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February 2009

The Englewood Review spotlights As We Forgive

February 28, 2009
By Catherine Larson

Laretta Benjamin at The Englewood Review has spotlighted As We Forgive in her latest commentary. Check out the review below, and the other interesting books highlighted at the Englewood Review here.

 FEATURED: AS WE FORGIVE by Catherine Larson [Vol. 2, #9]
“The Hope of Forgiveness“

A Review of
As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation From Rwanda.
by Catherine Claire Larson.

By Laretta Benjamin.

“Not only is another world possible, she is on her way.
On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”     – Arundhati Roy

“Through compassion we also sense the hope of forgiveness in our friend’s eyes and our hatred in their bitter mouths.  When they kill, we know we could have done it; when they give life, we know we could do the same.  For a compassionate man nothing human is alien.”           – Henri Nouwen

One of the most powerful kingdom-stories of our time is unfolding today in the small African country of Rwanda. Inspired by the documentary, “As We Forgive” –  produced by Laura Waters Hinson – Catherine Claire Larson built upon Laura Hinson’s research and has created a compelling book of the same name.  She gives us a powerful picture of what is taking place in Rwanda today, after the hellish events that took place there almost 15 years ago.

As many of us will remember, in April of 1994, a genocide of incredible proportions began in the small nation of Rwanda.  Over a period of 100 days, it is estimated that 800,000 to 1 million Rwandans were brutally murdered, approximately 300,000 of whom were children.  Neighbors killed neighbors and those once known as friends slaughtered each other.  In the opening pages of As We Forgive, the author lays out before us the key events that led to this human tragedy.  Her very helpful timeline traces events back as far as 1885 to the days of the European powers and their control of much of Africa.  The seeds of tension and division were being planted even then.

Ms. Larson writes with great truthfulness and emotion as she shares with us the events of the past few years in Rwanda’s little corner of the world.  This book’s story begins in 2003, when, because of prison overcrowding and with a desire to promote national reconciliation, the president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, ordered that “elderly, sick and low-level killers and looters from the 1994 genocide who had confessed their crimes” be released from the prisons.  As of January 2008, an estimated 70,000 prisoners had been set free – back into the communities and neighborhoods where the atrocities were committed – to live side-by-side with the people they had sinned against.    “If they told you that a murderer was to be released into your neighborhood, how would you feel?  But what if this time, they weren’t just releasing one, but forty thousand” (16)?  For many of us this question might be just a philosophical one for casual discussion, but for Rwandans, it is real.  They are being called upon to face the reality of what happened among them 15 years ago and look into the faces of those responsible for that reality.  They are being asked to embrace forgiveness, healing and wholeness – God’s shalom. It is a picture of the kingdom of God coming, a compelling display of the way of the cross.  This story is a real life drama of “overcoming evil with good” that is being called “one of the most closely watched experiments in forgiveness in our world today.”  As We Forgive  gives us a wonderful glimpse of the unfolding story.

            First-hand accounts from those who survived the horrors of this genocide fill the pages of this book.  Their stories are chilling and haunting and their experiences are the stuff that nightmares are made of.   We might be tempted to think: “Survivors could not imagine living side by side with their torturers.”  Yet, that is exactly what is happening.  Words can’t begin to convey what all this means for many Rwandans… and what it should mean for us… but Catherine Larson makes an outstanding effort.

 “…this is part of the importance of understanding.  If Rwandans can find the courage to forgive, then perhaps there is hope for us in those problems that seem to pale in comparison and in those that echo the horrors of the genocide.  This is why I see a country known for radical brutality becoming, person by person, a place known for radical forgiveness. I want to understand.  While this process is far from complete, every instance is so beautiful so extraordinary, so beyond ordinary human capability, that it demands our attention and exploration. We in the West, just as Rwandans, desperately need to understand forgiveness.  We live in a violent world filled with conflicts.  Political polarization, terrorist attacks, racial tensions, immigration fears, and school shootings define our national landscape.  Meanwhile, privately, we struggle with broken marriages, splintered relationships, and doubts that pierce us to the core.  Could there be a common road map to reconciliation”  (19)?

             There are some questions for reflection and discussion sprinkled throughout the book which help to guide us in broadening this discussion – so this journey of forgiveness taking place in Rwanda can also become our journey.  It is not an impossible journey but neither is it an easy one, as we are able to see in the struggles of our Rwandan brothers and sisters on the pages of this book. “Looking at some of the monsters of the Rwandan genocide— men who sliced open the abdomens of pregnant women, who peeled the skin of their victim’s back with machetes, or who smashed the heads of babies against the walls of churches—the notion of forgiveness became nearly impossible for me to imagine.  How could anyone forgive such acts and such people” (88)?   “But this is not a path, or a book, for the faint of heart.  For the boy whose face bears the scars of a torturous gash, for the child who witnessed her family burned alive, for the daughter who cannot blot out the picture of her father’s blood-soaked face, forgiveness is one of the most excruciating journeys imaginable.  Its miles wind through chasms of pain and across solitary deserts of rage.  Yet, while it is perhaps the most difficult of all journeys, it is, nonetheless, a journey that is possible…scars can become the intersection of justice and mercy, stitched by forgiveness, the only thread strong enough to bind these wounds.  Through forgiveness, these scars cease to be emblems of vengeance, becoming instead evidence of supernatural hope.  This is the story that Rwanda can tell the world.  This is a story we need to understand.”    (20)
Ms. Larson shares very powerfully the other side of the story as well.  “But even as survivors were tormented with fears and questions, so also were many of the offenders themselves.  Saveri, one of those released from prison remembers his emotions:  “I was so overjoyed, but fear lingered also.  How was I going to face a survivor and squarely look her in the eyes after I wiped out her family?”  This thought stirred a deep fear in him.  Similarly, John, a man who had killed his neighbor, says:  “I had a mixture of fear when I learned I was going to be released from prison.  After a long time in prison it was hard for me to come back to the community that I had sinned against.  My biggest challenge was how I was going to meet Chantal, whose father I had killed.”  (17).

If you listen closely as you read this book, you can hear the sounds of another world being born in the midst of great labor pains in Rwanda.  This book is on my list as a must-read for all of God’s people for so many reasons.  For those of us in North American culture, our concern and awareness of so much of what has happened and is happening in our world today is, by our own choice, very limited.  I would imagine a large majority of us would have trouble giving even a general account of what happened in Rwanda in 1994 or sharing stories of what is happening in so many other places in our world today.   I think Ms. Larson’s writing helps to open our eyes to the incredible suffering that many have endured and continue to endure in this broken world.  May God open our minds and hearts to life beyond our borders.   Through these powerful stories from Rwanda, Ms. Larson gives us a wonderful glimpse into the ways God is working in so many places of this world.   We need desperately to overcome the arrogance that so many times pervades our thinking toward the rest of the world.  There is so much we can learn from them, as the stories of As We Forgive remind us.  Because of the “comfortableness” with which most of us in this culture live our lives, our understanding of much of the gospel and the teachings of Christ can be incredibly shallow.   The act of forgiving someone who butchered our family is beyond comprehension when we have trouble forgiving someone who cuts us off in traffic.  Ms. Larson’s insights into forgiveness are deeply moving.   How wonderful if we as God’s people in America and God’s people in Rwanda truly saw ourselves as brothers and sisters so that we share our struggles and our stories.  If one suffers, we all suffer.  If one experiences victory, we all experience victory.  Where were we when all hell was breaking loose in 1994?  Are there ways we can share in their story of forgiveness now?  Ms. Larson’s writings encourage us in that direction.  Thank you, Catherine Claire Larson, for opening your heart and life to what is happening in Rwanda and sharing this incredible story with us.

Novelist Calls As We Forgive Life-changing

February 23, 2009
By Catherine Larson

Novelist Mary DeMuth just posted a fantastic review of As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda  over at Relevant Blog. Check it out:

As We Forgive by Catherine Claire Larson is one of those life-changing books that will linger with you the rest of your life. It’s not for the fainthearted. It’s not for the hard-hearted or those bent toward stubborn unforgiveness. It’s primarily a story of hope.

During 100 days of 1994 800,000 people were brutally murdered in Rwanda—a genocide swifter in execution than Nazi gas chambers. Imagine Denver and Colorado Springs—every man, woman and child—suddenly gone from our population and you’ll appreciate the scope of the horror. (And go look on a map of Africa. Trace your finger due South of Uganda, due West of the Congo and you’ll appreciate how little this country is.)

As We Forgive shares the stories of genocide survivors, recounting the unspeakable. But it does not stop there. Larson pulls back the curtain of the most ostentatious acts of forgiveness I’ve witnessed, where genocide survivors choose to forgive those who perpetrated such violence.

Together, through reconciliation practices and restorative justice, they are rebuilding their country from the ruins of hatred—all on the back of the One who still bears the scars for our sins today.

I came away from this book changed, deeply moved, and inspired. Having seen the power of God to help people forgive the seeming unforgiveable, it gave me hope that my own wrestling with forgiveness would end in hope. I also appreciated that none of the forgiveness modeled was simple or easy or quickly won, nor does the book purport that reconciliation is merely forgiveness while forgetting. For true restoration to occur, the person perpetrating the atrocity must first fully own his/her own sin and grieve it as such. And for the person who was sinned against to heal, he/she must revisit the place of grief in order to heal.

All this dovetails beautifully into the message God’s been birthing in me—to help people who suffer silently to tell the truth about their pasts, to choose the difficult path of forgiveness, in order to heal.

If God can reach into a genocide victim’s heart and offer peace; if He can transform a murderer into a productive member of a reconciled society; then surely He can transform your pain today. That’s the patent hope this book gives. It’s a gift to all of us. And I pray it’s a gift all open.

DeMuth's latest novel, Daisy Chain hits stores in March. In it she explores the suffocating power of family secrets in a novel that some are comparing to To Kill a Mockingbird  and Peace Like a River. DeMuth's Family Secrets blog is seeking to help others who have struggled with a secret that has a death grip on their lives. Obviously there's a clear connection to the secrets which plague us and a need to forgive ourselves, others, or confess the guilt we carry.

As We Forgive on the Road

February 16, 2009
By Catherine Larson

Andy Crouch, author of Culture Making interviewed Emmanuel Katongole, the co-director of Duke’s Center for Reconciliation and me at last week’s National Pastors Convention in San Diego. Later that day, after a screening of the documentary film, As We Forgive, director Laura Waters Hinson and World Relief President, Don Golden joined Crouch, Katongole and me for another panel discussion.

Catherine with Andy Crouch and Emmanuel Katongole I really appreciated the deep questions Emmanuel Katongole raised during both interviews. He is a deep thinker and it is evident that raising the tough questions is part of his forte.

I read Katongole’s deeply engaging Mirror to the Church on the plane ride home. I highly recommend it. In it, he pushes the reader to face facts squarely and to realize that the reason that many Christians in Rwanda failed to protect their fellow man in the 1994 genocide was that the stories of their culture had a deeper grip on them the reality of their faith. Katongole raises this reality up like a mirror to the West. He asks us to consider what stories in the West have a deeper grip on us? Where in our experience, he asks, does the blood of tribalism run deeper than the waters of baptism? If you think of tribalism not in its common association, but in almost a metaphorical sense, you begin to see how profound his question is.

It was also a great pleasure to meet Andy Crouch. His encouragement concerning my book meant so much to me. He shared in front of the convention crowd that the book brought him to tears as he read it in Starbucks. And he shared with me privately how much he appreciated the artistry of the book. That was rich encouragement to someone who has labored long and hard in the crafting of this book. If you haven’t read, Andy’s Culture Making it is an absolute must-read. It recently won top honors in Christianity Today’s 2009 book awards, along with another book by Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice called Reconciling All Things.

Speaking of encouragement, my interview the week before last with New Testament professor Reggie Kidd over at Common Grounds Online certainly buoyed my spirits. Here’s just a snippet from that interview. Reggie Kidd writes, “When I pick up an ‘issues’ book, I don’t have high literary expectations for it. Because I know you and your love for words I wasn’t terribly surprised, but I was nonetheless delighted, at the lyrical hand you brought to this work. Page after page of my copy is marked with phrases I simply wanted to hold onto ...” You can read the rest of the interview here.

Earlier that week Tim McConnell also reviewed As We Forgive. He writes: “What struck me in reading was the fundamental truth that forgiveness is unnatural; forgiveness cannot naturally follow what these victims endured.  It is not natural for a girl who has been mauled, raped, and left for dead to grow to offer forgiveness to her terrorizers.  It is not natural for a boy who watched his father and family killed by neighbors he knew to turn to them with grace and favor.  Forgiveness is an intervention.  It is some sort of divine intervention that must enter from another plane of existence.” You can read the rest of this review here.

Interview with Washington Post's Loudoun Extra

February 04, 2009
By Catherine Larson

Here's an interview that ran yesterday in the Washington Post's Loudoun Extra about my journey to write As We Forgive.

Up Close: Catherine Larson

By Charity Corkey (Contact)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

In 2007, Ashburn resident Catherine Larson flew to Rwanda to interview survivors and perpetrators of the country's 1994 genocide. Inspired and intrigued by her friend Laura Watson's film documentary on the Rwandan's acts of forgiveness, Larson chose to explore several accounts more deeply.

The stories she heard are compiled in her book As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda, which was released early February.

In this e-mail interview, Larson, a writer for Prison Fellowship, talks about Devota - a woman who lost both children in the genocide - and the story of brave students in Nyange.

Q: Please tell us how you became interested in writing your book on Rwanda.

Continue reading "Interview with Washington Post's Loudoun Extra" »

Excerpt from As We Forgive

February 02, 2009
By Catherine Larson


Secrets of the Umuvumu's Scars

The gash across the face of Emmanuel Mahuro, a seventeen year-old Rwandan native, is no longer an open wound. Today, like a jagged boundary line on a map, a scar juts down the plateau of his forehead, across the bridge of his nose, and up the slope of his right cheek. It is impossible to look into Emmanuel’s eyes without seeing this deep cut, a mark of division etched across his face — and the face of Rwanda — fifteen years after the genocide.

My first reaction to such scars is to avert my eyes. But to look away from Emmanuel’s scars is to look away from him. Strangely, as my eyes adjust to Emmanuel’s face, there is an impulse, not to recoil, but to follow the line of the scar across his skin. Emmanuel’s scar testifies to two realities. It is a witness to the human capacity for evil. To look at it is to hear it scream the brutality of an April that aches in the memory of an entire people. Yet his scar testifies to another truth: the stunning capacity of humans to heal from the unthinkable. To trace that scar is to discover the hope of a people who, despite losing everything, are finding a way to forge a common future for Rwanda.

Rwanda’s wounds, like Emmanuel’s, are agonizingly deep. Today, they are being opened afresh as tens of thousands of killers are released from prison to return to the hills where they hunted down and killed former neighbors, friends, and classmates. In the everyday business of life — purchasing corrugated metal for roofing, burying bananas in the ground to make urwagwa, and hauling harvested sorghum to the market — survivors commonly meet the eyes of people who shattered their former lives. How can they live together? This is not a philosophical question, but a practical one that confronts Rwandans daily.

Continue reading "Excerpt from As We Forgive" »

As We Forgive Released Today!

February 01, 2009
By Catherine Larson

Today is the official release date of the book! It's a joy and relief to finally be to this point. In the next few days, I'll be posting some excerpts from the introduction and first chapter. But for tonight, I just want to say thanks to all the people who have helped make this book a reality; my family, friends, colleagues, church community, and the community at large. I also want to thank the people who had both the courage and the hope to share their stories with me. Their hope has given me hope. Their faith has challenged and stretched my faith.

If you're looking for the book, you can find it on Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Nobles, Books-A-Million, and several more. Once you've read it, I'd love to hear from you here on the blog at www.asweforgivebook.com. And I'd love for you to post a review on Amazon! Thanks so much.