Christ’s Suffering and Sacrifice: A Basis for the Ministry of Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors.” – 2 Corinthians 5:17-20

Rwanda and Congo Suffering: Difficult Contexts for Forgiveness
Rwanda is my native country. In 1994, between April and July, about one million innocent Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred while the world watched in silence. My fellow countrymen and women, friends, colleagues, relatives, and fellow Christians suffered physical, mental, and spiritual atrocities at the hands of ruthless militia, soldiers, rebels, neighbors, and sometimes at the hands of fellow church members.

In the pursuit of vindictive justice, more innocent women, children, and elderly people were massacred by both Tutsi army and Hutu rebels. Unfortunately, this tribal and ethnic violence that started in Rwanda spilled over into the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where many Congolese innocent people were killed by Tutsi army, Hutu rebels, Congolese army, and militia groups.

The international Rescue Committee’s survey found that 5.4 million people have died from war-related causes in Congo between 1998 and 2010 as a result of the spillover of the Rwanda conflict, which fueled inter-ethnic conflicts among Congolese communities.

In this senseless tribal violence, many church leaders, bishops, pastors, priests, nuns, monks, human rights activists, and humanitarian/relief workers have been massacred. Unfortunately, some Christian leaders, pastors, evangelists, nuns, and priests have been among victims and perpetrators.

The Christian community in Rwanda and Congo is
struggling to understand her call to the command
of forgiveness and to the ministry of reconciliation.

The Christian community in Rwanda and Congo is struggling to understand her call to the command of forgiveness and to the ministry of reconciliation in the context where hatred and revenge seem to make more sense than compassion, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

Christ’s Suffering, Sacrifice, and the Ministry of Forgiveness and Reconciliation
The significance of the sacrifice of Christ on behalf of the sinner is much appreciated in the context where Christians have been victims of brutality and atrocities in the hands of neighbors and sometimes fellow believers. Christians in these contexts struggle with the mystery of the relationships between sacrifice, justice, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness.

To these believers, the understanding that the price for redemption, forgiveness, and reconciliation is paid for by the offended holy God causes them to realize how much God values the gift of forgiveness.

Paul’s words to the Christian community in Corinth that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19) are not only a reminder of the relationship between justice and forgiveness, but also of the relationship between forgiveness and reconciliation.

The justice and holiness of God are satisfied by the punishment of the sin of humanity on Christ. Through Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection, the penalty of sin is paid for and men and women are reconciled to God. We are no longer guilty of our sins because “God made him who had no sin to be sin for the sinner so that in Christ all sinners might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

For Paul, Christians are made new creations through Christ’s sacrifice, which makes forgiveness and reconciliation possible. In other words, reconciliation happens where forgiveness has taken place. Then to the reconciled person, God gives the responsibility to be an agent and ambassador of forgiveness and reconciliation.

The idea that a holy God will pay the cost of forgiveness and reconciliation for a sinful, disobedient, arrogant sinner is humbling to say the least. For Christians, such mercy, grace, and unmerited gifts of God become a basis for the personal and public ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation. The appreciation of what God has done and the cost he has paid for our forgiveness and reconciliation compels us to imitate him by becoming agents of forgiveness even in its imperfect demonstration.

It is this God of forgiveness who calls Christians to be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave them (Ephesians 4:31).

Forgiveness and Reconciliation Bring Hope and Healing to Communities
Forgiveness and reconciliation that inspire hope in divided and fragmented communities is inspired and empowered by the suffering and sacrifice of Christ. Christ is a perfect sufferer whose sacrifice pays the cost of forgiveness of men and women and their reconciliation with God.

God is the perfect forgiver who not only gives his Son as a payment for the forgiveness of humanity, but who also commands us to grant the same gift to each other. This gift is granted to us and we receive it, so that in turn we might grant it to each other for the healing of stained relationships (Colossians 3:13).

“There is no future without forgiveness,” writes Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Forgiveness brings hope and healing to communities that are willing to forgo the natural inclination of revenge and punitive justice after suffering unjustly. The healing power of forgiveness in our personal lives inspires us to work for forgiveness and reconciliation. Granting and receiving forgiveness are mutually reciprocating practices that lead to transformation and healing of brokenness in individual, family, and communal lives.

The realization that God’s gift of forgiveness brings restoration, hope, healing, and reconciliation with God obliges us to become instruments of forgiveness, even in situations of hopelessness. It is the appreciation of this gift that makes it possible for us as human beings to want to grant the same gift to the undeserving perpetrators.

Paul reminds those of us whose self-righteousness has rendered us unforgiving and judgmental that “when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly” and that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8). In the cultural and political contexts where vengeance, tribal/racial hatred, resentment, and punitive justice “makes sense,” Christians who have tasted and understood that it is the forgiver who pays the price for forgiveness can bring hope, healing, and transformation into their communities.

My Personal Journey
Even though I had started the ministry of forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation immediately after the genocide in my country in the fall of 1994, it was three years later when my personal journey of forgiveness began. In December 1997, my village and the church I had pastored in Rwanda for four years were attacked. More than seventy people were murdered on that fateful day. Among them were members of my congregation, family, friends, and neighbors.

I was at Dallas Theological Seminary in Texas when I received the news a week after the incident. In that dawn of 5 January 1998, I suddenly became angry with God and started questioning where he was when my family was being butchered. Why didn’t he protect them? Who did it? And so forth.

Suddenly my heart was filled with hatred, bitterness, and vengeance. It was during this unguarded moment that God confronted me with the reality of the ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation to which he had called me.

Then I was confronted with a different challenge. Instead of giving an answer to my anguish, the Lord rebuked me that it was time for me to practice what I preached by forgiving those who had killed my relatives and friends. God was challenging me to make a choice: “Either you forgive and let me take care of the rest, or you fail to forgive and live a life without freedom, joy, and peace.” On that morning I learned firsthand about the cost of forgiveness.

A year after my village massacre, I travelled to Kampala, Uganda, where I had been invited to train pastors from Rwanda, Tanzania, Congo, and Uganda. During the training, I discovered that some relatives of the people who murdered my family are sitting in my classes. I knew that the theory of forgiveness and reconciliation must become the practice of forgiveness.

Realizing these people are my brothers through the blood of Christ, I asked the Lord to grant me strength to not only forgive them, but also to ask their forgiveness for the intense hatred I had carried toward their families.

That day, as we confessed and forgave each other, the Lord started speaking to the crowd of pastors and church leaders. We soon discovered that they too had been silently suffering from bitterness, hatred, and a spirit of unforgiveness toward neighbors who had killed family members and destroyed family property. That day, we all learned how to truly forgive each other. We learned that although the cost of forgiveness is great and its practice difficult, Christ has provided us the tools, model, and power to forgive.

For the last sixteen years, my colleagues and I continue to serve with ALARM (African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries, Inc.), a ministry I started as a result of the genocide in my home country. Because we have been transformed by the resurrection power of Christ, we have been involved in inspiring healing, tribal reconciliation, and leadership empowerment to both religious and community leaders in Burundi, Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia.

Through our own journey of forgiving those who brutally murdered our family, friends, and neighbors, we have had the courage to preach and teach forgiveness between former enemies. We have stood in the middle of men and women who committed atrocities and genocides and told them that a community without forgiveness has no future.

We have stood in the middle of militia, rebels, freedom fighters, community leaders, and politicians and given them new directions on how to bring hope in their communities. We continue to instruct pastors and church leaders on the meaning of the cross for our personal salvation and for the reconciliation of our communities. We are witnessing results because our ministry is anchored in the suffering, sacrifice, death, and resurrection of Christ through whom all humanity receives redemption and the forgiveness of our sins.

In forgiveness, we give up our rights to exact justice, but we do not give up justice. When Christians understand how their forgiveness was made possible by the suffering and sacrifice of Christ, their ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation become a lifestyle, not a job or a career. They understand why they are peacemakers, ambassadors of Christ, and agents of healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation in a hurting world.

Rev. Dr. Celestin Musekura, a Rwandan and ordained Baptist minister, is the president and founder of African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries, Inc (ALARM, Inc). He trains leaders and is involved in tribal and political forgiveness and reconciliation in East and Central Africa.