Célestin Musekura on Forgiving as We Have Been Forgiven
In this episode, Célestin Musekura talks about the humanizing and justice-focused work of forgiveness, for individuals, communities and Christian worship.
Welcome to Public Worship and the Christian Life, a podcast by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. In this series of conversations hosted by Calvin Institute of Christian Worship staff members, we invite you to explore connections between the public worship practices of congregations and the dynamics of Christian life and witness in a variety of cultural contexts, including places of work, education, community development, artistic and media engagement, and more. Our conversation partners represent many areas of expertise and a range of Christian traditions offering insights to challenge us as we discern the shape of faithful worship and witness in our own communities. We pray this podcast will nurture curiosity and provide indispensable countercultural wisdom for our life together in Christ.
In this episode, Célestin Musekura talks with Satrina Reid about the humanizing and justice-focused work of forgiveness for individuals, communities, and Christian worship.
Hello, my name is Satrina Reid, and I'm a program manager at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. And today I have with me Celestin Musekura. Hi, Célestin.
Hi, Satrina, how are you?
I'm fine; how are you doing?
I'm doing well, thank you.
Célestin holds a theological studies degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, and also he's done studies in conflict resolution, mediation, and reconciliation at the Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Célestin is president and founder of African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries, better known as ALARM, which is a ministry with African national staff training churches and community leaders across East and Central Africa in the areas of leadership, conflict resolution, forgiveness, and tribal reconciliation. He also spent six years pastoring in Rwanda and serving in administration with the Association of Baptist Churches in Rwanda. He cofounded the Sudan Evangelical Alliance , which helps persecuted churches in [South] Sudan unite in their suffering and outreach to their nation. He is the author of An Assessment of Contemporary Models of Forgiveness and he is also the coauthor with L. Gregory Jones, who is the dean of Duke Divinity School, of the book we'll be discussing today, Forgiving As We've Been Forgiven: Community Practices for Making Peace.
We're so glad to have you here with us talking about this very important topic. I think as we look around the world today, we can see so much brokenness and trauma and division, and even though this book was published about ten years ago, I believe, it seems like a timely discussion for us to be having in 2020. So I'm excited to hear what you have to say today. One of the things that jumped out at me at the introduction of the book, the "Before We Get Started" chapter, was that we often hear the call to forgive, but this call to forgive is different from knowing how to practice forgiveness. And I had not thought of forgiveness as a practice. And so I'm very excited to hear what you have to say. Can you tell us a little bit, or tell us the story behind the book and how it came about and why you wrote it?
Thank you, Satrina. It is a privilege for me to spend this time with you talking about this book Forgiving As We've Been Forgiven. The history behind this book is the creation of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School. And so Duke University, the Divinity School, started a program, which . . . was working during the summer to train leaders who would come for a week to do more reflection on forgiveness, especially on racial reconciliation and peacebuilding, and Duke Divinity School began to think about a center that would focus on reconciliation especially in the US, but also a center that would engage, would interact with other practitioners outside the US who are involved in reconciliation.
And so after the Center for Reconciliation was started at Duke Divinity School, they began to work on different resources, to provide resources to the pastors, to Christian leaders, to practitioners, or to the men and women who are in the ministries, but have not had time to sit and reflect on issues that had led to peace, reconciliation, tribal reconciliation, racial relations, and forgiveness. And so when they began to pool resources together, one of the approaches was to get the theologians and the practitioners together--two individuals, a pair of, one, a theologian, another, a practitioner, to cowrite a book. . . . And so I happened to be both a theologian and a practitioner mainly focusing on tribal forgiveness and reconciliation based on the unfortunate situation of my home country of Rwanda, the genocide. And because I had been a part of the Lausanne Movement.
Chris Rice, who was the codirector of the Duke Divinity School's Center for Reconciliation, and I had been appointed by Lausanne Group to lead, or to colead, what was called an "issue group" on racial and tribal reconciliation, which made a presentation in Thailand in 2004. So before the 2004 presentation of racial and tribal reconciliation to the whole evangelical world, evangelicals who come from all over the world to a conference in Thailand. Many meetings were held at Duke Divinity School. Some meetings were held in Africa, in Rwanda. And so [the] Duke community, Duke University, the Divinity School, they had already known who I was and my work. When it came to the time to write this book, this specific book on forgiveness, they requested that I join Gregory Jones, the dean of Duke Divinity School, to coauthor this book. So this is how the book came to be--some of this for the Center for Reconciliation to be used by the leaders, pastors, lay leaders, preachers, not only in the US but also in other parts of the world
Yes. Thank you. This is a small book, but it packs a big punch, I think, because forgiveness is not as easy as sometimes we look or think that it should be or think that it is. And so from your work and your research, can you tell us a about your story and what you brought to, what you bring to this area from your research--a brief synopsis of what you tell us in the story or in the book?
Thank you, Satrina. My contribution to this book is not only theological education or my academic pursuit, but I brought for this book my personal experience as someone who was born in Rwanda, where I had to meet and forgive members of the family that murdered my family and members of my village. And so that's something that I brought to this book, but also having been involved in the ministry of reconciliation and tribal conservation in the Congo, in Burundi, in northern Uganda, in South Sudan, where members of community have been killing each other because of tribalism; . . . government had murdered communities in the [unintelligible] wrestling with forgiveness. I had been involved in the practical or the practice of forgiveness not only on an individual level, but also on a communal level, which is something that probably is stronger in other parts of the world than America, where people are so individualistic and don't think about the community. So I brought the communal forgiveness. Think about the communities that have forgiveness as part of a communal practice that can be enhanced by the community of believers to this discussion because of all of the theological reflection on what the Bible says about community, but also comes from experience and journey, from Rwanda, genocide in Rwanda, . . . Uganda. The killings in South Sudan, the genocide in all those areas where I have been, but also reflecting, not only with Christians, but also reflecting with Muslim and Christians who have been fighting and how they can even think about how to give up the "right to be right" so they can live in harmony, and how our leaders can think not of justice, but of restorative justice, which includes elements of forgiveness and humanizing the "others." So those are my contributions to this book.
Yes. I want to step back, and I want to acknowledge that for our listeners and for you that this book and this interview that we're having right now is not cheap. And I acknowledge that the book and this interview is being given to us as a gift that is probably inexpensive to us, but it comes at great cost to you, the cost of your own suffering and the trauma and the pain that your family had to endure in order for us to have this story and to have these models of forgiveness. And so I want to acknowledge that, and I'll also want to---please receive our lament with you, ongoing lament, our regrets, and our deep gratitude for you being here with us today. It's oftentimes the readers and the listeners, we receive blessing and healing and comfort and even instruction from books and music and art at the expense and at the pain of the giver of the gift. So I wanted to acknowledge that. . . . Thank you.
And also thinking about . . . the thing about the book that grabs me--like I said, it's a small book--but the community practices of making peace, and you talked about the communal aspect of forgiveness that we don't necessarily see here in the US, which is why I thought that this was a timely book and how we can learn so much from the global community. I wanted to ask what has been the response to the book and how do you hope that people within the church and outside of the church will engage with this book.
Thank you. There is a point to the book, as always. You have this is a challenging topic that by the name itself has been posing some challenges to people who first will think about forgiveness to be the last thing they want to discuss because of their pain, and so there are people who initially have said, "I don't think about forgiveness because of much pain." They can't even imagine this topic of forgiveness. So we have had people who have said, no, "I don't think it's ready for me to read this book. I'm not ready to forgive, I'm not ready to talk about this. I want justice first; I want revenge first," whatever--for some justice, maybe revenge. There are people who are saying, "I'm not ready in my heart." And I can understand because to forgive, you have to be ready to do so, because it is, as you say, it is not cheap. And when we do it when we're not ready, then it becomes cheap--cheap grace, cheap forgiveness. And you get people who say, "I have forgiven you; now I'm taking back the forgiveness," because they didn't think through it that once you forgive, you cannot take it away. You cannot take it back.
But the majority of the people actually have responded positively even to the point where we have had--I have had, I know that Greg Jones has also had--some people quoting and talk about it, asking questions, individuals who have discussed this in their Sunday school class. As you have seen, the chapters have at the end, they have questions for reflection. And so we have had people or Sunday school classes who have discussed it. And then they have called me to come to preach on the same topic on a Sunday. We have had some people call us after they have read the book. They have organized a weekend, Saturday afternoon, or Sunday evening after the service, Wednesday afternoon--people have organized events where, kind of a town hall, where we will go and talk about forgiveness and answer questions from the audience.
We have had non-Christians, especially in Africa who have had access--most of them don't have access to it because of the cost, but those that have, we have given the books. They have passed them on and they have . . . like in Khartoum, I had to speak to the Muslim and Christians . . . in a peace studies institute in one of the universities on these issues. And I have had the same topic discussed among---about 98% of participants in Darfur were Muslim imams talk about forgiveness because it's not only just biblical principles, but because they are Muslims. The portion where Jesus teaches us how to forgive and how to reconcile, they don't have a problem with that. So . . . I can't even read Japanese, I have a copy translated in Japanese. This is a copy that I think the Baptist Association of Japan has translated this. And so I'm hoping that there will be more requests for translation in Arabic and French.
Individually we have had here in Dallas where I am, . . . two couples who I gave them the book. They were asking me questions. One was at the verge of divorce. I found that she had five divorces. After reading, after interacting, after asking me questions, she went to take back the papers from the lawyer and she canceled it. And it is five years now they are together. They were able to forgive one another. The other couple, they were able to call their relatives that they had problems with. And so they had to forgive them publicly.
We have also had a negative response from people who believe that forgiveness is against justice, but because they probably didn't understand. And so after we have had some discussion, they have somehow understood that truly forgiveness is part of justice, because you can't forgive someone that you have not judged. The fact that that forgiveness has become part of the UN, even the UN and the US government, they have recognized that you can't bring healing, you can't even talk about national reconciliation, if there are not elements of acknowledging, whether they call it forgiveness or pardon, for the healing of any nation. This topic of forgiveness must be included in the process. So we are seeing, again the forgiveness topic moving from the confinement of religious discourse to actually social and political discourse as an element that can bring healing to the communities that had been distorted by or destroyed by hatred and historical injustice.
That is so important. I hadn't even thought about the possibility of this having a negative effect, but then being able to talk about the connection between forgiveness and justice. That's so important. I wish we had more time to talk about that, but maybe another time.
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It's been about ten years since the book was published, but you continue to do the work. Through the work that you've been doing as a practitioner, even in the time that you served as a pastor, how has your thinking changed or evolved over time since the writing of the book, or has it changed?
Thank you. I have actually--my thinking has changed progressively, not negatively, because I began to see, as I discussed, this issue is both for the pastoral, for academic, and for political forgiveness. I have come to discover more nuances of forgiveness that I had not thought of because I have been so much in the pastoral, in theology, in the church, all the thinking has been too much inside the Christian confinement. But after I began to discuss this on the political, but also looking at it from the sociological and communal perspective, I have come to discover the powerful elements of forgiveness. If people would begin to actually think, to begin to live in the idea that forgiveness is a religious concept . . . and so I began go to villages and the communities, different tribes, to ask them what concept of forgiveness their forefathers had before religion. And I have been amazed how traditions have actually had their concept of forgiveness in that tradition, . . . before Christianity. And so that has been an angle I have used to talk to the community, whether they are Muslim or non-Christians or animists or even politicians and so forth. I have gone on to grow and expand some elements of forgiveness that I have discovered as I continue to interact with people, even outside the Christian communities.
Secondly, my growth has been more to think about forgiveness, even biblically, as a communal practice, because when I look at it, the Bible, where we are talking about forgiving one another, sometimes, most of the time, it's not for the sake of an individual; it's for the sake, the well-being of the community, the community of believers. And so I've come to see that our individualistic, Western mentality may have restrained forgiveness because we have made it an individual practice, or even something that you do when you want to. It isn't that; it is something that we do for the health of the Christian community. But if the Christian community is healthy, forgiving, then the wider community where they live, they will experience the grace of forgiveness, even toward those undeserving, of those outside Christianity. So communal forgiveness is going to resonate and continue to grow beyond our tradition.
That is so good and so rich. And oftentimes we think of forgiveness as this individual act that affects me and that other person and maybe a few others, but to look at it communally, as affecting the whole body, and then reaching out to beyond the body of Christ into the community and then receiving the grace, that is so good and rich. So with that said, in thinking about the body of Christ, we are the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. And so I have a question about worship. I'm interested to know how this book or the topic of forgiveness connects with worship practices in congregations, particularly as you pastored in places where there was tribalism, but you've also had an extended a period of time here in the US, so I'm wondering how you've seen the practices of forgiveness--and I'm interested also in communal forgiveness--how that impacts or connects with worship practices in the church.
It's a very interesting question and important question. I will say that we don't have to go far to see the importance of forgiveness to the parts of worship, because Jesus himself--in fact, maybe I've come to preach a sermon! I have a sermon I preach, "When Not to Pray and When Not to Worship." And it's based on the texts of Matthew 5:21-26 and Mark 11:24-25. In Matthew, Jesus is telling a story. He says, now, when you go to worship, when you go to give an offering, and there you remember that a brother has something against you. And in Mark, he says, you have something against your brother. So either way, he says, don't worship, don't give the offering.
And so for me, when we worship, we are offering. We are giving an offering to God. We are offering ourselves, presenting ourselves, to God. That's worship. And so the context of offering is not necessarily just the money, the tithe. It's when we worship in his presence, he says, if you have brokenness among you, go fix it before you come. So actually my title, the bottom line of both Mark's and Matthew's texts is reconciliation, which cannot happen when you don't forgive. You have to go to a brother, forgive them, reconcile, and come back. And so reconciliation according to the text is more important than worship, because if you have brokenness, if there's no reconciliation. Don't give an offering because I'm not going to accept your offering. Go back.
Because our brokenness . . . when our brokenness between our brothers and sisters, when you are not reconciled, when we still have ongoing bitterness or resentment against each other, we can't appear in the presence of God to worship him. We need to get this sorted out. And then we go into his presence with clean hands. Men are taught to raise their hands without blood. So how do we worship when we have brokenness among us, when we have not forgiven one another. How can we enter into the sanctuary to sing the song, to praise the Lord, to pray together, to dance, and to celebrate when there's enmity and hatred and resentment. And you can't even look in the face of the other fellow worshiper because of what they said last week. And so we mock ourselves, don't we, because God cannot be mocked. We mock ourselves when we go into worship without forgiveness.
So . . . when I preach this sermon, I begin by saying, I think what we're going to do today, we're going to dismiss everybody without the service, and you go to get things right, then come. We'll worship, you know? And so that should be every service, every time we meet--not only on Sunday, but when we brothers and sisters worship together, around the table, in your home, in my house, we need to look at: Am I having a problem between my brother and my sister? Do I have something against my brother? It's just like Peter, I think 1 Peter 3. .I may misquote. But he says, the husband, the wife, their prayers will not be answered if they have something between them. And so we know that our worship, our prayers, our adoration will not be acceptable when we have fights and animosity or hatred and resentment and anger in our hearts. That's why Jesus says, if you come to offer an offering, you go find your brother, fix it, then come to worship. Leave your offering. . . . Just leave it there. I don't need it because for Christ, forgiveness and reconciliation is more important than worship. That's my response.
And so our church, our community, every congregation, every committee, before they begin to worship the Lord, they need to begin with forgiveness, to offer and accept forgiveness for one another and maybe even vicariously, maybe on behalf of others. We priests, we pastors, as we lead worship, we need to make sure people have had time to forgive. Because again, . . . there's nothing to remember if it is the Holy Spirit who prompts our hearts.
And it's not just a natural remembrance. When you come to offer, when you come to worship and they say "I remember," I know that the Holy Spirit will prompt your heart, my heart, that something's wrong between me and my neighbor. And so it is not just me remembering, but the promise of the Holy Spirit that says, Célestin, Satrina, John, this is no time to worship because you still have anger, bitterness against your brother. So I can go back. I can go out, give them a call. Why can't I forgive in my heart? Because forgiveness doesn't require the other person to even know or even to confess. There I say, Lord, give me grace. I gave up the right to be right. I forgive them. So the Holy Spirit is prompting us when there is brokenness between us. And so when we gather for worship, we need to examine our hearts that we don't have hatred and unresolved conflict so that our worship will not be in that.
It sounds like you have another book in you. As we come to an end, I wonder if there are any opportunities or challenges--we've probably already talked about some of this with what you said--any opportunities or challenges that this topic and this book will present to worshiping communities, whether it be churches or wherever worshipers gather?
I think the opportunity is, as I mentioned, there are some who will use this book as a guide for a Bible study, for discussion group. And this can also be used by a house, a family, and there are more opportunity to also get some of these stories to relate to our own stories. Some may be too far, maybe others close, but the questions we have, they are day-to-day questions that we encounter every day. And so there are those opportunities.
The challenges we have. I will say that most people think that forgiveness and reconciliation are the same. And that makes a challenge because people don't want forgive because they see when they forgive, they are going to reconcile with the people who have hurt them. And so one of the challenges is not misunderstanding that you can forgive without necessarily reconciling, because sometimes you forgive people who are dead. And so you don't have to reconcile with them that day. And so people are afraid of engaging into sincere forgiveness because they are afraid that forgiveness means reconciliation. And therefore, because they don't want to come closer to their enemies, they give up the concept of forgiveness. So that's one of the challenges.
The other challenge is because people may fear that, no, what I did is so big, nobody can forgive it. And so they make their sin to be bigger that even they think God cannot forgive it. And then the other challenge is what we talked about, because we tend to be individualistic here, most of the people will not have the courage to go to meet the brother who they need to forgive or to ask forgiveness from because they are afraid of going alone. And so that's where, then, the community--two, three, four brothers--we accompany him, you know? And so to encourage him, to support him. That's why this practice is enhanced and developed and nurtured in the community and by the community. And so more people are afraid to go to ask for forgiveness or to go to get forgiven because they are afraid to walk alone. And so that's the challenge. Most of the people we have, "I can't face him. I can't face her." But if two, three people are going with . . . We'll go with you. We'll sit with you. You will talk, but we will be there to support you, to encourage you. If you have to cry, we'll give you a handkerchief or napkins or whatever, tissues, because that's a practice that is done in community.
So those are the challenges and opportunities that we have. But I think the opportunities are enormous because it is a command. That's an important opportunity because Jesus said, "Forgive." It is not a suggestion. It is a command. It is not when we feel it. No, it is a command. And so that opportunity we have; for Christians, we have no other way around it, whether people want it or not, whether people appreciate it or not, they don't have to accept it. Just as forgiveness is a gift, you can give a gift. People can leave the gift there, but you have given the gift. And so we have an opportunity to be Christ, to bring grace, to be gracious people and grateful people because of who Christ has made us to be. And that is an opportunity of opportunities.
Thank you so very much. Again, this is Forgiving As We've Been Forgiven: Community Practices for Making Peace, by L. Gregory Jones and my dear brother Célestin Musekura. So thank you so much for being here with us and hopefully everyone will delve into this act and practice of forgiveness.
Thank you. Thank you, Satrina, for inviting me, and I pray that the Lord will continue to bless your ministry, that we all will come to worship and be in forgiveness. Thank you.
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