When you see someone’s scars, do you look away?

Jesus whipped

How does one live through genocide? How does one live with family?

For Clemantine Wamariya, survivor of the Rwandan genocide, these two questions go hand in hand. She was born in Rwanda 27 years ago. Her childhood was lived in refugee camps over eight African nations. She and her older sister were separated from their parents for a dozen years, reunited on an Oprah show.

But Clemantine never reconciled with her parents who flew back to Africa after the television episode. She had been, in her words, “replaced” by other siblings, new to the family. Her father remained distant and disconnected. David Brooks, a New York Times columnist recounting Clemantine’s story, wrote

While the genocide was horrific, the constant mystery of life is how loved ones get along with one another. We work hard to cram our lives into legible narratives. But we live in the fog of reality. Whether you have survived a trauma or not, the psyche is still a dark forest of scars and tender spots. Each relationship is intricacy piled upon intricacy, fertile ground for misunderstanding and mistreatment.[1]

Now imagine the connection between Clemantine’s experience and the lives of exiled Israelites in Jeremiah. How does one live through the trauma of displacement, danger, and dread in a place not one’s own? How does one live being physically, emotionally, spiritually separated from family (Jer 12.5-6)? We sometimes forget that suffering leaves, as Brooks says, “a dark forest of scars.”

For the believer, suffering is not always something seen or physically experienced; sometimes our suffering is the disfigurement—the ‘scars’—of rejection, mistrust, abandonment, or resentment. But however we are treated in this world, Jeremiah reminds us that our trust is not dependent on those who leave but on He who never leaves. The person who trusts in the Lord “is like a tree planted by rivers of water”—a place of sustenance, rootedness. The fruit of such a life of trust is ever-bearing, “not anxious in drought” (Jer 17.7-8).

Personally, I cannot fathom Clemantine’s experience. I could never trace my finger across the scar-filled terrain of her life. Clemantine’s childhood rehearses little of what comfortable Americans live; her stories of harrowing escapes, anxious days, empty stomachs, and lonely nights set her suffering apart from others.

What is Clemantine’s recourse now? How does she look back on her life to understand searing loss and unrelenting pain? Read the end of Clementine’s full story for yourself:

When people ask me what to do to ease human suffering, I don’t have a big answer. I just say, “Look, you have this one life. If you keep being selfish and unkind, it’s going to come back to you. Ask yourself why you’re scared, why you hate.”

Almost every January, Claire (Clemantine’s co-refugee sister) flies back to Rwanda. She buys rice, beef, and potatoes, to throw a big New Year’s party for orphans. Then she puts on a fabulous dress, borrows my aunt’s most expensive bag, and makes me or my uncle, whomever is nearby, take hundreds of pictures of her. Back home, looking at the images, Claire’s daughter always asks, incredulous, “How could you possibly do that?”

Claire just shakes her head and laughs. “What do you want me to do? Cry?”

C.S. Lewis says that “God shouts to us through our pain.”

What will we do when He gets our attention?

Like many others, Mark can lift his shirt and show you the metaphorical scars of life. But he would rather spend his strength helping others with their pain. Dr. Mark Eckel will be teaching a 13 week series on “suffering” this fall at Crossroads Community Church. 

[1] David Brooks, “The Courage of Small Things,” The New York Times 7 July 2015, A19.

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