In these days of moral decay and political turmoil, how can we who call ourselves Christians summon fresh energies to be signs of contradiction in our society and to announce the Good News of Jesus Christ with courage, conviction and credibility? How can we reflect the image of Jesus Christ in our lives, in our communities, in our nation and in our world?
A lot of what is considered normal today in our Nigerian society is a direct affront on the Gospel of Christ and the values of the kingdom: the widespread indiscipline in the land, the corruption in all sectors of our society, the level of deceit and falsehood, the degree of violence in our society, the epidemic of greed and avarice, the bickering, squabbles and wrangling among people who call themselves followers of Jesus, the preponderance of fornication and adultery, the abuse of power and privilege and the scandalous gap between the rich and the poor. The craze for materialism in the society has led many Christians to the doorsteps of occultism and witchcraft. There is widespread advertisement of miracles, signs and wonders, and less and less attention given to preaching about living authentic and wholesome Christian lives.
Religion features at the very beginning of our nation’s constitution. In the preamble to the 1999 Nigerian constitution, it is affirmed that we intend to live together as one united country under God. Indeed the overwhelming majority of Nigerians are religious people. We believe in the supremacy of God. We believe that God is the very basis of our individual lives and our corporate existence. We believe in and relate with supernatural realities through prayers and supplications. We find churches, mosques, shrines and sundry prayer houses everywhere in the land. We take part in crusades, worship sessions and vigils; we offer sacrifices and observe fasting days and religious holidays; and we go in large numbers on religious pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Mecca, taking pride in being called Jerusalem Pilgrim (JP) or Alhaji, for the rest of our lives.
While there is noticeable decline in religious fervour in many parts of the world, the religious enterprise appears to be thriving very much in Nigeria, as more and more company warehouses and private buildings are being converted to prayer houses, and our sports facilities all over the country are being used more for religious crusades than for sporting events. Streets within our towns and villages, as well as inter-state highways are often blocked these days by enthusiastic worshippers who flock to churches and camp meetings. In many of our urban areas, there are as many churches and mosques as there are streets!
Within this religious firmament, priests, pastors and prophets, as well as sheikhs, imams and gurus of all sorts are swelling in number and having a field day. In the last few years, a new dimension has also been added to the thriving religious enterprise. It is the increased patronage of high ranking public officials who not only openly call for and sponsor regular prayer sessions in different prayer houses, but have themselves become born again Christians and prayer merchants, often appearing at church crusades and prayer vigils with all the paraphernalia of public office, and sometimes grabbing the microphone to deliver sanctimonious homilies and earth-shaking prayers.
Yes, these days, prayer and preaching sessions are no longer limited to churches, mosques and homes. They are held at corporate boardrooms, in government offices, in commercial buses and in open markets. Nigerians going about their daily business can be seen brandishing the Bible or the Koran, the Rosary or Islamic prayer beads. The largest billboards in our towns and cities are those advertising upcoming religious events. Religious exclamations such as “to God be the glory,” “praise the Lord,” and “Allahuakbar,” are often on the lips of Nigerians, at work or at play. Thus, from all outward indications, Nigerians are a chronically religious people. There is perhaps no other nation in the modern world with as much religiosity as contemporary Nigeria.
With all this show of religiosity or outward display of piety, one would have expected to see a very high degree of social morality in Nigeria, since all world religions generally promote truth, justice, honesty and probity. But this is not to be the case with us. The brand of Christianity that is experiencing the fastest growth in Nigeria today does not seem to have a place for the notion of the cross or for sacrifice which constitute the centre of traditional Christian doctrine and life. At a time when Christian leaders and groups should use the message of the cross and a modest and austere lifestyle to contradict the crass materialism and extreme economic liberalism of our age that are daily crushing the poor, we are confronted with scandalously expensive churches, harbouring stinkingly rich priests and nauseatingly flashy pastors, whose marks of success include palatial mansions, state of the art cars and custom designed suits and shoes.
There is an embarrassing contradiction between the high ethical demands of Christianity and the actual lives that many Christians are living. Fraud, thievery and roguery have been the order of the day, even as our environment is awash with prayers and ritual sacrifices to the God of truth, justice and righteousness. It doesn’t seem to be a matter of contradiction for many highly placed Nigerians that they embezzle or misappropriate stupendous amounts of public and company (or even church) funds, while at the same time struggling to occupy the front seats or even take religious titles and other honours in their churches and mosques.
Many Nigerians often fraudulently procure medical certificates of fitness from hospitals when they have not undergone any medical tests. They also obtain sick leave permits from doctors, when they are hale and hearty. They sometimes falsify the age of their children and obtain fake birth certificates in order to get them into nursery or primary schools earlier than the stipulated age. Holding the Bible or Quran in court, they vow to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, only to tell a bundle of lies. They routinely swear to false affidavits in order to claim some undeserved benefits, and make false age declarations when seeking employment or admission into institutions of learning.All these practices are so commonplace and so widespread that many young Nigerians are today unable to distinguish between good and evil or between right and wrong.
Many of our countrymen and women who engage in the sharp practices listed above would like to be seen as good and religious people. But in truth are they? Do they really know the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of holiness and righteousness, who in Leviticus 19:2 says “Be holy for I the Lord am holy?” Do they really know the God of Moses and Joshua who on Mount Sinai presented the 10 commandments as the terms of his contract with his people, insisting that fidelity to this ethical code is what will distinguish his people from all others? Do Nigerians who claim to worship God, but who at the same time offer and take bribe, defraud, evade tax and circumvent just laws in numerous ways, really know the God of Moses who in Exodus 22:8 says, “You will accept no bribes, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and is the cause of the ruin of the upright.”
Jesus Christ himself denounced the kind of religious practice that is not matched by high moral and ethical standards in private and social life (cf. Matthew 5-7). These standards include a high level of truth and honesty in interpersonal and social relationships, a high sense of purity, modesty and humility, a profound sense of self-sacrifice, a readiness to forgive as often as one is offended and a disposition towards peace and non-violence. He made his disciples realise that not all who claim to be his followers will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of the Father in heaven. And the will of the Father in heaven is that they be perfect as the heavenly father himself is perfect. (Matt 5:48).
Father Ojeifo is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Abuja.