Dr. Joseph Sebarenzi: The importance of forgiveness in troubled times

Maddie Liotta, Senior Writer

Rwandan government official Dr. Joseph Sebarenzi gave a lecture on Jan. 18 concerning his personal experience with the 1994 Rwandan genocide as a part of the University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Week. Years before the genocide occurred, Belgium took over Rwanda and split apart the two main religious groups: the Hutus and Tutsis. The genocide was sparked by the death of President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, whose plane was shot down. The genocide lasted less than three months, but roughly 800,000 people were killed in that time. Sebarenzi was residing in Canada at the time with one of his brothers. He lost both parents, seven siblings, and many other of his Hutu relatives to the mass genocide.

Sebarenzi spoke about his experiences after the genocide, saying that initially he was “very angry.” Regardless of his anger, Sebarenzi chose to practice the art of forgiveness.

“Getting even is a weakness … forgiveness is the attribute of the strong,” Sebarenzi said.

Instead of retaliating, he chose to forgive those that personally wronged his people. This choice is even more vital considering how he rose to a position of power. As the former president of the Parliament of Rwanda, Sebarenzi could have exacted some type of retribution against the Hutus, but instead he spoke against revenge—something that, in his opinion, only propagates more violence.

“The wrong other people do should not change our good behavior … that is what forgiveness is,” Sebarenzi said.

Perhaps the greatest representation of his refusal to engage in violence and his desire to perpetuate forgiveness was when Sebarenzi visited a prison and saw a Hutu man there. He was starving and impoverished. Sebarenzi chose to help him by giving him some money instead of leaving him behind. Sebarenzi has likely had many opportunities to get revenge for the thousands of lives lost, but instead he assisted a former enemy in need.

Sebarenzi closed his lecture by reiterating the importance of forgiveness, a fitting theme for Martin Luther King Jr. Week. Sebarenzi described that, even though he saw fear in the eyes of those that escaped, he remained faithful in his belief that forgiveness is right.

Ultimately, the past is what has happened, and nothing can be done to alter it; however, the future can be impacted in a positive way through the manner in which a person or group of people reacts. Although it is sometimes easier to retaliate, is it more beneficial in the long run to create peace through forgiveness?

“Forgiveness is a gift to self, a gift to those around you, and a gift to peace in the world,” Sebarenzi said.

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