On this date in 1962, Georges Kageorgis* was shot at Usumbura (now Bujumbura) for assassinating the charismatic national figure seemingly destined to lead the country into its postcolonial age.
“It was a bit like what could have happened in South Africa if Nelson Mandela was murdered before assuming the presidency in 1994,” said one pol later.
A prince, a pro-independence nationalist, a Tutsi who had married a Hutu and spurned a tribal leadership position lest he cast too sectarian a profile, Louis Rwagasore became prime minister in the fall of 1961 on the strength of his party‘s comprehensive electoral victory.
Rwagasore admired Patrice Lumumba. He was destined to share Lumumba’s fate.
With the murdered prince went ethnic cohesion; the bloody Kamenge riots of January 1962 presaged worse to come as leadership in the Rwagasore-less party collapsed. Ethnic conflict sharpened through the 1960’s, with a Tutsi-dominated dictatorship ultimately gaining control of the country and setting the stage for intermittent massacres (two classed as genocides) that haunt Burundi to this day and form part of the context for the Rwandan genocide.
Rwagasore Day — October 13, the anniversary of the prince’s assassination — is still observed in Burundi. Kageorgis’s execution date is notable for other reasons: it was the last day before Belgian authority in Ruanda-Urundi officially ended.
Concrete dates** are going to be hard to come by, of course, and the purported historical doings of New Testament Christians are inextricably conjoined to theological ox-goring.
But it is their lives and not their deaths that make them memorable, and to judge by the conquest of the faith they propounded, their feast day honors are richly deserved. Some scholars with no fear for their soul will tell you that Paul in particular can be rated a more consequential historical person than the Nazarene himself, having formulated the doctrine and conducted the ministry needed to turn a dead-end Jewish sect or inchoate reform movement into a surging universal religion that would play to Praetorians.
However they sublimated that awkwardness, their respective offices as Apostle to the Jews (Peter) and Apostle to the Gentiles (Paul) allude to an oft-explored problem whose resolution would prove decisive for the nascent faith: did Christianity require adherence to the strict Mosaic law?
Paul looks like the firebrand, boldly and tirelessly enacting his revolutionary faith-alone revelation (so central to the Protestant Reformation 15 centuries later) on the pacified highways and sea lanes of the Pax Romana; Peter seems the compromiser (or a vacillator), instinctively granting precedence to the Jewish tradition but being carried along by events towards Paul.
Peter is seen in the Bible acceding to Paul’s opposition to making Greeks eat kosher and circumcise, and even persuading the most august Judaizer and leader of the Jewish Christians at Jerusalem, Saint James.
Amongst these illustrious names, we may perceive or imagine — “through a glass darkly”, as it were — what must have been a blossoming multitude of contending beliefs and practices.
Paul made Christian doctrine amenable† to the practices that would make it a phenomenal evangelical success (and separate it from the faith of Abraham), but on that same winners-write-history basis one is entitled to wonder whether the authority of Peter and James have been appropriated ex post facto by the Biblical writers of the Pauline party. If so, you wouldn’t say his reputation has suffered for it: the pope still claims to speak as “the unworthy heir of St. Peter” … and in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Whatever the faithful and the merely interested may speculate about their historicity, their names are on the founding charter of Christianity.
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day … (St. Paul, 2 Timothy 4:7-8)
A very few of the very many books about Peter and Paul and their times
** Italian archaeologist Margherita Guarducci, however, argued that Peter’s death could be assigned to a precise date: October 13, 64. We can pose against this skepticism that Peter ever went to Rome at all, a sometime Protestant hobby-horse supposed to undermine the primacy of the Holy See.
† But not so decisively that he wasn’t soon at loggerheads with the Jerusalem Jewish Christians again.
Update: Just as this post was getting set to publish, the Vatican announced the discovery of what it claims may be the oldest image of St. Paul, a 4th century fresco uncovered in a Roman catacomb.