FIRMLY ROOTED & AIMING HIGHER: FAITH IN A TIME OF CRISIS
An address delivered at the 120th Founder’s Day Anniversary
of the African Church on the 12th October, 2021 at Marina, Lagos
by Bishop Matthew Hassan KUKAH, Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese
Let me first congratulate your Church for two main reasons. First, for the celebration of one hundred- and twenty-years’ anniversary of your Church. This is a great achievement. Although the circumstances of your birth were different, you rebelled against the Anglican Church which had rebelled also against the Catholic Church.
As the story goes, Elder Jacob Kehinde Coker, popularly known as the Peoples’ Warden led a group of fellow rebels in 1901 over the issue of the mistreatment of black people in the Anglican Church by the white population. According to the story, the Church did not allow Black people to sing their hymns, wear their dresses and express their faith as Africans. These Africans believed that God could be worshipped within the cultural context of Africa. We are told that on October 20th,1901, Elder Coker and his fellow rebels erected a tent for their worship at Rose cottage, Marina. Today, your Church is made up of 2,080, 000 Members, 580 Parishes and 47 Dioceses and still growing. This is a great achievement and we thank the Lord for the vision of dreams of those men and women who have gone before us bearing His cross. As we say, the rest is history.
Looking back, I wonder why Elder Coker and his fellow rebels walked all the way to Marina when they could have just entered the Holy Cross Catholic Cathedral around the corner? It seems to me that it would have made more sense that if you rebelled against the Anglicans, you should have just joined the Catholic Church and we would not have been here. However, since you have invited His Eminence, John Cardinal Onaiyekan to preach during the service and me to speak later, it seems all hope is not lost yet because this may be the beginning of your journey from the Anglican Church and then, later to the Catholic Church.
When I received a letter dated May 27th and signed by Your Eminence, Julius O. Abbe and Brother Bandele Vincent, Assistant General Secretary, Laity, I did not reply immediately. It was only much later that Bishop Peter Ogunmuyiwa reached out to me and to ask if I would accept the invitation. I receive many invitations from various groups across the country, Muslims, the Academia, Lawyers and other professional groups, Civil society, the Media and so on. However, whenever I receive an invitation from any of the brethren within the Christian community, I go out of my way to ensure that I honour the invitation. I consider it a great honour and indeed, it is one of the major steps we need to so we can close the huge unfortunate gap that has grown within the body of Christ in the years of suspicion that has marked our history.
I am the Bishop Chairman of the of our Bishops’ Conference on Dialogue and Mission. I also hold the same position at the level of our Bishops’ Conference of West Africa. Until last year, I was also a Member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue at the Vatican. So, these invitations especially within Christianity offer me an opportunity to extend the goodwill of my brothers in the Catholic faith. Naturally, after the good will, I take full responsibility for what I say, some of which some of my colleagues may not agree with. But, I want to assure you that the Catholic Bishops’ Conference continues to take the unity of our country and that of the body of Christ very seriously.
Our society is fracturing and breaking apart by the day. For us Christians that Jesus Himself prayed that we all be one (Jn. 17:21), working for a united and peaceful world is our mission as Christians. We have a task to take our job as healers seriously. Reconciliation is a fundamental part of the Christian faith and the reason is simple: Jesus came into a fallen world to reconcile it to God and the bridge on which we walk to that reconciliation is Love. Love occupied a central theme in the life of Jesus Christ. After, it is the reason why God sent Him: He loved the world so much that he send His only (Jn. 3:16). He laid down the conditions of this love by emphasizing that we not only love but pray for our enemies (Mt. 5: 44) in a world that was full of vengeance. When asked the threshold of sin by our enemies before we can revenge, he said 70x7 times (Mt. 18:22). Imagine what record keeping skills required to keep that record of sins. This means that forgiveness is built into the DNA of all Christians.
You have chosen the theme, Firmly Rooted, Aiming Higher and asking me to address these issues against the backdrop of the; current state of insecurity in our country. Over the last ten or so years, I cannot remember how many times I have been called upon to speak on the state of insecurity in public fora. What has been rather curious for me is the fact that people have expressed concerns about how Christians should respond to these challenges. It is a measure of how unsure we are about our role in public life that we seem quite confused about what to do. The question for example as to how Christians should respond to Boko Haram is too simplistic because we live in a country as citizens and our response can largely be seen within the largest context of the national response by the agencies of state who have sworn publicly to secure and protect us.
Although the issue of how Christians should react in a crisis is an important question, it also addresses the wider issues of our duties and responsibilities as citizens. When we talk of insecurity today, our attention tends to focus on Boko Haram, the issues of kidnapping, assassinations and banditry. I believe that these are symptoms and consequences not cause or diseases. They are manifestations of so many sins that have gestated in our polity for too long.
Here, we as the body of Christ need therefore to re-examine ourselves, our messages and the extent to which, by action or inaction, we may have contributed to the crises that our nation faces today. We often are tempted to think that we are being sinned against whereas, in many instances, it is quite possible that we are the sinners and our actions or lack of them has compounded our situation. The body of Christ does not live-in isolation.
In the Catholic Church, when we pray or confess our sins during the Mass; we often say: I have gravely sinned, in what I have done and what I have failed to do.
Very often not sinning by acting does not mean that we are innocent. As the good old Edmund Burke said: All that is necessary for evil to thrive is for good men to do nothing. We have often taken the position of the monkey who believes that true peace lies in seeing nothing, saying nothing and doing nothing. The reasons for our doing nothing are often very complex and even innocent. The reasons could even be the measure of our being good men or women who do not wish to poke our noses into people’s businesses or we fear being miunderstood. Our decision not to do something is actually doing something because even when we say we have decided not to choose, we have actually chosen.
For example, I read a story of an incident that took place in Liverpool. It was said that a Professor of Psychology in the University of Liverpool was conducting a research human attitudes towards solidarity and what informs the choices we make. He and his students took their research to the famous Liverpool stadium at Anfield. The idea was to seek answers to questions about what inspires people to express certain levels of solidarity even with strangers. The researchers had one of the students adorn a Manchester United jersey on a day that Liverpool was playing against Manchester. After the football match, as supporters were trooping out, the fake Manchester fan deliberately fell down and was crying for help. The Liverpool supporters simply went past him. In the next phase of the experiment, they had the same young man wear a Liverpool jersey. When he faked a fall and was pretending to be shrieking in pain, all the supporters rushed to help him immediately. So, why does the milk of human kindness flow differently? Our instincts are often triggered by certain levels of emotions based on some innate solidarity based on class, ethnicity, social relationships or friendships etc.
Your mind may go back to the story of good Samaritan. However, the issue is that in real life, our responses to the conditions of people is often coloured by what feelings of solidarity we may have towards them. Thus, type of dress, language, cultural expression, and so on can easily elicit some kind of solidarity towards the stranger. In his life, Moses demonstrated some layers of human love that went through different stages of life which could offer us an example of how deep the Christian call for solidarity is. For example, when he came upon an Egyptian fighting with a Jew, he stepped in and killed the Jew. Next, he saw two Jews fighting, he stepped in to resolve the conflict. When he saw a situation of potential conflict even well outside his kinsmen, such as daughters of Jethro being refused a chance to fetch water by the male shepherds, he stepped in and resolved the conflict (2 Ex. 2:16ff). Our solidarity should know no boundaries.
In all situations of conflict, no matter the dangers, Christians are called upon to respond with the weapons of their moral authority. From Latin America, Asia, Africa to Europe, Church leaders have showed the way in moments of crisis. Here, our minds go to people like the late St. John Paul 11, Cardinal Sin in the Philippines, Archbishop Desmond Tutu among many others. However, in situations such as the ones we have in Nigeria today, we are not only called upon to denounce the issues of violence. We can do much more depending on the conflict. I give a few examples:
First, prayer remains the weapon of choice for the Christian. This is so because, as I said earlier, our Lord and Saviour was a Prince of Peace. In this world, Jesus said, you will have tribulations, but be of good cheer. I have overcome the world (Jn. 16:33). Peace was His gift to us: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid (Jn 14:27). Christians must see peace as the gift that they owe the world. Thus, the prayer of St. Francis must become our motto: Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Whether it is in moments of war, despair, hatred and all the evil in the world, the Christian is called upon to respond with the message of Peace.
Second, we are in a nation with competing and even conflicting identities and theologies. Some believe in a form of theocracy while others come from a tradition of separation of Church and State. Either way, the challenge for Christians is to see crises, conflicts are opportunities to witness to the Gospel. Witnessing under these circumstances is multi-dimensional. Apart from prophetic witnessing by proclamation of the message of Jesus Christ, that is, a message of non-violence, there are symbolisms that Churches can adopt. An example is public call to Prayer or renewed spirituality. This can be in the form of set days for prayers and fasting or both. For impact, it is best that the body of Christ uses the opportunities to embark on some dramatic activities that can call attention to the iniquities of the moment. Candle light/Rosary processions and Prayer Vigils are also both options and examples. The Catholic Bishops of Nigeria, led by both His Eminence Cardinal Onaiyekan and the President of our Conference undertook a procession wearing black soutanes around Abuja. The symbolism was not lost on the general public.
Third, Churches can, during these periods pay solidarity visits to areas of conflict. These visits can be organised by local Churches but they also give the body of Christ an opportunity to bear public witness and solidarity. This solidarity can be expressed by rallying resources as it was in the days of the Apostles to support the Churches in difficulties. This kind of public witnessing is important because it always gives believers an opportunity to share food, clothes, money or whatever to the poor across faiths. In this way, non-believers can see the meaning of our faith. We in the Diocese of Sokoto have done this in the face of our crises and it was always interesting to see our non-Christian brothers who wonder and marvel at the spirit of our faith.
Fourth, as I have said, we have been tempted to see banditry, kidnappings and the culture of death that Boko Haram has inflicted on us as our definition of insecurity. However, it is important for us to note that indeed, hunger, injustice, poverty, squalor, all that deface the face of a human being created in the image and likeness of Jesus Christ, are all manifestations of violence. Our fight for a good society therefore does not end as long as there are hungry and poor people, as long as there are fellow citizens who are living below the standards of human existence. Our challenge as Christians is to open up our understanding of what constitutes insecurity beyond being victims of physical violence.
There are of course, other layers of conflict that are part of our daily menu. The pandemic we find ourselves in today requires a Christian response. Again, we are called out to prayer and solidarity. In a strange twist, Christianity has always thrived in moments of crisis or even direct persecution of Christians. How we react is important. The wife of the Pastor of CAN who was killed in Adamawa, the parents of Leah Sharibu, all have testified to the fact that they were saddened by the tragedies around them, yet, the firmness of the faith of their husband and daughter was a far greater source of strength for them. This is witness and the martyrs are all over if we have the eyes to see.
It is said that in ancient times, while Christians responded by prayer and solidarity, sharing food, visiting the sick, others appealed to their pagan gods and saved whatever little they had for themselves and their families. It was the Christians who reached out. After pandemics, people turned to the Christians, wondering what their inspiration had been. Pandemics, insurgencies, wars, all offer opportunity for us to raise the cross of Christ and say with Constantine, by this sign, we shall conquer! In times of crises, war or insurrections or pandemics, Christians must obey the legitimate laws of the land especially those enacted for the common good and the safety of all. We Christians are because our state is and we owe our country the obligation to support those policies of government that guarantee the good of all. That is why, it is a mistake for people in government to think that criticisms of policies are a sign of bad faith.
Christian leaders are wrong for example to encourage their members not to, say, join the security services on grounds of pacifism. We have to be alive and the state must be safe before we can practice our faith. We have no right to endanger the safety of others even if certain laws make us uncomfortable. For example, those Christian leaders who ask their members not to take the vaccine are acting irresponsibility and abusing their powers and misusing their influence. Covid-19 is real and we cannot pray or wish it away. So, when government asks us to wash our hands, we may be right to ask them to give us water, but we cannot refuse to do so on grounds of faith. No sensible religious leader should tell his members not to wear the mask for religious reasons because it is wrong. So, in moments of crisis, we must be guided by informed consciences and we leaders are in the business of helping our members to make informed decisions.
Finally, let us return to the beginning as we try to end our brief reflections. As I said, I am quite humbled by the kind invitation that you extended to me. I am even happier that by the grace of God, you were quick to see the hand of the devil and retreated quickly to set your house in order. I congratulate all of you have allowing the spirit of Christ to drive out darkness and bring reconciliation back to your Church. We must remain relentless in fighting for Christian unity, a unity based on a common purpose and informed by the fine principles that enabled Eleven frightened, poverty stricken, defenseless semi illiterate people to truly take the gospel to all the ends of the earth. That spirit still drives our Church and to hide its light is the worst form of insecurity. It is our hope that God will guide and help us to fulfil His will.
I thank and ask God to bless the African Church, the entire body of Christ and our dear nation. A happy 120th anniversary. St. James has already warned us about the reasons why the body of Christ is often in crisis. The temptations triggered off of temporal power must be banished from among us. St Paul told the Colossians: Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you (3:13). We must not use temporal means to resolve spiritual problems.