Ensuring Sanctuary in Sanctuary: Respect, Empathy, and Inclusion

Carmen Lau, a board member of Adventist Forum, recently traveled to Rwanda as part of her research thesis for a Master’s in Anthropology, Peace, and Human Rights at University of Alabama at Birmingham. In this three-part series, she explores what led to the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, how the Church is healing in the wake of its involvement, and where we go next.

Sadly for Seventh-day Adventists, our history includes the case of Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, part of the Hutu power structure, who was an Adventist pastor and the first clergy to be convicted for a role in the Rwandan Genocide. At the Mugonero Medical Complex, thousands of people sought sanctuary and believed he would shepherd them. Seven Tutsi Adventist pastors were part of the throng seeking refuge in the sanctuary, and they wrote a letter to Ntakirutimana using the phrase “your intervention will be highly appreciated, the same way as the Jews were saved by Esther” (Gourevitch, 1998). Pastoral malpractice abounded in Rwanda. Some Rwandans told me that at Gitwe, one of the places where the Adventist church was first established, they saw pastors and fellow believers singing Marching to Zion (#67 in the Kinyarwanda SDA Hymnal) as they did their “daily work” of destroying Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

How does a society (or a church) find peace after decades of enmity erupt to leave people stacked like mounds of potato sacks, in streams of blood? A nation, like a person or a church, reveals its true mettle by what it does next. In 1994 in Rwanda, thousands trusted that a sanctuary would be a sanctuary, and it was not. Nyamata Genocide Memorial is a church that was an unsanctuary and is now a site where 50,000 people are buried. While there, I met a millennial genocide survivor who remembers his relatives being confident that they would be safe, and have sanctuary, in the church. Coping in the aftermath, he offers a narrative that, in essence, echoes Doestoevsky, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

The Psychology of Genocide: Perpetrators, Bystanders, and Rescuers distills decades of research and concludes that the rescuers are people who have developed individual agency and have moved beyond rote obedience to emotional intelligence. “Genocide cannot exist without a manipulative elite who do what they can to magnify all social differences. But does manipulation by elites assume a blank slate in the population as a whole?” (Baum, 2008, p.4). Baum asserts that in a genocide, the perpetrators are too fearful and constrained and have stayed in a state of arrested development that features an over identification with culture and social group and religion. Mature people are those who have moved from living in submission to authorities to a space of human flourishing and autonomy and commitment to a transcendent good. Many pastors in Rwanda were locked in a space defined by fearful dehumanization of others so that they were willing to disregard the notion of sanctuary and allow holy spaces to become scenes of horror.

In my view, a goal for our church must be to promote personal development so that members (and leaders) will have a strong core of defiance when needed. Carl Wilkens, the ADRA leader who was the only American to stay during the genocide (see part 1 of this series), uses the acronym, REI—respect, empathy, inclusion, as a non-negotiable waymark for a group or a person to use to ensure spaces of sanctuary. Bystanders have the potential to do good. If two people hear sounds of distress, the response of one person greatly influences whether the other person helps or not. For better or for worse, people imitate one another. Consider Milgram’s experiment on obedience in which he looked at the willingness of a subject to respond to higher authority, even when the authority mandated acts that would conflict with personal conscience. Milgram’s subjects were told to shock a person with an increasing voltage of electricity to help the researchers understand how people learn. Despite hearing shrieks of pain, overwhelmingly, subjects cooperated. Another part of the experiment looked at how the presence of a hesitant confederate, planted by the researcher, would affect the responses of subjects. In the presence of a confederate who refused to submit to the experimenters’ authority, then 90% of the subjects also hesitated. Often, one hears the idea that the main goal of a parent (or a church) is to teach obedience. Maybe, one could say the wiser goal would be to teach core principles that will be forced to surface and might, at times, look like defiance. Wilkens’ emphasis on respect, empathy, and inclusion are core principles to stop chain reactions that might lead to atrocities.

A person’s sphere of influence can widen quickly for good or ill. Leading up to the genocide in Rwanda, radio stations broadcasted intense infectious racist ideas, and, eventually, a tribunal held a popular station’s manager and staff responsible for inciting the genocide. The Rwandan courts understood that influence matters, and words can kill. Paul Rusesabagina, founder of the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation, said, “Evil is a big ugly hulking creature. It is a formidable enemy in a frontal attack. But it is not very smart and not very fast. You can beat it if you can slip around its sides. Evil can be frustrated by people you might think are weaklings” (Rusesabagina, 2006, p. 206). Sometimes, “weaklings” might actually be the most emotionally intelligent and developed members of society that, in the end, save the society. It is unwise to depend on leaders to be a moral compass.

Genocide Watch lists eight steps that lead to genocide.

  1. Classification
  2. Symbolization
  3. Dehumanization
  4. Organization (usually by the state)
  5. Polarization—extremists drive the groups apart. Hate groups and propaganda. Laws forbidding intermarriage. Assets of extremists seized and visas denied.
  6. Identification
  7. Extermination
  8. Denial—always follows genocide and indicates further genocide possible. Dig up graves and burn bodies. Blame what happened on the victims. Hitler’s words were, “Who, after all, remembers the Armenians?”

When our group visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial, a place where over 250,000 victims rest, I noticed people with mops, sloshing soapy water in the roadway at the entrance. The mopping reminded me of the idea of doing the task at hand as a force for good. I also tried to imagine the bloody streets in 1994 when average people responded to an order and used guns and machetes to kill about one million Tutsi and moderate Hutus within 100 days. In consideration of Milgram’s work that shows the influence of a person who chooses publicly to question dehumanizing orders, then one obvious step to promote peace would be to nurture emotional intelligence in people so that they are more likely to challenge orders and shifting norms mandated by authoritarian leaders—orders that disregard respect, empathy, and inclusion.

Nazi elite were given Rorschach inkblot tests for authoritarianism and were found to have three traits: overwhelming ambition, low ethical standards, and a strong nationalism. They were not insane, and the Hutu people in Rwanda were not insane in 1994. Political leaders had created structures that developed a critical mass of hatred and an aversion to respect, empathy, and inclusion with regards to a group labeled as “the other.” The line between good and evil runs straight through the heart of each individual. At least once, maybe more, each person will decide how to respond to escalating rhetoric that targets a different group or a person perceived to be an outsider. Remember REI.

Once to every man and nation,

Comes the moment to decide,

In the strife of truth with falsehood,

For the good or evil side,

Some great cause, God’s new Messiah,

Offering each the bloom or blight,

And the choice goes by forever,

Twixt the darkness and that light.

—#606 Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal

Notes & References:

Baum, Steven K., The Psychology of Genocide: Perpetrators, Bystanders, and Rescuers, Cambridge University Press, New York City, 2008

Gourevitch, Philip, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, St. Martin’s Press, New York City, 1998

Rusesabagina, Paul, An Ordinary Man, Viking Books, New York City, 2006

Read Part 1 of this series here and look for Part 3 on August 15, 2018.

Carmen Lau is a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum. She lives and writes in Birmingham, Alabama.

Photo Credit: WikimediaCommons / Adam Jones

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8920
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Thank you Carmen for this excellent report. I hope someone would soon do a report on our local church, conference and division response to the children displaced by the current U.S. administration. Our meager declarations aside, we are responsible and accountable for the abuses that are still taking place. Stephen Miller. John Kelley, and Donald Trump Sr. are partially responsible for this terrible program of separating children from their parents. You said in your article:In consideration of Milgram’s work that shows the influence of a person who chooses publicly to question dehumanizing orders, then one obvious step to promote peace would be to nurture emotional intelligence in people so that they are more likely to challenge orders and shifting norms mandated by authoritarian leaders—orders that disregard respect, empathy, and inclusion.

We, all of us will need to give account of what we did or did not do when we knew in open sight…

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Clarification: This part of my response was quoting Carmen Lau’s article:

“In consideration of Milgram’s work that shows the influence of a person who chooses publicly to question dehumanizing orders, then one obvious step to promote peace would be to nurture emotional intelligence in people so that they are more likely to challenge orders and shifting norms mandated by authoritarian leaders—orders that disregard respect, empathy, and inclusion.”

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The two illustrations given were the extermination of “people groups.” Now of course it became necessary for Sam to “default” YOUR ARTICLE into demonizing Trump. ABSOLUTELY NO parallel EQUIVALENCY…
There is respect, empathy and inclusion shown to those who legally seek citizenship in the U.S. They just can’t cross the border at anytime they see fit Sam.

Notice Democratic Sen. Schumer’s 2009 positions on illegal immigration.


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Too many of the things on the list remind me of the direction that GC leadership is taking right now -

  1. Labeling (“You are a violator…”)
  2. Dehumanizing (making a union president accept shame for the vote of his constituency)
  3. Polarization (encouraging the accusations of “rebellion”)

Sam, I am reminded of the following that I think applies and further strengthens you point.

The truth of God is not in harmony with the traditions of men, nor does it conform to their opinions. Like its divine Author it is unchangeable, the same yesterday, today, and forever. Those who separate from God will call darkness light, and error truth. But darkness will never prove itself to be light, nor will error become truth. {PH117 41.2} 3b. The minds of many have been so darkened and confused by worldly customs, worldly practices, and worldly influences, that all power to discriminate between light and darkness, truth and error, seems destroyed.

Rwanda is a cautionary tale and an example of a perfect storm of influences both cultural and moral failing in nature. As you mention the current administration (and previous ones contributions leading us to where we are) here in the US and in other countries, while a pale shadow of Rwanda, share many similarities that so many of us find troubling. The similarities and the shifts we have seen in our domestic politics over the years are a cause for alarm and must needs men of conscience to voice the alarm. Do we need to wait until blood flows in the street? I should say not, we must always be a voice to battle back against such forces.

Some may try to deflect saying we are only defending ourselves and besides our current situation has been around for some time so why are you complaining now? As if our current circumstance merit no concern, or special notice. Like in Rwanda, the voice of alarm and conscience by those who perpetrated heinous cruelty had long been on the path of indifference and casual denial. When the time came, those who through the long practice of inaction and ignoring the prompting of the Holy Spirit, had not a spark of Godliness left in them and were thus under the complete influence of the enemy of souls.

An attitude and belief, in a cherished political or religious ideology/figure which causes one to deny the Spirit of Christ and His teaching when plainly seeing the rise of issues which have in the past caused suffering and bloodshed, is the root of their self deceptive state. So now is the time to awaken from slumber, we know that we must speak up as we see the seeds of injustice and cruelty. If you do not you will found wanting by God on the day of judgement.


Good thinking, Pat, and rational. The campaign to excoriate Trump no matter what he does or doesn’t do is juvenile and I am not a Trump fan!


Give us some facts, Peter, buttressing your allegations.

I think it might be good policy for the SDA church and Spectrum to consider this article…and the UMC is certainly not “Conservative.”

Thank you David. You “get it”. I hope others will as well…

Yesterday was the year anniversary of Charlottesville. That day, we witnessed what we naively thought we had moved passed as a nation. White supremacists, neo Nazis, and KKK members marching and chanting Jews won’t replace us revealed that the chilling shadows of Auschwitz, Rwanda, and our own racist legacy are still alive and well within American society. The violence with which it was met also offers no solution, simply ramping up the intensity of this polarizing and dehumanizing evil.

Despite the protestations in this thread, it is tragic to see the leader of this nation build his campaign and governance on such polarization. Bottom line… Donald Trump is a racist. He denied housing to minorities in NYC in the 80’s. That’s the actions of a racist. He led the fraudulent birther campaign against a sitting African American president. Those are the actions of a racist. He led a public campaign against two African American men for the Central Park murders in the 90’s. They were wrongly convicted. He never apologized for his involvement. Those are the actions of a racist. He has surrounded himself with men like Bannon, Miller and an AG whose family were slave owners and has a horrible record on civil rights as a law maker. He is now to pass legislation against legal immigrants on public assistance. And, finally, he stated that there were good people amongst the marchers at Charlottesville. Really? No good people march with people or are the people who chant Jews won’t replace us! No compassionate leader allows hundreds of children to be held in cages in the name of defending our borders. These are the actions of a blind racist.

I agree that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. I agree that helping people develop individual conscience and value systems is crucial to building a society that avoids the fate of Rwanda. But, I also see that we deal with social systems and attitudes that are ingrained in our society. This is where leadership can help make or break us. It is no coincidence that more extreme expressions of violent racism, polarization, and scapegoating have come out of the shadows during this administration. Trump has given this element a voice and a sense of legitimacy.

As people who claim to believe that there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, no male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus, I would hope that we would stand with one voice against such systemic evil, for that is what it is. I would hope that we don’t use the excuse of religion is separate from national law and policy to stay silent. Our highest belief in the love of Christ, his inclusive mercy, and protective justice, needs to be what gives us voice, and informs our views of such policies and attitudes.




No compassionate leader allows hundreds of children to be held in cages in the name of defending our borders. These are the actions of a blind racist.<<

Are you referring to Trump or Obama under which the recent media pictures were taken?
BY the way your opinion of Schumer’s 2009 7 pts. on immigration? (Above)

But, Not worth arguing over…that is a narrative that won’t go away which is simply the lifeblood mantra for Dems. At least Trump wasn’t a former member of the KKK like previous Dem. Senators

May I suggest you consider not applying biblical text to articles in which you are using your understandings of an individual to judge him.


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Posted on the wrong thread. Troubling Disconnect is where this belongs!


I’m not a Dem., Pat. And the rest of what I posted about Trump’s history and public statements is public record…not media bias. This constantly is glossed over by his supporters, always taking aim at his predecessors. The policy of child detention was in place long before Trump or Obama. But, no president has ever practiced the mass detentions that Trump has allowed. That’s fact.

I’m sincerely distressed, over the inhumane policies, and lifelong racist behavior of this president. It can’t be explained away. It is now one of the drivers of policy in our country, and has helped legitimize the underbelly extreme that has crawled out spewing hate. I have no choice but to speak out.

We see things differently. Thanks God that we still have that freedom here.



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Frank, as of the time Trump was elected he has numerous folks in the AA community, including preachers and MLK’s niece, that are saying he has done much more to help the AA community economically than any previous administration.
When did a previous President move the US embassy to Jerusalem? Yet, some accuse him of being antisemitic.
So, I am not much into accusations but believe what I see with my eyes. I also saw Charlottesville on TV with my own eyes and never saw in context Trump make a racist or irrational comment.
The white supremacist, which I abhor, did have a marching permit (we do still have free speech, as you say, no matter how abhorring it is to us) that was non eventful on Friday night.
On Sat. you had Antifa and other counter protesters “loaded for bear.” So Trump correctly said they both were guily of violence. Very objective with what I saw. You can’t overlook Antifa actions and history because you may dislike White supremacist more.
So, I continue to say Trump “in context” said nothing wrong. He never made any statements of “moral equivalence.”
Where was the media outrage against Antifa and other groups attacking Trump supporters in the California election process…but that is ok because obviously “Trump made them do it.”
As far as your previously posted and removed comments, I enjoyed them…and wholeheartedly agree!

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Cheers, Pat. Always enjoy discussing with you.


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Thank you, Carmen, for this excellent report.

Elizaphan Ntakirutimana was a delegate to the General Conference session in 1990. The delegates in 1990 voted a report that argues why women should not be ordained as ministers. The report claims that ordination of women as ministers would create “disunity,” “dissension,” and “schism.” Consequently, during this General Conference session, Elizaphan learned how the clear teaching of Galatians 3:28 can be negated. He realized that one can urge political considerations to justify one’s mistreatment of another. He witnessed the various ways people rationalize why Galatians 3:28 is not applicable to a particular set of circumstances. And he basked in a Spirit-deprived environment of exclusion, mistreatment, and arrogance that predominated during this General Conference session.

The 1994 Genocide in Rwanda could have been prevented if the Seventh-day Adventist Church had stayed true to Scripture and had been more proactive in impressing upon the world the imperative of Galatians 3:28. The high level of the Church’s prominence and importance in Rwanda in the early 1990s made the Church in that country a unique Esther for “such a time as this.”

Of course, the Church’s refusal to ordain women as ministers is not the sole cause of the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda. But the very little that we say and don’t say can be a proximate cause of large-scale and cataclysmic events. A few choice words from Esther prevented a mass killing of the Jews. Just imagine the different choices Elizaphan and his colleagues may have made if the Church during the General Conference Session in 1990 and thereafter had celebrated Galatians 3:28 rather than scheme in various crafty ways to negate Galatians 3:28.


I agree completely in “the church.” After all it does say “In Christ.” In secular society Jews are not gentiles and Christians are not Buddhist. Inclusivity does need to be defined separately/differently for religious and secular applications.
That does not mean as Christians we are not to treat all people with courtesy, justice and respect. We are!

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