Rwanda Before the Genocide

Catholic Politics and Ethnic Discourse in the Late Colonial Era

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J.J. Carney
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     360 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Rwanda Before the Genocide: Catholic Politics and Ethnic Discourse in the Late Colonial Era, J. J. Carney aims to complicate traditional narratives surrounding Catholic involvement in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. He focuses on the Catholic Church in the 1950s and early 1960s, exploring an often-overlooked decade in Rwandan history. While many scholars have focused on the violence of 1994, others have foregrounded the the advent of missionary involvement in Rwanda in the early 19th century. Carney aims to complicate narratives that only tell of church leaders shifting their support from Tutsis to Hutu elites instead of the church’s diverging paths on engagement with ethnic discourse. Carney situates his work amidst other scholars who have written on the role of Catholicism (and Christianity more broadly) in the violence in Rwanda’s history such as Mahmood Mamdani (When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda) and Timothy Longman (Christianity and Genocide in Rwanda), albeit crafting a more complex narrative of Rwanda’s late colonial era. Carney argues that both Mamdani and Longman recount late colonial histories as “top-down” narratives which fail to attend to how the “church from below” gained increased traction in the 1950s (3). 

Carney makes several contributions to scholarship on Rwanda. First, he focuses on the late colonial era, writing that “the political ideologies, rhetorical dynamics, and patterns of ethnic violence that would ultimately culminate with the 1994 genocide” were cemented in the decade just before colonialism ended (4). He argues that in order to most accurately assess the Catholic Church’s “controversial role in Rwandan history,” we must expand the scope to include the late colonial era, when Catholic bishops, priests, and laity were heavily influencing social conversations and political debates (4). Second, Carney investigates Catholic politics, examining how church leaders understood and shaped their relationship to the state, how the Catholic Church itself had its own internal politics to contend with, and finally, how Catholic leaders understood their ecclesial work intersecting with political discourse. By looking at Catholic politics, Carney strives to move Rwandan history beyond a sole focus on ethnicity to include the church’s thoughts on emerging democracy, social justice concerns, and anti-communist sentiment, while simultaneously expanding analysis of Hutu-Tutsi tensions to include Catholic responses. Lastly, in what is perhaps the most intriguing part of his book, Carney explores five “lessons” drawn from his research. Reflecting on Rwanda’s history, he writes of the need for repentance among church leadership, to maintain a strict separation from state leaders (potentially the most controversial of his lessons), to emphasize nonviolent teachings, to focus on unity instead of division, and to understand the complexities of how theological and religious teachings are applied in exceedingly difficult situations.

Rwanda Before the Genocide begins with a historical overview of the political divide between Hutus and the Tutsis that has also included “racial, ethnic, economic, occupational, and social connotations,” giving a helpful background to readers who may be less familiar with Rwanda’s history (5). In chapter 2, Carney moves to contextualize the late colonial period by delineating a long history of missionary work in Rwanda and the surrounding region from the late 19th century through the 1950s. Chapter 3 examines the after-effects of World War II in Rwanda as well as the abolishment of long-held social and economic institutions of ubuhake (“patron-client relationships revolving around cattle usage”) and uburetwa (“forced labor imposed on Hutu peasants”) (6). Carney then focuses on the tensions between two Catholic leaders—André Perraudin, a Swiss White Father who controversially used Catholic ideals of social justice to support a Hutu government, and Aloys Bigirumwami, a Rwandan prelate who broadly opposed ethnic divisions and, specifically, the church’s involvement in such partisan politics. In chapter 5, Carney analyzes the Hutu uprisings of 1959 in which hundreds died and thousands of Tutsis were forced out of Rwanda and which eventually created a Hutu-led government in 1962. The book ends in the postcolonial era, chronicling Catholic reactions to violence against Tutsis in the years 1963-4, 1973, and 1994.

Carney looks to the past to explore how seemingly mundane and innocuous choices can influence and even inspire violence years later. Specifically, he shows how rhetorical unity around supporting social justice and democracy becomes meaningless when its application is deeply divided: should the church be a place beyond politics or is it the church’s moral and theological responsibility to side with marginalized groups? While Carney’s arguments are compelling, there is a rather glaring lack of attention to women and gender dynamics in his work. While Catholic leadership is notoriously patriarchal, one wonders, for example, where Catholic nuns in Rwanda fit into this story and how they too contributed to ethnic discourse, particularly in parochial schools where they were educating the next generation of Rwandans. Furthermore, while Carney aims to examine the church from below, he still focuses largely on those in leadership. 

Overall, Rwanda Before the Genocide provides deep insight into aspects of how the Catholic church wrestled with its own identity amidst a shifting political landscape. Carney does an excellent job situating the late colonial period within Rwanda’s broader history and explaining the complexities of the ethnic discourse in Rwanda. After the Epilogue, he helpfully includes two appendices, the first a timeline of Rwandan history from the 1880s to the 2000s and the second a list of key terms and people mentioned throughout the work. Carney provides an exemplary model of exploring research gaps and showing how seemingly mundane discursive turns can be enormously consequential, making it an important book for scholars of Rwanda, African historians, and church theologians. Carney aims to answer the question: how could “such a devout country … fall into the depths of human barbarity” (ix)? His theological reflection sets this book apart from other historical scholarship and his recommendations for Catholic practice provide some of the practical payoff that is often asked of scholars who study this East African country: what can we learn from Rwanda?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Becca Henriksen is a doctoral student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Date of Review: 
January 11, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

J.J. Carney is Assistant Professor of Theology at Creighton University. His research and teaching interests engage the theological and historical dimensions of the Catholic experience in modern Africa. He has published articles in African Ecclesial ReviewModern TheologyJournal of Religion in Africa, and Studies in World Christianity.


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