I would see him from time to time at Catholic events and meetings in Washington D.C. He was a seven-foot-tall African gentleman who was always very courteous and soft-spoken. He had a stately bearing that was at the same time dignified and disarming. I am told he was very pious and could often be seen at Mass or with a rosary in his hand. He commanded respect, but it was not difficult to walk up and converse with him. A couple of times, I had the honor of speaking with the king.
Indeed, he was a king, a Catholic king who was, in fact, the last anointed African king living. It was with great sadness that I heard the news of the death of King Kigeli V of Rwanda, 80, who passed away recently at a Washington-area hospital.
The news set the stage for some reflections.
I reflected upon how his life was one of turmoil and suffering, which he bore well. He became king in the turbulent times of African independence when revolutionary liberation movements were wreaking havoc on the continent. Rwanda was not exempt from the unrest. Just before independence, ethnic rivalry led to the forced exiling of many Tutsi tribal people. The departing Belgian administrators added to the confusion by arranging King Kigeli’s exile in 1961. This was followed by the typical succession of “democratic” African governments that culminated in the 1994 wave of anarchy and mass killings in which as many as a half million civilians, mostly Tutsi, were slaughtered.
In exile, the king did not lead an ordinary life. He respected the Rwandan tradition that an exiled king does not marry and thus remained single. Most of his time in exile was spent helping Rwandan refugees. Foremost in his mind was working toward the unity of his suffering people.
What impressed me about the king was that you sensed he was sincere and authentic. He was not a politician who was looking to build a career. Deprived of his considerable wealth in Rwanda, he lived humbly and had nothing to gain by advocating the cause of his people.
He was what sociologists call a “representative character.” Noted philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote that such characters “are, so to speak, the moral representatives of their culture and they are so because of the way in which moral and metaphysical ideas and theories assume through them an embodied existence in the social world.”
These figures exist in every society including our own. No one elects them. They are natural leaders who can take the principles, moral qualities, and virtues desired and needed by their communities and translate them into concrete programs of life and culture.
There is no doubt in my mind that the king was one of these unassuming representative characters. He was truly a moral representative of his culture. This was recognized by many Rwandans who asked that he be allowed to return and even serve as a unifying figure in the fragmented central African nation.
The history of his life is very important, but it was not these details that struck me upon hearing the news of his death. The passing of King Kigeli V was a tragic reminder of how far we as a nation have descended.
I remember seeing the king with his calm demeanor and dignity sitting in an armchair. Reflecting upon this scene, I cannot help but think about how I, as an American, somehow feel much more represented by this foreign figure than American counterparts. King Kigeli personified so many of the qualities missing in today’s political discourse: honor, dignity, longsuffering, piety and self-sacrifice. The contrast between this tall African gentleman and the present political contenders could not be more striking.
Everyone senses this difference when comparing our past and current standards of political behavior. No one is happy with the situation. Looking at the current election cycle, so many Americans are experiencing frustration, exasperation and anxiety at what is happening. They wish the whole thing was over.
It used to be that honorable presidential candidates presented themselves for election. They used to address each other politely. Courtesy and civility were considered political virtues, not weaknesses to be exploited. Candidates did not engage in dishonorable lying or promiscuous personal conduct. People used to feel they could be represented by the figures presented to them.
But today all that has changed. The change is part of the political culture of both parties varying only in degree. Everything has become so brutal and frenzied. There is no longer thoughtful debate but rather programmed sound bytes and tailored tweets to attract the attention of the distracted masses. We have turned the election into a political wrestling match, no holds barred.
Instead of the representative characters, we now have unrepresentative characters who do not represent what we want to be. The race has become another one of those lesser-of-two-evils slugfests of voting against the most unrepresentative candidate.
Of course, it is not only the candidates’ fault. We brought ourselves to this point by embracing a culture of frenetic intemperance in which everyone wants everything instantly and effortlessly. Lifestyles of gratification and self-centeredness bring out the worst in us. All this is tearing our society and economy apart. It is eroding the faith of millions. We see it affecting the political process.
However, this culture is imploding. It is unsustainable and weighs heavily upon the land. Its chaotic discourse tires us out and awakens in us longings for a return to order. When the disorder reaches its climax, and things come crashing down, it is important that there be figures like the king who will remind us of what we have left behind. Then we will look for those representative characters that represent that which is still good in America. The qualities found in good King Kigeli V (and needed by so many of our elected officials) will again be appreciated and valued.
And in the meantime, let all who read this say a prayer for the repose of the soul of the pious Catholic king. May God grant him eternal rest. Even in death, he showed magnanimity. Those wishing to donate for his funeral expenses are advised by the King’s website to consider applying them first to “educational institutions that support Rwandan students in His Majesty’s name.”