Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Hotel Rwanda's Paul Rusesabagina: not just an "ordinary man"

As I work on my chapter on Christ's descent into Hell for my book on the Crucifixion, I am reading books about evil. I have just finished one that I highly recommend in a very particular way.

When I was in St. Louis for Holy Week, Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager whose story was told in the movie Hotel Rwanda, came through on a tour for his new book, An Ordinary Man. More than a thousand people overwhelmed the public library facilities where he spoke. I was fortunate to be able to attend and to obtain an autographed copy of the book, which narrates the story of the Rwandan genocide in Paul Rusesabagina's own voice.

I plan to post my reflections in several different installments, but from the very first I would like to say that of all the many books I have read about the Rwandan genocide, this one tells it in the clearest, most direct, most accessible way. Mr. Rusesabagina has a unique voice. His reflections are simple on the surface and easy to grasp, but his wisdom runs deep. I believe that this book should be made required reading for the upper grades of high school. The young readers will be gripped in spite of themselves by the story, which is easy to follow, but most important, they will be challenged by his analysis of group-think and his simple appeal to say no when all those around you are going insane. Since that is what he himself did over and over and over for three months at the daily risk of his life, his little book has the weight of unassailable authority.

His title, An Ordinary Man, was carefully chosen, yet it is deceptive. He wants to emphasize his ordinariness. "I am just a hotel manager," he keeps saying. He wants us to understand that ordinary people can make a difference. He is appealing to his readers to stand up and resist evil as he did. At the end of the book he lists others, not well-known, who also saved lives. In the final analysis, however, the numbers of people who did not resist and who actively participated in the killings numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

The fact is that Paul Rusesabagina is not an ordinary man. There were influences in his life that made him wiser, stronger, more honest, more perceptive, more courageous than most people. I plan to write about these influences later, but right away the primary one should be identified and that is Paul Rusesabagina's father. He had had no schooling, but his moral fiber made him the most respected man in their village, and he taught his values to his son. "My father was my hero," writes Paul.

As Mothers' Day approaches, a widely sentimentalized commercial holiday, we need to lift up the role of the father in our own culture where fathers (if they are present at all) are noticeable largely for cheering on their sons unreservedly in one of the most primitive forms of group-think: the athletic team. Paul Rusesabagina's father would have found this inconceivable. The point for him was to do your best and to excel, yes, but always with utmost respect for all participants whether on your team or not, and never to betray your best self by participating in anything dishonorable. All through the genocide, Paul Rusesabagina was thinking, "What would my father have me do?"

What were the Duke lacrosse team members thinking? Why have none of them come forward? Where are the fathers?