It is not only what I have heard of human depravity that has made my stomach churn, but also what I have seen. As the president of the All Africa Conference of Churches, I made a pastoral visit to Rwanda in 1995, a year after the genocide. I went to Ntarama, where hundreds of Tutsis had fled to the church for safety. The year 1994 was not the first time that interethnic violence had gripped Rwanda. With each previous eruption of fighting any church became A refuge, a sanctuary from the insanity beyond its walls. In 1994 the Hutu Power movement respected no sanctuary. Tutsi people were slaughtered in churches throughout Rwanda. The Ntarama church was no different. It provided no safety for the people, mostly women and children, who had cowered there. The floor was strewn with a record of the horror that had occurred in that place. Clothing and suitcases were scattered among the bones. The small skulls of children lay shattered on the floor. The new government had not removed the corpses, so the church was like a mortuary, with the bodies lying as they had fallen the year before. The stench was overpowering. Outside the church building was a collection of skulls, some still stuck with machetes and daggers. I tried to pray. I could only weep. All over the world people have inflicted unspeakable violence on other people. On missions to the Sudan, to Gaza, and to Northern Ireland I have borne witness to some of the viciousness that human beings can unleash on each other.
Brutality can be as intimate as it is global. Our cruelties are played out in the intimacy of our own homes and neighborhoods as much as they are experienced on the world stage. I have shared my daughter Mpho's anguish as she has described some of her experiences in ministry to me. She has worked with rape survivors in South Africa: a fifteen-year-old girl who spent countless nights sleeping in the school bathroom to escape her father's molestation and her mother's rage and impotence. Mpho cared for an eight-year-old girl twice violated by a neighbor. Because the neighbor had threatened to kill her family, the frightened child named someone else as the perpetrator the first time she was molested. It was only after the second assault that she dared to tell the truth. My daughter sat with an eighty-year old woman brutalized by a stranger. She listened as the doctor who attended the victim struggled to contain her own distress: "The genital lacerations were so ragged and awful, I hardly knew where to begin to sew her up." In Massachusetts, Mpho worked with women of many races and every economic stratum who had fled from domestic violence to homelessness. She has been with wealthy women too ashamed to turn to their friends for support or shelter, and poor women who had nowhere to go. She has provided pastoral counseling to families struggling with the effects of substance abuse: loss of livelihood, loss of self-respect, frayed family ties, and, often, violence.
As married persons, as priests, and as parents we have both encountered the disappointments, failures, and despair that can infect human relationships. Hearing my mother's screams and my father's drunken beatings, I have known that noxious brew of fear and rage that courses through a small boy. Even as adults in our own marriages, we have both known moments when the joy of marriage shrivels in the heat of a bitter argument.