Reimagining the Place of [Christian] Religion in our National Life, By Stan Chu Ilo
What is the role of religious leaders in our national life? What should be the place of religion in shaping the moral and spiritual life of those who aspire to political leadership or those who already hold public office? How should Christians engage in the political process to bring about social transformation and the values and virtues of the kingdom of God in Nigeria? I will focus here on the Christian religion.
As the 2015 national elections draw near, there is a strong religious atmosphere in the air in Nigeria. Most politicians are flocking to many praying houses and churches to seek divine help to win the next election and for protection against their enemies. This is not unexpected especially in a social context where religion is often reduced to a strong appeal to spiritual sanitization of the demonic which purportedly creeps into the safe havens of the chosen who fails to stand on a strong spiritual guard.
These politicians are very ecumenical in their public show of religiosity. They visit as many denominations as possible and make the necessary offerings to appease the God who answers by fire and who alone can grant victory to the ‘chosen.’ In some cases, these politicians are also very inter-religious either visiting in person or sending their spiritual underlings to pay nocturnal visits to shrines in the villages or some hidden corners in the cities—all flanks must be covered in the bid to win the next election.
Many clergy men and women are making ‘prophetic statements’ about who should be returned to office. The standard which they use appear highly subjective and inspired in many cases by how much they are attached to a particular candidate and how much the politician has done for God, translated here by the subjective judgment of the ‘man of God.’ However, it must be stated in a most obvious way that once religious preaching turns into political endorsement and predictions about the future—which God alone knows—then the Word of God becomes so labile and empty that preachers reconfigure it with multiple distortions and contortions which have nothing to do with God or true faith. But who indeed is on God’s side? Are the claims made about God’s choice with regard to who will win elections supported by God or are these self-serving empty and bogus claims of preacher men and women who are exploiting their positions of spiritual authority?
It is important to set clearly the biblical foundations for Christian engagement in politics and the principles which should guide such engagement. It is also important to underlie the role of Christian leaders in healing our nation. Church leaders should lead by example; they should preach God’s Word with authority and with the force of truth. They should ‘model the way’, ‘encourage the heart’, convict the comfortable, and comfort those condemned to die by poverty, suffering, powerlessness, and the unjust structures of sin in our land; they should challenge our politicians to highest ethical standard and lift our gaze beyond the veil and cloud of uncertainties and fear which hold many Nigerians in spiritual, cultural, economic and political bondage; they should speak truth to power with gentleness, courage, and sometimes with righteous rage in the face of evil, misrule, corruption, dishonesty, lack of character, injustice, or abuse of power; they should bring hope to the weary, and light to those in darkness. Above all, they should stand with the poor masses of our people, the downtrodden, the insignificant and the vulnerable whose fate and fortune like their future have become a side show in the brutal and punishing macabre political dance in our halls of power. There are three principles which I will advance here:
The first is that the church and church leaders should not align themselves to any party or any politicians. The Christian Association of Nigeria or the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria or the Pentecostal Federation of Nigeria is not a praying wing of the PDP or any party in power at national and state levels. There are so many palace priests, chaplains and marabouts at state houses and Aso Rock in Nigeria.
Many of these are fawning and phony preachers who like ancient palace cult prostitutes and lacking any evangelical purity bow before any government in power and feed Nigerian politicians with their own preferred spiritual staple. This kind of abuse of Christian religion is an insult to the true Christian faith and undermines the mission of God in Nigeria. Churches that make themselves allies of the ruling party will end up on the wrong side of history.
Even though these spiritual turncoats may enjoy temporary benefits from the ruling party in terms of land deeds, gifts of cars, SUVs, or airplane, or huge financial donations for church projects; such churches and/or leaders are working against the values and virtues of the kingdom of God. They are a counter-witness to the practices and priorities of the Lord Jesus Christ and should remove the robe of sanctity or Christianity from their actions.
C. S. Lewis was very prescient many years ago when he warned Christians of the dangers of uncritically allying themselves to political systems by becoming slaves to particular cultural traditions when he noted that religions which marry themselves to particular cultural trends and political culture will end up becoming widows. This is because politicians come and go; powers and kingdoms come and go, but the kingdom of God marches on, taking with it what is good in particular cultures and political traditions, refining what is less worthy in them, but transcending these temporal, proximate, and limited goals. Religious leaders in Nigeria must guard against the desire for relevance, and the lure of the filthy lucre which are being dangled before them by politicians.
Our churches are becoming stumping grounds for power-hungry politicians who believe that they have a divine right to be in power forever; our houses of prayer have become a mini-convention grounds for political campaigns instead of praying grounds where people come to worship God, to have a deep encounter with God, and to enter into deeper intimacy with all that is good, beautiful and true in inter-personal life, and communal celebration.
When people come to church, they are genuinely moved by faith to seek God and want to find peace with themselves, meaning for their lives and hope for the future. In a nation so troubled by many self-inflicted wounds, our churches offer our people a spiritual oasis to drink from the fountain of divine love and to find strength for the day and food in the Eucharist for the journey of life. When people go to church on Sunday or attend any religious event, they should not be subjected to all forms of spiritual torture or religious exploitation by being forced to listen to testimonies from politicians or being fed with watered down Gospel, dripping with sweat-sounding manipulative and truncated Gospel message cut to fit the contoured and sometimes seamy political and spiritual garb of a visiting politicians or an occasional wealthy spiritual client of the church.
Another principle which should be upheld as sacred by Christian churches is that the church is an alternate community, the conscience of the nation and the voice of the voiceless. Indeed, the earliest identity of the Christian churches going back especially to the first three centuries of the Church was ‘the church of the poor.’
This was the identity which was upheld by the churches until the marriage of the church and the state with the Constantinian revolution in the 4th century, which introduced the Roman imperium into the church and changed the church’s ancient pattern of caring for the poor. The collapse of the Roman Empire in 410 and Augustine’s diatribe against the iniquities and inanities of ancient Rome in his The City of God challenged the ancient church to go back to her deep spiritual roots. Unfortunately, the church sought to reinforce her power not by spiritual triumph but by the sword of the empire and the cloak of political legitimacy.
We can give God glory for the secular power of the church which triumphed especially after the 11th century when under the Gregorian Reform the Holy Roman Empire was firmly founded on the spiritual strength of the One Catholic Church. We can also glorify the Lord that supported by the military might of monarchies especially in Portugal, France and Spain, Pope Alexander inaugurated in the 15th century the missionary movement into the New World which marked the beginning of the modern Christian missions to Africa. However, the truth is that Christianity has never survived in any culture through alliance with secular powers.
Every secular power contains some idols and sinful realities which need to be constantly purged by churches. Indeed, the history of the Western church should remind African churches that church and state do not have a common end, even though they may share some common purpose for the common good. Therefore, separating the church and the state as has been encouraged since the latter half of the 18th century was actually the result of the sad experiences of the church. This goes back to the Church’s involvement as the central actor in politics in Europe both before and after the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) and the so called golden nugget which was the precursor of today’s EU. The Great Schism, the Reformation and the subsequent division in Christendom, the French Revolution, the Franco-Prussian war, the fall of the papal states, and the secular-sacred debate and tension which played out in Euro-politics and wars, missionary rivalry among Protestants and Catholics, constitutional formation in the post-Enlightenment West (especially in France, Hugo-Austria, Switzerland, UK, Italy etc), the lingering situation in Northern Ireland etc are all sad examples from which churches in Nigeria could learn about the failed experiment of marrying the church with the state.
The social contract is not a religious pact even though religious values could undergird such pacts. Indeed, Locke’s Letter on Religious Toleration (1689) while evincing the place of religion in the common wealth especially in guiding fidelity to solemn oaths was strong in condemning any involvement of the church in running the state or the punishment of citizens because they choose no religion. He argued strongly that the religion of the emperor should not be the religion of the country or the people. Indeed, Locke was unreasonably weary of the Papacy and Catholics in his letter.
This is why he argued that the allegiance of Catholics to the commonwealth is often attenuated by their higher allegiance to the Pope and the Church which is a danger to the survival of the commonwealth. But going back to 410, it bears listening to Augustine’s magisterial discourse on the fall of Rome. When Rome collapsed, the pagans who did not accept Christianity blamed the adoption of Christian religion in Rome as the cause of the collapse of Rome in the hands of the barbarians and vandals (Visigoths and the Huns).
The Christian God, according to the Roman traditional religionists, was incapable of protecting the city like the pagan gods did in the past. The pagan gods had protected the city and the empire for many centuries until Constantine made Christianity the state religion following the Edict of Toleration (313 AD). Augustine in defense of the Christian God argued in his book that it was not that the Christian God could not protect the city, rather the Roman Empire collapsed because of the false love found in the empire—selfishness, pride and injustice in the land—all of which gave birth to greed, violence, superstition, corruption, dishonesty, and the law of the jungle and ultimately the decline of imperial Rome.
Augustine gave a principle for upholding a nation which he drew from Proverbs 14: 34 (righteousness upholds a nation and sin condemns any people) that virtue upholds a nation and that nations stand or fall by the kind of love which exists in the land. The church, therefore, must help people to develop the right kind of love for God and the state, and the right kind of love and affinity to temporal things. This is the first and most important service which the church owes to the commonwealth; it is the starting point. In that light, one can think of the kind of love which governs the hearts of Nigerians: love of God or love of money; love of country or love of ethnic group; love of self or love of neighbor, love of hard work or a culture of slothfulness; love of truth and integrity or love of falsehood and dishonesty; love of good name or love of empty ego and vain titles. It is the ends which we pursue and the love which drives our passion and fuels our desires which can build up this land or destroy it.
This is why it is important that the Christian churches should fan again the flames of true love in the hearts of our people. True Christian religion is not simply mere sentiments; it is not simply paying tithes or the propitiation of God with tokens of cash or rigorous and punishing devotionalism similar to that of the false prophets of ba’al. True Christianity is not simply entertaining and carnival-like worship or yelling at the highest pitch of our voices to God as if the Christian God is tone deaf. We may fight as many demons as we deem adequate, we may pay as many tithes to tithe collectors or priests and ministers (read here tax collectors), but unless Christianity changes our hearts, our attitudes, and our worldview in order that we can have the mind of Christ, we labor in vain.
Authentic and true Christianity begins with conversion, and turning one’s life radically towards God and one’s neighbor, and uniting one’s heart with God’s will and walking humbly daily with God (Micah 6: 8). So true are the words of John Macquarrie reflecting on Romans 1:25 that people have ‘exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator when he writes: “Within Christianity itself it has all too often happened, and it still happens, that we set up ideas of God that are the products of our own wishes and imaginations and are far removed from the God and Father of Jesus Christ. But wherever these false ideas of God come from, they distort the lives and minds of those who worship them.”
Religion does not mean the expression of religious passion or the presence of large congregations and big churches; true Christian religion is not simply about attending crusades, breakthrough vigils, or making solemn novenas, and neuralgic observation of midnight prayers—all these are important only if they transform people to have the mind of Jesus, to live like Jesus, and make the practices and priorities of the Lord Jesus our own, in our daily choices. Indeed, Christian religion is a religion of both/and, that is, faith and works, deep prayer and committed living out of the faith in the public square, religious expression and faithful action.
For Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas, religion becomes a lie when that which is expressed in outward signs of religiosity is in discord with the truth. I will add that religion becomes a lie when the love of God and neighbor which should govern the heart of every Christian is absent in our religious profession and claims. Nigerian theologian Anthony A. Akinwale reflecting on the presumed religiosity of Nigerians argues that, “while a just nation is an aggregate of just citizens, there is something pernicious in a country that is said to have the highest level of religious belief when in fact it is plagued by crimes and utter disregard for the rule of law on the part of its leaders and citizens…when prosperity or materialism becomes the major driving force of religion, as can be seen in the mode of prayer of many Nigerians, it becomes clear that one is dealing with idolatry…the sign of a true religion is in a belief system that transforms human action because it transforms the human person into a loving object.”
The Lord Jesus while he was on earth identified himself with the poor, the marginalized, and those who were insignificant. He made himself poor so that we could become rich and the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 8: 9). The mystery of the Incarnation is the greatest contradiction against the prosperity Gospel preached by ‘big men and women of the big God’ who parade themselves today in our country. These men and women assume all kinds of titles carefully chosen to meet the growing demand for a ‘big God’ who will offer stability to our lives when everything around us continues to show signs of instability and decay.
In his words and deeds, the Lord Jesus made it clear that he came to preach the Good news to the poor (Luke 4: 18); that he came to preach repentance to sinners (Mk 1: 14-15), that God will lift up the lowly and bring down the mighty (Luke 1: 46-55). Jesus was constantly seen in the company of ordinary people, the beggars, the prostitutes, and the insignificant members of society; the jobless, the wounded, the sick and the dying. Pope Francis was so true when he said that the Church is like a field hospital for the poor and the troubled, the rejects of society and those wounded by life’s hard and harsh realities.
When the Old Testament makes the claim that God is the God of the poor and a God of justice it was a way of affirming that God takes sides with the poor. This is because the poor are suffering in many cases because of the socio-economic conditions which hold them down. The poor are suffering because the system makes it impossible for them to break the cycle of poverty; they are caught in a trap from which they cannot escape. This is the reality which social scientists call social reproduction, that is, in simple words: poverty is self-perpetuating. For instance, if you come from a poor family chances are that you will be poor, you will die early and you will not have a good life unless you live in a country where there is a strong social ladder to help people reconstruct their future. Again one can break this yoke of poverty through the support of strong social capitals and religious groups like the church helping to fight the good fight to liberate those caught in this trap of poverty through education and empowerment. We cannot also discount divine intervention in helping people. However, it is simply a false Christianity to make such promises of breakthroughs to people without any pathway towards their realization. Hope does not translate into achievement without good works oriented towards what we hope for. There may be people who may break this cycle but they are more an exception than the norm.
Because the poor in our land cannot help themselves and in most cases our social systems contain structures of sin created by our sub-human and unjust economic and political systems, it becomes a sin and indeed a scandal to see mega rich churches and rich church leaders in our poor neighborhoods and in our nation. It is a crime which cries out to heaven (see Amos 5: 11-27) when church leaders live in shocking opulence and comfort while the poor people are being sleazed through endless tithes to feed the unacceptable life style of church leaders.
This anti-evangelical way of living explains why many church leaders in Nigeria are comfortable in the company of the wealthy and the politicians. This is because many Christian leaders today are driven more by love of money, fame, power, and relevance than the love of God and humble and selfless service to the least of the brethren. Their spiritual appetite—if they have any—in most cases is not as strong as their hunger for material things and the things of this world. It is sinful and troubling for church leaders to hobnob with and fawn on political leaders, the rich and the mighty, while receiving all kinds of generous donations from them without questioning how people in government and public service make so much money without stealing from the public till. We all know that our country would have been a better place if we had selfless and dedicated politicians who place the interest of the nation and the poor above their own endless quest for power and insatiable thirst for money and adulation.
The reason Nigeria has not attained the heights to which God and destiny call her is clear. Nigeria is an immensely gifted country in terms of natural resources, cultural traditions, deeply religious and spiritual people and rich human resources. We do not need external help at all in Nigeria because this is God’s own land. The reason Nigeria is not living her dream from God is because of our political leaders and their religious acolytes who provide the spiritual tranquilizers to dull the social conscience of their faithful and the evangelical aphrodisiac to titillate the unconscionable gumption of our errant and corrupt leaders.
The church as the ancients remind us is ‘a habor for the poor’ and not a citadel for the rich; the church is ‘the house of prayer’ and not a campaign ground or a money-making venture; the church is a house of light where men and women coming out from the cave of sin, and dungeons of evil find a refreshing peace for their minds, spiritual food for their soul and hope and courage for tomorrow. It is important then that our churches in Nigeria retrace their steps from this dangerous dance with politicians and create an alternate community which will be a model to all of how to live as Christians with ambiguity and complexity, but with prophetic and courageous witnessing to the truth and justice.
My contention is not that the church should shun politicians, but rather that there should be a sacred space between politicians and church leaders. Our churches should be a place where evangelical prophecy and authentic witnessing inspire reform of the lives of politicians and of Nigerians which alone can provide healing for our troubled land.
The final principle here for consideration is that our churches and church leaders can heal our land by living a good and authentic life of discipleship. This calls for martyrdom. Following Jesus in Nigeria today calls for self-renunciation, sacrifice and martyrdom in every sense of the world. The Christianity which is simply a walk in the park or a diluted form of social clubbing is a rootless Christianity which cannot change people’s hearts, motivate people to higher purpose or inspire conversion and social transformation.
The same is also true of a Christianity which is driven by reward and punishment or by vain pursuit. God is an end and not a means; we cannot make our churches means for pursuing some self-serving end of a political, economic and clannish nature. The Christian religious landscape in Nigeria today is a source of great joy and hope for our land. Indeed, I believe that Christianity will save Nigeria and Africa. However, it will be another kind of Christianity not the one that says that anything goes in name of God or the Christian faith. I reject the Christianity which says that there are no statutes of limitations in what church leaders can do. I reject the kind of Christianity where many church leaders are using the name of the Lord in vain by fabricating miracles, half-truths and churning out endless deceptive promises and prophecies and frustrating the genuine desires and spiritual hopes of our people. Unfortunately, on one is held accountable in our churches anymore just as no one holds the politicians accountable because elections often have predetermined results.
Many of us are praying for a renewal of the Christian faith in Nigeria and for the emergence of Christians who truly love God and their neighbors and are willing to sacrifice the gift of their lives for the sake of others. Many Nigerians are praying for holy men and women who will enter into religious service with an evangelical spirit to lay down their lives for the sake of their brothers and sisters. Many Nigerian Christians long for church leaders who tell them the truth; who show them the face of the poor and caring man of Galilee, and Christian leaders who move from God to people and from people back to God.
Nigerian Christians are spiritually wearied by spiritual jobbers, charlatans, spiritual quacks and half-hearted and half-baked religious troubadours whose sonorous melodies are composed to fit the taste of particular audience as long as that fetches money. One of the greatest characteristics of Christianity is martyrdom and where there are no martyrs there are no true faith. This is because when faith is strong and the fear of God is deep, people will die for this faith rather than kowtow to the sinful peccadilloes of any demigod no matter how powerful or rich the person is; when God is the center of our lives and true religion burns in our hearts and becomes the gyroscope around which our Christian lives revolve the violence, brigandry, and kleptomania which govern our political and public life will cease and there will be a high way for the Lord to enter into our churches, states houses and public offices.
I think this happens in many African countries and can happen in our land. Unfortunately, there are many African countries like Nigeria where religion and politics have become inseparable, where priests and ministers are bowing before politicians and worshipping them instead of worshiping God; there are dioceses and churches in Nigeria where it is a taboo to criticize the government even when there are legitimate reasons to do so and where it is impossible to speak truth to power.
Many clergy men and women have laid down their lives for the cause of truth and wellbeing of Africans. The Catholic Archbishop Christophe Munzihirwa, who was one of the most vocal critics of the misrule of Mobutu Sese Seko, was assassinated by Rwandan troops in Eastern Zaire and his corpse left on the streets for many days. Archbishop Luwum was murdered on the orders of Idi Amin in 1977 because of his open condemnation of the malfeasance of the so-called ‘butcher of Uganda.’ In the same year, Catholic Cardinal Biayenda was murdered in the political strife in the two Congos; he was a defender of human rights and a culture of good governance and justice for the ordinary people.
Late Catholic Archbishop Michael Francis of Liberia was given the 1999 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award because of the role he played during the long-drawn crisis in Liberia. He was the only bishop who refused to leave Liberia during the heat of the Liberian Civil War. He refused to abandon the ordinary people of the land and opted to die with them. He condemned General Doe, Charles Taylor and Prince Johnson as men whose lust for power and greed turned Liberia into a river of human blood. He used the irrepressible Radio Veritas to inveigh against the human execration and destruction of Liberia. Several attempts were made on his life. The same courage was brought to bear on Kenyan politics by David Makuba Gitari, former Anglican primate of Kenya, who used the pulpit to bear prophetic witness to the need for a return to the path of good governance and accountability in Kenya. He suffered a lot of persecution from the ruling government of Arab Moi, who tried to muzzle him from carrying out his social crusade using the tools of the Gospel.
We all know the courageous witness of many clergy men and women in Nigeria during the dark days of Abacha and IBB when the cup of horror is these blessed lands of Nigeria overflew. We also know of many spiritually dead Christian religious leaders who sold their faith for a brown envelope or for a presidential handshake from the toothy general or his stone-faced successor. Recently, the Catholic bishops of Congo (CENO) came out strongly against President Kabila’s plan for a third term in office and a change of the national constitution, something which the bishops of Burkina Faso failed to do against former President Blaise Compaore. President Kabila, a Catholic, and his henchmen have been hounding the bishops and priests since October 14 when the bishops’ conference letter was read in all Catholic churches. The point I am making here is that when our church leaders speak or act in a prophetic way it should normally carry some weight because as we read in Malachi 2: 7 “For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, because he is the messenger of the LORD Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth.”
But do the words of our Christian religious leaders and churches move the people or have we become so compromised so closely identified with the prevailing morality and political culture that we do not stand as sentinels on the mountain top of sound and counter-cultural morality? Who is the present voice of conscience in the Christian churches today whose prophetic words and actions could inspire fear and repentance from the politicians? Is it not a shame that the Christian community in Nigeria has no clear identity and can no longer speak with one voice on many issues which challenge us as a nation today? Have our churches become bad witnesses to politicians because the same corruption, clannishness, rivalry, fight for power and for money, sexual aberrations and zippers issues, lack of transparency, lack of openness to opposition and lack of dialogue which we find in our politics are eating so deep into the churches that they lack credibility and integrity? Are our churches so driven by worldly concerns and materialism that they can no longer become alternate communities and models of a new people and a new society which the rest of society could emulate?
The call here is for our churches to engage in self-reflection as we come to the end of the year and as we enter a new year which will be decisive for Nigeria because of the general elections. It is important that our church leaders conscientize our people and the politicians on what makes for a just and equitable and progressive society and the path to authentic moral and spiritual life. This will help them to apply a Christian vision in judging our present politicians and those who aspire to leadership.
Personally I refuse to join the bandwagon of church leaders who are calling for the law makers, governors and the incumbent president to return to power on a free pass. They need to show Nigerians what they have accomplished and what they intend to achieve with another mandate. Nigerian Christian religious leaders must encourage strong and robust engagement of Christians in politics and competing and complementary voices on national discussion about the way to the future.
There are so many poor people in Nigeria who have no hope; there are so many hard working Nigerians who have no jobs; there are many young people who are graduating in Nigeria without a future; and many retired Nigerians who are begging for food; and there are thousands of Nigerians who are dying every day because of the absence of good healthcare systems, and we have the specter of violence hanging a dark cumulus over our heads and there is the unfulfilled dream of the nation which every Nigerian continues to hope for. In the midst of all these, our people are still hoping that ‘there is Godooo.’ But it is worrisome when our church leaders are dancing for politicians who are presiding over this kind of Nigeria.
I declare that I am not sure that the caliber of people I see parading themselves in our corridors of power—most of them having been in different positions of leadership for the past two decades—is the best that this nation can offer. Singing hosannas to them or rolling the red carpet for them in our churches is the wrong approach to helping them improve on their moral and spiritual life. We need to lift the banner of righteousness in our land so that our leaders in Nigeria will develop sound political and socio-ethical conscience to become good leaders who serve the greatest number of our people especially the least of the brethren who are praying that life go better for man pickin for Naija.
© Stan Chu Ilo is a research professor at the Center for World Catholicism and Inter-Cultural Theology, DePaul University, Chicago, USA