How to Carry Heavy Stories
The first time I read about the Rwandan genocide, it was like walking into a dark theater in the middle of a horror movie when I thought I had bought tickets for a tidy historical documentary. I couldn’t look away. Stories of violence began to permeate my work, and questions about the extent of human brutality began to meet me in the middle of the night.
Genocide became the focal point of my graduate research, and I read story after story about the 800,000 people killed in Rwanda during the genocide of 1994. In my Master’s thesis, I explored the massive constructions of violence that lead individuals, communities, and nations to commit horrifying acts. The longer I gaze into the face of this suffering, the more my soul aches and the more I understand the depth of hope as it rises to greet the severity of genocide. I have come to learn that if my versions of love and hope cannot look violence and suffering in the face, then I have no business calling them by such names.
I spent months reading these gruesome stories from Rwanda, wondering how humans could commit such acts of terror against each other. The breaking point in my research when I learned that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in D.C. during the chaotic slaughtering in Rwanda. While we were telling the world “never again,” thousands of people massacred each other.
The biggest problem with violence is that there is no way to rid ourselves of it. Even in the simplest act of consuming food, violence to some form of life must take place. It creeps around the edges of life, reminding us of our finite nature. What I cannot shake, though, is that we often accept preventable, senseless violence—the kind motivated by human hatred—as inescapable. This should not be the conclusion of any story. The Gospel teaches us to initiate reconciliation by reclaiming hope, even in the most violent stories. And this hope-reclamation begins with listening.
I recently told someone that my research focuses on genocide and mass violence, and he jokingly replied, “Wow, you must be a lot of fun at parties.” Though I recognized the humor of his remark (and laughed uncomfortably), I’ve been thinking about what this statement reflects. It speaks to the reality that people don’t discuss suffering and evil in the world because we feel helpless in the face of complex questions. War and genocide don’t make for good dinner party conversation. Instead we seclude our attention to violence on the news: fleeting glimpses of terror unfolding somewhere far, far away. What can be done for the thousands of civilians living in war zones, or those who are executed for crimes they didn’t commit? What do we do with these stories? It’s tempting to disengage, and easy to believe we’ll never find possibilities for healing in the local and global cycle of violence.
But what if simply listening was the start to healing? I don’t want to reduce the complexity of responding to mass violence. Yet I believe the simple act of paying attention to violence can lead to responses of forgiveness, hope, and reconciliation within unjust systems. Author and activist Shane Claiborne advocates for this kind of simplicity to be woven into the fabrics of community, acknowledging that “simple” rarely means “easy.” Through my research—both personal and professional—I’ve found that the simple act of listening to violent stories—while never easy—kindles hope in my spirit for restoration.
In his book Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us, Claiborne suggests that how we respond to violence in the world should indicate that we understand God as always being on the side of life. This means that Christians should be the biggest advocates for grace, mercy, and life even in the context of the vilest evil. He writes, “At the heart of all this is a question: when we kill to show that killing is wrong, aren’t we reinforcing the very thing we want to rid the world of? The cure is as bad as the disease. Death closes the door to any possibility for redemption. Grace opens that door.” We cannot change the persistent nature of violence, but we can decide how to respond to its position in the world. Mercy and grace get the final say in the cycle. Whenever violence speaks, it keeps speaking. But when mercy speaks, it breaks the voices of violence and hatred.
I feel a responsibility in my research to listen to stories of mass violence and terror. Although the listening is not easy, it positions me to understand the power of hope and the possibilities for reconciliation.
During a quiet morning walk, I began an episode of the The Liturgists podcast and heard this claim: “Being a human being is a painful endeavor. Seeing and hearing stories other than our own can actually open the heart, and opening our hearts to the suffering of others can be painful. But it’s important.” I felt jolts of pain rush through me as I listened to the collective voice of millions of people living in desperate conditions. In their voices, I also heard the aching heart of our God inviting us into a love that knows how to reconcile the world. Though my peaceful morning was shattered, I understood that we are not meant to tightly hoard those treasures of tranquility. Sacrificial peace means surrendering the quiet of our daily lives to listen to stories of suffering, and it means allowing those stories to move us to imagine—to hope for—healing.
Grace broke the cycle of violence. The reckless grace we see in the cross teaches us that we can shoulder the most atrocious stories of injustice and still see love and mercy as options. The cross contains the most powerful response to systems of injustice and a world of suffering. Whenever our ears or hearts stop listening to stories of suffering and violence in the world, they simultaneously stop believing in the possibilities of hope and healing. We can listen to and share painful stories without despair, because the promise of restoration weaves itself through the fabric of the darkest stories we encounter.
Victoria Houser is a PhD student at Clemson University, where she researches the connections between language and mass violence. She grew up in Eagle River, Alaska—a place that taught her to seek the beauty and freedom of Christ in every season of life. As she pursues these areas of faith and education she has lived in Mozambique, New York, and Washington. Victoria also teaches First-Year Writing at Clemson and has spent two summers in China teaching English at a University in Suzhou. In addition to writing and teaching, she has found playing the piano, running, and drinking coffee to be significant contributions to her spiritual and academic pursuits.