The church, politics and future elections (II)

LET me start by expressing gratitude to His Grace, my Lords, the Rector, religious leaders, and the graduands for inviting me to share my thoughts with you on a topic that previews the place and role of the Church in the political system of Nigeria, especially as regards future elections. One is sometimes reluctant to discuss issues like this because of the possibility of misinterpretation of intention that may detract one from the primary objective of the lecture – especially at a time that the landscape of our country is pockmarked by institutional dysfunction and security challenges.

Almost every day, news headlines scream with reports of terrorism, banditry, drug abuse, arson, and secession threats, all of which deepen a collective pessimism about our society’s prospects. There is a pervasive sense of uncertainty, anxiety and near-hopelessness about our common future. Most dangerously, many people no longer see a clear, scrupulous path to a decent and fulfilling life. Some of our young people are entranced by the possibility of upward mobility through fraudulent acts and a variety of get-rich quick schemes that reflect our societal bias for instant gratification and miraculous wealth. Others have been initiated into cultism, prostitution, human trafficking, and political violence.

It is not just high-level graft that ails us. We must reckon with the various instances of low-level corruption that are everyday experiences. These instances in which we are often compelled to negotiate compromises with our consciences are so frequent that it is no understatement to say that corruption has become part of the cultural topography of our society. Just from commuting on our roads, there is evidence that our society is contemptuous of rule and order. As a people, we no longer regard the norms of civility and mutual respect. All that matters is to get ahead at any cost.

Yet, in all of this, Nigeria is at the centre of one of the most fascinating role reversals in history. She has become a missionary exporting nation and now sends hundreds of priests to the West, carrying a unique brand of spirituality. Christianity, as we know it on our shores, is no longer at the bequest of foreign missionaries. It has become a genuinely Nigerian religion. Indeed, some scholars now argue that the epicenter of global Christianity is no longer in the West, but has moved to the Southern hemisphere, and that Nigeria is an important new hub.

All these suggest that the defining contradiction of Nigerian life, at present, is a coincidence of increasing religiosity and declining public morality. We are witnessing a ‘universalisation’ of religious syntax and symbolism across various domains of society, ranging from politics to popular culture, at a time when our ethical capital is being depleted. Churches are proliferating during social and moral squalor. Worse still, some desperate individuals also exploit our socio-religious plurality to weaponise suspicions and trade in divisions.

 

Theory of disengagement

What is responsible for this profound dissonance between our extravagant religiosity and our alarming deficit of public virtue regarding the phenomenon of high church growth and the nose-diving public morality? We can agree with Dr Martin Luther King Jr who once warned: “We must not be tempted to confuse spiritual power and large numbers… and increase in quantity does not automatically bring an increase in quality. A larger membership does not correspond to increased commitment to Christ.”

To a large extent, the flagrant contradiction between our religious and social conduct is the result of the dominant strand of a theology over the past three decades. Widespread pessimism about the prospects of the Nigerian project has found expression in a theology of disengagement or non-engagement. It has roots in the wave of ‘holiness’ churches that emerged during the mid-1970s.

Preaching an austere spirituality that prioritised personal moral rectitude and Spartan discipline as the hallmarks of righteousness, these churches depict the world as a field of profanity. Engagement in secular affairs was considered an entanglement that posed the risk of subverting one’s salvation. The only legitimate sphere of social engagement was fellowship within the church itself. The larger society was a lost cause and a cursed estate. All efforts were to be directed at fulfilling the level of righteousness required to qualify for heaven and a wide distance maintained between the society and the faithful. Parents, family members and members of the immediate community who are not members of the “holiness” gospel were to be avoided like a plague.

This dichotomy between the sacred and the secular is essential to understanding the bipolar approach to business, politics, and public life. It did not take too long for the recipients of this theological programming to be faced with disillusionment. Beginning from the early 1980s, the austere ‘holiness’ movement was displaced by a more buoyant and vivacious Christian movement that advertised God’s relationship with individuals in more material terms. According to this new theological narrative, God is committed to blessing the individual in the here and now and not just in the afterlife. This commitment is expressed in miracles, healing, financial breakthrough, and the guaranteed general wellbeing of the Christian. This brand of spirituality became more salient from the mid-1980s following the end of the oil boom, the implementation of the structural adjustment programme, and consequent near extinction of the middle class.

In a climate of recession and economic uncertainty, a theology that casts salvation as a route to divinely enabled upward mobility resonated and it fuelled a proliferation of churches across the country. The increasingly popular resort to faith was accentuated by the political instability and repressions occasioned by a succession of military dictatorships right up till the late 1990s. The essential dichotomy of the secular and sacred remained. This centres on projecting the gospel’s redemptive properties into cities of refuge where beleaguered citizens flee from the depredations of a dysfunctional state. The theology of this movement which is loosely described as the ‘prosperity’ gospel interprets salvation in overwhelmingly personal terms. It has little conception of the society or common good. This theology can be literally explained in the declarative prayer associated with it: “No matter how terrible Nigeria becomes; my household and I must prosper.” In this theology, the individual is spiritually primed to achieve material success despite the society. Indeed, the subtext of this theology is that events in the society are inconsequential to the fortunes of the individual believer. The individual in a personal sense is at the center of God’s love, grace, and redemptive plan. It is not surprising that what has emerged is a highly compartmentalised religiosity: one that perceives no moral obligation in the public space and in which the happiness of the individual is paramount. This is a broad-brush description of the Christian scene in Nigeria. It does not apply to all churches, but it is a fairly accurate portrait of the general complexion of Christianity in Nigeria.

 

Between God and Caesar

Historically, Nigerian Christians, like our contemporaries worldwide, have had to debate the extent of their social and political engagement in the context of the biblical admonition “to render unto Caesar things that belong to Caesar.” The axiom comes from the incident in the New Testament when Jesus was asked whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. He replied by asking for a coin and questioning his interrogators as to whose image and inscription the coin bore. “Caesar’s” they replied. Well, Jesus said, since the coin bore Caesar’s imprint then it was lawful for those who lived in Caesar’s domain to render back to him his rightful taxes and to render to God what belonged to God. Traditionalists construe this dictum as an injunction against Christian involvement in politics. Indeed, it has been seized upon by opponents of Christian’s active participation in public life, to argue that religion and politics do not mix. It has become the kernel of a theology of non-engagement.

On the other hand, advocates of Christian public engagement offer a richer and more nuanced understanding of his principle. Since Caesar himself was made in the image of God, it follows that his humanity, empire and taxes, and therefore the politics of running the empire and administering the taxes, must be submitted to God who wields ultimate sovereignty over creation. This is supported by scripture that expressly declares that “…the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men…” One of the ways the Almighty God demonstrates His sovereignty in the affairs of men is through the activities of regenerated men and women in public life – men and women who fear God and submit to Him as vessels through which His will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

The conundrum of Christians who desire to engage constructively in the workings of their society and are yet wary of confusing the domains of Caesar and God can be summarised thus: are holiness and social responsibility mutually exclusive or complements? Can we live out both ideals or does one have to nullify the other? Is it possible to be holy and socially engaged? Is it possible to be deeply committed to the faith and be an active citizen?

I believe that this synthesis of civic and spiritual tasks is not only possible but necessary. As John Wesley said, “There is no holiness but social holiness.” Every Christian has two responsibilities: to put on the mind of Christ and to carry that mentality into the public square – into whatever is public, whether that means the media, the marketplace, the academia, the trade union, or parliament.

My view on this issue has been forged over the course of a lifetime. I was born into Catholic Church in which the belief that the church must be an active agent of social justice and political transformation was rife. As a young man, I started out my public service as an altar boy and the lessons there influenced my upbringing and lifelong reflection on the place of values in shaping society. My involvement in student unionism, pro-democracy activism and civil society engagement and founding of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) and my eventual involvement in partisan politics – all derive from the social activism of Catholics.

The defining principle of my moral upbringing is that emulating Jesus Christ is not just a spiritual endeavor but a revolutionary posture expanding the frontiers of justice in society. It is about serving a higher purpose and locating the right vocational channels to actualise one’s spiritual commitment. This understanding of the faith has guided me through my years at the frontlines of pro-democracy activism in exile and my service in public office.

TO BE CONTINUED

  • Excerpts of the text of the Convocation Lecture by His Excellency, the governor of Ekiti State, Dr Kayode Fayemi, CON, at the graduation ceremony of Good Shepard Major Seminary in Kafanchan, Kaduna State, on Friday, April 23, 2021.

 

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