BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day, led by Dr Revd Sam Wells on 09/04/2019

Good morning. Twenty-five years ago this week a plane carrying the Rwandan president was shot down on its descent into Kigali. In the hundred days that followed, soldiers and militias slaughtered an estimated 800,000 people, constituting perhaps 70% of the Tutsi population, and including many Hutus who refused to participate in the genocide.

The scale and brutality of the massacres is almost beyond comprehension. There’ve been many heartsearchings over how human beings could undertake such systematic brutality, and how the former colonial powers stood by and let it happen. But the question for the Rwandan people, and for all of us, during this week of collective mourning, is, what can we learn?

I believe we can distinguish between four dimensions of disorder. The first is sin. Sin is turning your heart away from the permanent and joyful and setting it on the passing and shameful. There’s something inexplicable about why we make such poor choices; but we all do it.

The second dimension is evil. To say ‘evil’ is not just to say ‘sin’ with a loud voice: it is, I believe, to recognise that that when you sin, you usually know you’re doing wrong – but when you’re engaged in evil, you’ve persuaded yourself that what you’re doing is right and noble. That’s what happened in Rwanda.

But disorder has two further dimensions. Collusion refers to passive participation in disorder. For the triumph of evil it’s only necessary that the good do nothing. Even those best placed to see the contrast between grace and disorder can persuade themselves there’s nothing they can do.

The last dimension I call poverty of imagination. This refers to the clumsy ways within communities in which insecurity can become envy, fear can become cruelty, and powerlessness can become despair. It happens all the time.

It’s possible to see all four dimensions at work in most forms of social breakdown. In Rwanda, 12,000 courts judged a million people accused of two million crimes. How can you judge evil, let alone forgive it? You can surely only judge crime and only forgive sin. This requires the meticulous work of breaking down genocide into literally millions of particular acts of wrongdoing. That’s justice. And justice is a crucial part of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Which is what, finally, we could learn from this ghastly legacy: attention to detail, and vigilance as sin escalates into evil, are the most practical ways we might work to prevent genocide today – and every day.