters that died in fighting. They were unarmed civilians – men, women and children – rounded up and murdered, by people claiming to be Christian, because of their faith.
According to Human Rights Watch, the anti-Balaka Christian militias have morphed from an armed opposition group to a terrorist organization bent on eliminating Muslims from CAR. And they’re doing it in the name of Christ.
That is, for the people of CAR, one image of Christianity.
But, there is another.
Enter Bishop Juan Jose Aguirre and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bangassou. Since mid-May the Catholic community of Bangassou has been protecting about 2,000 Muslims on the grounds of Cathédrale Saint Pierre Claver.
I think it’s fitting that Saint Peter Claver, (26 June 1580 – 8 September 1654), a Jesuit priest and missionary, is the patron saint of missionary work among all African peoples. That’s how it reads: ALL African peoples.
The Muslims taking shelter in the cathedral bearing St. Peter Claver’s name cannot leave, to check on their families, to gather food or fuel, or to travel to safer territory. They must remain within the walls of their Christian protectors, because outside the walls Christian militias wait to torture and kill them.
The Catholic community of St. Peter Claver risk their lives every day to protect their brothers and sisters – their neighbors. Those who protect Muslims in anti-Balaka territory often come under attack themselves, and are regularly killed, so it is no minor obligation they take on themselves to offer shelter and protection to their Muslim brethren. They give of their homes, their church, their food, and in some cases, their lives.
In short, the Catholic community of St. Peter Claver today is upholding the highest ideal of Christian life: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” They have heard Christ’s commandment, to “‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’” and they are living that commandment, to the point of risking their own lives.
That is an amazing story, and one that should be getting much more attention than it is. It is a story we should be shouting from our pulpits, cradling in our children’s hearts, and carrying with the cross out into the world. It is the story of a radical love that looks every bit like Jesus Christ.
But, unfortunately, we must also bring attention to the anti-Balaka, and other groups like them, who have been misled into perverting the name of Christ. Far from loving their neighbor, these “militias” spread hatred and fear, and spill innocent blood in the name of the Savior who shed his own blood to redeem us all.
The anti-Balaka somehow have taken Christ’s words in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and Paul’s admonition that we do whatever we can to “live peaceably with all men,” and twisted it all into a religion of genocide. Rather than taking up their cross to serve Christ, they have taken up the machete and AK-47 to soil Christ’s name with innocent blood.
I know as I write this I will be receiving retorts of “Well, what about what such-and-such Muslims did to such-and-such Christians.” That kind of “what aboutism” is a disease of the ego that pulls us away from what should be our true concern.
Jesus told us in Matthew 5:38-39 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.” The point of that isn’t that we’re to allow ourselves to be victimized. Rather, our focus must be on our own Spiritual walk with God, and we’re not to allow others’ missteps to lead us astray. Injustice, genocide and every form of evil violence is wrong, and should be grievous to us as Christians. It must be especially grievous when it is committed in the name of Christ, an offense by “us” more heinous than any act that could be perpetrated against us.
The offenses being committed in Christ’s name in CAR are bad enough in their own right. But, unfortunately, they are but a symptom of a much greater battle being waged around the globe – yes, in America as well – for the very soul of Christianity.
The same struggle playing out in life and death around the walls of Saint Peter Claver is being waged in the hearts of Christians in all corners of the globe. On one side, there is selfless, radical love – the kind of love that would risk death for someone entirely unlike yourself. On the other side, there is hatred, fear, greed and a gluttony for power – all stirred up and cloaked in the name of Christ.
Each of us must decide which side we will take in this struggle. One side is the side of this world. It is the side of fear. It is the side of greed and hatred. It is the side that whispers in our ear that we must have more, be more, and take it from our neighbor before they take it from us. The other side – the side of Christ – well, it makes no sense in this world. It is radical. It is self-effacing. It is self-sacrificing. It is everything Christ died to give us, and nothing this world tells us to pursue. It is the side that embraces the spiritual meaning of Christ’s words: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.”
I mourn today for our Muslim brothers and sisters in Bangassou. I mourn for all people facing violence, fear, oppression and injustice. I mourn for the name of Christ, so twisted and perverted by our brothers and sisters who have been poisoned with the lies of fear and hatred. I pray for the peace of Christ to reign in every Christian heart, and for us all to better live up to the name we bear. I pray for all Christians to live in the one true Way of peace, and for Christ to be the sovereign of our hearts.
Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn
but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the
strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that
all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of
Peace, as children of one Father; to whom be dominion and
glory, now and for ever. Amen.