Where is God when atrocities occur?

Adam Harbinson
Adam Harbinson

I watched the film Shooting Dogs recently, for the third time I think. It is set in Kigali, capital of Rwanda, and tells of the experiences of a priest and a schoolteacher during the holocaust there in 1994.

It’s said that close to a million people were slaughtered in 100 days while the international community argued about whether or not it was ‘genocide’.

My mind went back to my first trip to Uganda in 1998. Their war had just ended and as we strolled through the lush, green bush we’d occasionally stumble over decomposing bodies in the undergrowth.

I wrote a column once about a little boy whom I met there called Freddie, who was the sole survivor of an entire village. He had fallen into a mass grave and was buried beneath the bodies of his friends and family who were shot and butchered. I struggled to comprehend his loss. The little six-year-old had nothing and no one, and yet he smiled: all the time, he smiled.

Perhaps another reason why such films have such an impact on me is that Sarah, my oldest daughter, lives part of the year in Rwanda, and the thought does cross my mind that she could be in danger at times, although she assures me that Rwanda is stable these days.

Actor John Hurt, who plays the part of the priest, Father Christopher in the movie, was interviewed on Breakfast TV and he said he was deeply moved while on location.

I can understand that. Most folk I have met on my trips to a couple of African countries are so gentle, they rarely complain.

There was one occasion when I was travelling from Kampala to Kiwoko in the back of my friend Dr Ian Clarke’s little jeep. He kept stopping to give lifts to people and I think we ended up with 12 of us packed together. I noticed that the Ugandan nurse beside me sort of winced each time we hit a bigger-than-usual pothole, and the reason was that I was sitting on a three-legged stool and one of the legs was on her foot. Yet she didn’t complain.

I watched again Fr Christopher saying goodbye to the UN troops as they obeyed their pathetic mandate. On board one of the vehicles was the schoolteacher, but the priest refused to leave, even though he had received orders from the Vatican to get out. And here’s what he said to the young schoolteacher: ‘Where is God in all this? He’s here, suffering with these people. I can feel his love in this place like I never have before. And I fear that if I leave, I will never find it again.’

We’re observing murder and mayhem almost on a daily basis: a bus crash in Coventry that kills a woman aged 70 and an eight-year-old boy; another mass shooting in Oregon; and the seeming endless nightmare in Syria. And there will be more, for thus it has always been in this sad old world, but rather than adopt the myopic attitude of Stephen Fry, who denounces God as ‘utterly evil, capricious and monstrous’, let’s emulate Fr Christopher, otherwise we will see God behind every atrocity that blights the lives of the weak and the vulnerable. King David was right when he said: ‘The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love.’