THE CHURCH NEEDS TO GET ITS ACT TOGETHER


I just finished reading a book titled, “Evangelicals and Politics in Asia, Africa, and Latin America,” by Paul Freston and published by Cambridge University Press in 2001. The treatise is typical of Cambridge Books. In all, I was fascinated by Chapter 10 of this book which focused on Nigeria. Excerpt from the aforesaid chapter (specifically pages 184-186) reads as follows:

CAN was founded in 1976 and initially comprised Catholic and mainline Protestant churches. Its president, during its most politicised phase, since 1988 has been a Catholic archbishop. The federal government under the Christian General Obasanjo (the only military president to have handed power to a civilian government) encouraged the birth of CAN in 1976, as a way to combat growing radicalism on both Muslim and Christian sides. But by 1988, CAN embraced almost every Christian church and had become so politicised it was almost an unofficial opposition to the regime. The Organisation of African Instituted Churches and the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) had joined. However, Catholics and older Protestant churches retained 40% percent each of voting power. The Pentecostals were anxious for membership, whether for political respectability, as Enwerem supposes, or for greater protection. But they had no illusions about the position they were expected to occupy within CAN. In 1985, the Catholic Archbishop, soon to be president of CAN, had even appealed for government assistance to curb the number of churches, lest there be a religious war.

 

CAN is criticized by Kukah Matthew Hassan for poor understanding of national politics, which it interprets in terms of an Islamic takeover plan. When protesting against Sharia in northern states and other perceived examples of bias, CAN curiously demands that the federal government restore diplomatic relations with Israel and set up pilgrim welfare boards for Christians as well as for Muslims; that church leaders who settle disputes between Christians be paid from public coffers, like Muslim qadis; that ecclesiastical courts be set up at government expense; and that in legal and political systems Christians be separated from Muslims. Assuming such requests were not made tongue-in-cheek to demonstrate the absurdity of Muslim pretensions, one can only conclude that Islam is providing the model for Christian politics, just as traditional Catholicism has provided the model for many evangelical politics in Latin America. While protesting against Islamisation of the country, these Christian leaders have ceded to the Islamisation of Christianity. Their requests would freeze Christianity as a communal interest group, which is the death-knell for any hope of social transformation through peaceful evangelism.

 

Enwerem concludes that, although “when CAN speaks, even a military government pays attention”, the organisation suffers from political naıvete´ and partisan concerns. It also lacks alliances with non-religious groups working for change. However, Enwerem also sees a danger of “fundamentalism”, even within the mainstream churches. As Peel says, Christian “fundamentalism” means mostly the wave of neo-Pentecostal or charismatic churches since the early 1970s, colloquially known as the “born-agains.” But the born-again phenomenon now extends into the Christian mainstream, and the idea of rebirth is readily applied to the nation. While independent churches, known as Aladura, date back to the 1920s and “holiness” (traditional Pentecostal) churches to the inter-war years, the “Pentecostal” (more middle-class charismatic) groups date from the 1970s. Ojo prefers the term “charismatic movement” and traces its origins to evangelical student groups. The most famous figure is Benson Idahosa, later president of the Pentecostal Fellowship. His Church of God Mission International has American links and preaches prosperity. In 1990, when re-democratisation seemed close, he resolved to “encourage the active mass participation of all Christians in the new political process.” The self-image of these groups can be seen in the advertisement published by the Pentecostal Fellowship in a national daily in 1997 and signed by Idahosa. Protesting against a campaign of calumny in the press (money raking, charlatanism and ritual murder), inspired by the devil, the PFN claims that “in only thirty years the population of born-again Christians in Nigeria has grown from almost nothing to more than sixteen million”. Not only does the PFN deny the specific charges, but it stresses the social and diplomatic role of born-agains. The church has a social responsibility. Nigerian missionaries carry national culture all over the world. It seems, however, that Idahosa spreads not only Nigerian culture but sometimes specific government objectives: in 1995, after the execution of writer Ken Saro Wiwa had brought international repudiation, Idahosa went to London as part of General as part of General Abacha’s charm offensive.

 

Much of this is similar to Latin America, but the difference (apart from the need to distance themselves from the Aladura’s unacceptable concessions to tradition) is the presence of Islam, an irreducible obstacle to Pentecostal growth and political aspirations. Despite this, they seem to aim not merely at preserving a non-confessional state, but at a specifically Christian one. Until the late 1970s, politics was considered unchristian, but the founding of the Christian Students’ Social Movement of Nigeria (CSSM) in 1977 helped to change that. At first, the emphasis was on spiritual warfare – the political arena is controlled by spiritual forces and can be set right if Christians pray for the nation. The CSSM’s prayer bulletin is full of prophecies or prayer points relating to socio-economic conditions which may be due to “forces of darkness.” “Let us ask God to move Nigeria out of OPEC.” “Let us plead with God to forgive our government for the expulsion of illegal aliens. NOTE: God does not allow the maltreatment of strangers whether they are good or bad.” While the former request is presumably anti-Islamic, the latter is notably divergent from conservative Christian politics elsewhere. 

In spite of this book’s lofty academic elegance, I have reservations on some of the points marshalled out. But first, let me begin with the areas where I seem to concur with the excerpt:

Let me start with the issue of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). The functions of the association are, among others, to meet regularly and take joint action on vital matters, especially on issues affecting the Christian faith and the welfare of the generality of Nigerians. CAN’s second objective is to serve as a basis of response to the unity of the church. CAN has the role of acting as a liaison committee through which member-churches can consult together and when necessary, make a common statement and take common actions. Unfortunately, CAN sometimes seems to be a toothless bulldog whenever a crisis arises, exhibiting no real powers to take decisive action on matters affecting Christians.

Over the years, the membership of CAN has been more clearly defined to comprise five major blocs of Christianity in Nigeria which are the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, Christian Council of Nigeria, Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, Organisation of African Instituted Churches and ECWA/TEKAN Fellowship. It is needful that in the spirit of unity, the presidency of the association revolves equitably around these five major blocs of Christianity in the country. With the cancer of religious intolerance ravaging the North-Eastern region of the country, we cannot afford to have a disunited CAN. 

     Bishop Kukah criticises CAN for its poor understanding of national politics, which it interprets in terms of an Islamic takeover plan. Well, with all due respect to the erudite clergyman, I beg to slightly differ. The psychology of getting even could best describe the Christian demands he enumerated. I actually believe that some those demands were not just based on cognition and emotions. They could be regarded as genuine demands. Granted that in Christianity, pilgrimage to the Holy Land is not a sine qua non of our faith (as with Islam where it is one of the five pillars of the religion), it is perfectly legitimate to request that a country which claims to be a non-aligned state to renew ties with the Jewish state, the geographical origin of Christianity so that Christians who wish to embark on pilgrimage can do that directly from their country. A demand for an ecclesiastical court may, however, be far-reaching when one considers that Christians have customary courts in all the southern states of the country. Sharia courts and area courts are regarded as variants of customary courts. With respect to the assertion of its political naivety, CAN must acquire dexterity of lobbying behind the scenes and influencing the polity in subtle manners. There are also ways CAN can liaise with pressure groups and even trade unions to achieve its major goals, without losing the flavour of a religious organisation.  

The author asserts that Nigerian Pentecostals “seem to aim not merely at preserving a non-confessional state but at a specifically Christian one.” In my humble opinion, no statement could be more debatable than this. CAN has always insisted that governments and the Nigerian populace should abide by the country’s constitutional secularity. I also believe that many Christians in this country have come to realise that you cannot “wish away” Islam as a major religion in this country. I also know that there are Muslims out there who believe in co-existence with other faiths. I have seen many of these types in the South-West of the country. However, in contrast, some Muslim leaders articulate a typical Islamic view on secularity, which represents the ideas of the majority of Muslims in Nigeria. Alhaji Akilu M. Idris, the Publicity Secretary of the Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI), Kaduna State branch, in arguing that the Nigerian Constitution does not provide for secularism, defined the word “secular” to mean: “worldly or material, not religious or spiritual (See New Nigeria Newspaper, April 18, 1987, @ page 1).

     And then what is wrong with the CSSM praying for Nigeria? Anyway, I can rightly assume that this book is written completely from the viewpoint of the flesh, and that is why the author cannot even comprehend why a church needs to pray for its government and its policies (See: 1 Timothy 2: 14 and 2: 1-15). And who says the backstage of the political arena is sometimes not shrouded in occultism? The internet and our national news media are rife with such stories. It is not fabrication borne out of believers’ minds.  

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