The film ‘Hotel Rwanda’ is a simple yet powerful retelling of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, when over one million Tutsis were slaughtered by Hutus in less than one hundred days, all while the Western World looked on. The film is a story of one man’s courage and ingenuity in the midst of it all, resulting in the saving of over 1000 lives. A simple yet poignant line from the movie echoes an enduring truth. The American commander of UN forces tells the Hutu hotel manager in apologetic tones, explaining the lack of response from the West: “You are less than a nigger. You are African, and no-one cares.” It is an enduring truth, echoed in our indifference to the problems of AIDS, of hunger, and of lack of educational opportunities in this vast continent.
The line has a haunting echo in the story behind the making of the film itself. Despite the movie now receiving Academy Award nominations, Hollywood was not interested in assisting the production of the movie. All the major actors were black, its focus was on Africa, and genocide was enough to ensure that no-one in Hollywood would support it. Instead funds were found from places where the story’s reality was close to home.
The truth is that we all turn a deaf ear to certain people and their stories. It is much easier for us to cope without knowing than to deal with the realities. There is an element of survival and sanity which drives this: many of these problems are beyond our solving, outside our sphere of influence. Our capacity for compassion and empathy is limited, such that we cannot hope to be fully aware of every aspect of injustice and inhumanity. Yet where is the line drawn?
When Jesus wept over Jerusalem, I wonder whether the tears were born of that overwhelming sense of agony and futility which comes from knowing? Jesus was acutely aware of the problems of Israel, and within Israel, yet did not deal with every single case. But his compassion did not diminish, nor was his heart hardened.
The challenge to be human in such an age as ours is heightened by the level of knowing which is available to us. How can we retain our sense of compassion in the midst of such brokenness without being overwhelmed by it?
I suspect part of the answer lies in our willingness to remain close to the heart of God.
February 27, 2005