Why the Church Must Reclaim the Initiative for Nigeria’s Future
“I have lived, sir, a long time and the longer I live the more convincing proofs I see of this truth – that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?” – Benjamin Franklin
THE DARK CLOUDS ARE GATHERING
Nigeria is on the brink. Except for brief periods of reprieve, the country has steadily moved closer and closer to the abyss in the last two decades. But things are now reaching a crescendo: the forces that have historically been known to torpedo nations seem to have finally aligned over our skies. We have prided ourselves to be a nation that can experience great crisis one day, and then wake up the following day and laugh and forget it all. But somehow we have also been naïve, blinded to the fact that with every crisis that has been unresolved, the dent in our national psyche has deepened.
We have been incredibly insensitive to the fact that with the sustained assault on values, the national psyche has suffered severe damage.
Instead of wisely using periods of reprieve to reflect, repent and find resolution, we have been fooled into thinking that we can be the exception to the norm, that we can sweep the issues under the carpet and that they would just go away. But they that sow the wind will reap the whirl wind. History has proven that there is always a day of reckoning, and that if nations do not find the courage to resolve the issues that are crucial to their continued wellbeing in peaceful times, they will face resolution in unpleasant and complicated ways. As financial historian, Ron Chernow, once wrote, it is “old-fashioned banker’s wisdom, that in prosperous times one should meditate upon past crises.”7
We have not shown ourselves to be a thoughtful people. We continue to be frivolous in the face of imminent danger. We have perfected the art of “moving on” as one institution after another has collapsed. Our national soul has become calloused. We are no longer moved when we see, all across the nation, the ruins of institutions that were once glorious. The loss of feeling is one of the final signs of decay and death.
The loss of feeling is one of the final signs of decay and death.
Monumental national failings have failed, and continue to fail, to lead us to self-examination. This was the undoing of the nation of Israel and that of many nations and empires in history. God continually warned Israel of impending doom if it failed to examine its ways and repent; but Israel ignored the warnings to their peril. It has been noted that when the Barbarians finally reached Rome, they were disappointed because there was nothing left to conquer: Rome had already collapsed from the inside. Rome had failed to continually self-examine. As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” One writer has stated that “A nation that loses its raison d’être cannot long survive.”
“A nation that loses its raison d’être cannot long survive.”
I am quite aware that many Christians are quick to dismiss any discussion about the precariousness of the country’s situation, and to label those who bring it up as alarmists. Such discussion, they believe, is the talk of unbelief; the talk of those who cannot see with eyes of faith; the talk of those who don’t know that God is a big God and can prevent any crisis. This argument would be plausible, if as Christians, we had been able to use our faith to tackle the corruption that has mangled the soul of our nation. This argument would be meaningful if we had used our faith to halt the jihadists. This argument would be convincing if we had used our faith to lift the nation out of abject poverty. This argument would be sensible if we had used our faith to restore sanity to our public institutions.
At no other time, perhaps with the exception of the Civil War, has Nigeria faced as uncertain a future as it presently does. The writing is on the wall: all is not well with Nigeria. But we do not have to go the way of perdition – if the church will arise.
TO ENGAGE OR NOT TO ENGAGE
The church was an active player and major influence in every area of our national life prior to independence. At Nigeria’s independence, the Church stood head and shoulders above any other group, and deservingly so: it had, more than any other institution, contributed to shaping the life of the young nation. The foundation of the most vibrant institutions that then served the nation was laid by Christian groups. Unfortunately however, the Church gradually took to the side lines and watched as every institution that defined the life of the nation collapsed. The Church became completely missing in the great enterprise of nation building and preservation. We became completely reactionary rather than prophetic as the great ship of state sailed in dangerous waters. We raised our voices, even then unconvincingly, only when evil of the most extreme form was being perpetrated. We have been missing in action for about three decades. The Church has stayed inside its walls as the nation has slid into despondency.
The debate about the Church’s participation in national affairs came to the fore during the fuel subsidy crisis of January 2012. Many Christians expressed disappointment about the quietness of the Church and its leadership, while the brouhaha lasted. As the complaints became loud, many leaders argued that the role of the Church in the life of the nation was just to pray. Any other response would amount to “stepping beyond our calling.” The Church has been called to pray and preach the gospel – nothing more than that. That has been the summary of our attitude over the last thirty years. The debate about the properness of the Church and its leadership to engage the nation in all its spheres has continued to rage – but the overwhelming verdict, at least on the part of the majority in leadership, has been against any active engagement.
But the overwhelming testimony of the Scriptures supports the active engagement of God’s people with society. Jesus stated clearly that we have been called to be light and salt. We have been called to participate in the affairs that define the life of the communities and nations to which we belong. We also have the overwhelming testimony of history: the role played by such giants as Martin Luther, John Calvin, William Wilberforce, Granville Sharp, George Whitfield, Mary Slessor, Samuel Ajayi Crowther, Martin Luther King Jr. and hundreds of others, in addressing the social, economic and political issues of their times, changed the course of history and benefited the rest of humanity. Their roles in history will always tug at our consciences.
We have invented every excuse to defend our inaction. The church in Nigeria has committed what Christian social activist, Rick Scarborough, has called, “the sin of silence.” The state of our nation is a stain on our Christianity; it questions the authenticity of our faith. We have stood aloof as the nation has sunk; we have remained unconcerned as the cause of righteousness and justice has suffered; we have continued to celebrate as orphans and widows are denied justice; we have turned a blind eye as whole communities have been desecrated. Our cathedrals have become our prisons rather than the mountain from which the message of righteousness goes forth. We have shied away from addressing the issues that matter. We have become completely insulated from the life of the nation: our consciences closed from the cries of the helpless. We do not want to be controversial; so we abstain altogether. The exhortation of Martin Luther King Jr. is most useful for us today: “On some positions, Cowardice asks the question ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question ‘Is it politic?’ And Vanity comes along and asks the question ‘Is it popular?’ But Conscience asks the question ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.”
The exhortation of Martin Luther King Jr. is most useful for us today: “On some positions, Cowardice asks the question ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question ‘Is it politic?’ And Vanity comes along and asks the question ‘Is it popular?’ But Conscience asks the question ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.”
The Scriptures make it clear that we have a responsibility to our nation. The responsibility to stand up for the oppressed; the responsibility to speak against all forms of evil: bribery, corruption, abortion, nepotism; the responsibility to defend the rights of the weak; the responsibility to leave behind an inheritance for the welfare of the coming generations; the responsibility to ensure that the elderly are cared for; and on and on we can go. The result of shirking that responsibility can be seen in the decay and death that prevails in our nation. We have justified our inaction by claiming that our jurisdiction does not extend beyond the “spiritual.” But the scriptures clearly call us out on this.
Is this not the fast which I choose
To loosen the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the bands of the yoke,
And to let the oppressed go free
And break every yoke?
Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry
And bring the homeless into the house;
When you see the naked, to cover him;
And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then your light will break out like the dawn,
And your recovery will speedily spring forth;
And your righteousness will go before you
The glory of the Lord will be your rear guard (Isaiah 58:6-8).
A generation must rise that rejects the irresponsibility of our present disconnectedness; a generation that rejects a theology of isolation. We have a unique opportunity in history to re-establish the foundation and reinforce the reality of Nigeria’s destiny. The church as a prophetic voice must reclaim the initiative for steering the nation towards the fullness of its potential. Even though the church has not been the salt of the earth and the light of the world with regards to Nigeria’s socio-political and economic spheres for many decades, we can, if we choose to, radically reverse, within a short period of time, the direction in which the nation is presently headed. As sons and daughters of the men and women who laid the foundation of this nation, history places upon us the burden of reclaiming the initiative for her future.
The church in Nigeria has committed what Christian social activist, Rick Scarborough, has called, “the sin of silence.”
Christian thinker Francis Schaeffer, poignantly captured the need for the church to actively engage culture when he wrote: “To be a real revolutionary you must become involved in a real revolution . . . a revolution in which we may again hope to see good results, not only in individuals going to heaven but in Christ who is Lord becoming Lord in fact in this culture of ours to give us even in this fallen world something of both truth and beauty.”9 Presently we see gloom and darkness, but if we boldly step into the ring, we can quickly turn around the fortunes of our nation. As Scarborough has written, “Christians, in large measure, have been far too silent for far too long on far too many issues. Our silence from these issues and withdrawal from the conflict has enabled Satan and his forces to steal our country. The walls of morality and decency have been destroyed and the barbarians are now ransacking the cities. We can no longer afford to hide in the safety of our Christian schools, our Christian television networks, our Christian church buildings and our Christian resorts. We have responsibility to be salt and light in the world.”
“We can no longer afford to hide in the safety of our Christian schools, our Christian television networks, our Christian church buildings and our Christian resorts. We have responsibility to be salt and light in the world” Rick Scarborough.
SPIRITIAL LEADERSHIP VERSUS RELIGIOUS LEADERSHIP
It was Martin Luther King Jr. who made the profound statement that “The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority.” It is an unfortunate reality of Nigeria’s recent history that we have been dying under the weight of religion and religious leadership: the weight of the conforming majority. Nigeria is in dire need of spiritual leaders as opposed to religious leaders.
Religious leaders are conformists – always trying to preserve their little corners; spiritual leaders are large hearted. Religious leaders are always arguing about the need to maintain the status quo; spiritual leaders venture beyond the comfort of the present to lay hold of a future that is better than the present or the past. Religious leaders can never be caught taking a definite stand on major issues; spiritual leaders are distinguished by moral clarity. Religious leaders lead based on popular opinion; spiritual leaders are truth-driven. Religious leaders are bound to organizations and buildings; spiritual leaders are borderless. Religious leaders thrive on talk; spiritual leaders thrive on action. Religious leaders are motivated by self-preservation; spiritual leaders are driven by the greater good. The sole purpose of religious leaders is to keep the establishment going; the concern of spiritual leaders is to advance the kingdom of God. Religious leaders are only comfortable and can only stand their own in the midst of adherents; spiritual leaders embrace the entire world as God’s harvest field. Religious leaders thrive on diplomacy; spiritual leaders are known by forthrightness. At the heart of Jesus’ perpetual struggle with the Pharisees was the issue of spirituality versus religiosity.
A major reason why Nigeria has one of the largest Christian populations in the world, but regularly ranks as one of the most corrupt is because much of Christian leadership in the country is presently populated by religious rather than spiritual, men and women. If Nigeria will ever get out of its present rut, there must be a reformation in the ranks of Christian leadership. We need a complete overhaul. This will not come by any particular legislation, but by a revolution that arises out of discomfort and dissatisfaction. We must revolt against the religious machine that will always compromise the standards of justice on the altar of self-preservation. We must reject the smooth but vain words of religious careerists who say “all is well,” when all is clearly not well. A new generation must distance itself from the descendants of Cain, who are ever ready to sell our collective birth right for a morsel of bread. We must end our contract with the protégés of Balaam, who will prophesy for any fee.
National reformation will never come via the platform of religious leadership. But the odds are presently stacked against spiritual leaders. If Nigeria will ever see change through the church, we must reverse the present reality. We must begin to value spiritual leadership. Unlike religious leadership, spiritual leadership is not restricted to the pulpit. A spiritual leader may or may not be a pulpit leader. A spiritual leader may be a banker or pastor or sportsman or entrepreneur or educationist or writer or an artist. The stability of our future lies in a deliberate cultivation of a new generation of spiritual leaders. The more the influence of spiritual leaders is diffused into our culture, the greater the chance for a different outcome than we have been having for the last three to five decades.
Spiritual leaders have a penetrating insight and a moral clarity that often enables them to see beyond the muddle in the present and chart a meaningful pathway to the future. They are able to lift the soul of a people beyond the oppression and mundaneness that often blocks vision.
A classic example of the power of spiritual leadership is the story of Harriet Beecher Stowe and her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Born Harriet Elisabeth Beecher in 1811, to revivalist and reformer, Rev. Lyman Beecher, and his wife, Roxanna Foote, Harriet grew up in a devoted Christian family. At the age of twenty-five, she married Calvin Ellis Stowe, a professor of biblical literature. While raising her children, she found time to write, publishing her first book at the age of thirty-two. When she visited Kentucky, a slave-state in the South, in 1877, and witnessed the horror of slavery, she returned home deeply disturbed. “She brooded over how she could respond.”11 On March 9, 1850, Stowe wrote to the editor of National Era, a weekly antislavery journal published in Washington, that she planned to write a story about the problem of slavery: “I feel now that the time is come when even a woman or a child who can speak a word for freedom and humanity is bound to speak. . . . I hope every woman who can write will not be silent.”12
Spiritual leaders have a penetrating insight and a moral clarity that often enables them to see beyond the muddle in the present and chart a meaningful pathway to the future.
The story was serialised in the journal from June 1851 to April 1852. It was published as a book with the title, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in 1852. The novel so vividly portrayed the evil of slavery that it scandalised the conscience of the nation. The book “energized anti-slavery forces in the American North, while provoking widespread anger in the South;”13 its emotional portrayal “of the impact of slavery captured the nation’s attention. It added to the debate about abolition and slavery, and aroused opposition in the South;”14 and, it was “a powerful indictment of slavery.”15 As one commentator has written, “Although Harriet Beecher Stowe became a hated figure in the slave-owning States, her novel galvanized anti-slavery sentiment in the North. Many historians regard her novel as a significant force in leading to the Civil War which ended in the defeat of the Confederate States of America and the abolition of slavery in the USA.”16 Stowe herself wrote: “I wrote what I did because as a woman, as a mother, I was oppressed and broken-hearted with the sorrows and injustice I saw, because as a Christian I felt the dishonour to Christianity – because as a lover of my county, I trembled at the coming day of wrath.”17 It sold ten thousand copies the first week and three hundred thousand the first year. It had sold one million copies before the Civil War. When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in 1863, he is reported to have said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”
Stowe was a house wife who was so moved by the evil of slavery that she caught a vision which became a book that transformed her generation. She was a spiritual leader even though she never led a local church. Her submission to the leading of the Spirit of Christ in her emboldened her to take up a cause that was dear to God’s heart. She was not known as a religious leader, but she was definitely a spiritual leader. As one commentator has written, “A woman of her era was supposed to write nice stories, not stories that would disturb the conscience of a nation. She was supposed to marry well, raise well-bred children, participate in a few charitable activities and be fondly remembered by all who knew her. That was the life she was supposed to have. But she had been raised in a family that believed that following Jesus means changing the world from the nightmare it often is, into the dream that God intends. And sometimes that means marching to the beat of a different drummer. Sometimes that means caring when it is tempting to care less, or standing up when others sit down. Sometimes it means speaking up when others shut up. Sometimes it means being different – even being crazy.”18
We need a major paradigm shift if we hope for a better future. It was Albert Einstein who famously defined madness as continually doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome. We must change course and we must change it quickly. The complacency that has defined the ranks of religious leadership in Nigeria is badly hurting our prospects for change. Because Nigeria is a deeply religious nation, the character of the populace is to a large extent shaped by the character of religious leadership. The compromise and complacency that has defined religious leadership for decades has also defined the general populace. Because we are a religious nation, we are weak because religious leadership has been weak. We must completely reject the apathy that presently oppresses our collective soul.
The complacency that has defined the ranks of religious leadership in Nigeria is badly hurting our prospects for change.
THE PRINCIPLE OF THE PASSIONATE FEW
Like humans, nations have souls. A French scholar once wrote, “A state is an institution; a nation is a soul, a spiritual quality.” The soul of a thing can be defined as its inner character, configuration or structure, which embodies the principles upon which it is established and guides its general behaviour, its actions or inactions, and its response to external forces. The character of a nation’s soul is determined by its cultural, social, educational, economic, historical, religious and political formation over a period of many years or decades.
Anthony Harrigan, one time president of the United States Business and Industrial Council once sounded a note of warning to America, which speaks to Nigeria’s situation today: “The role of character has always been a key factor in the rise and fall of nations. And one can be sure that America is no exception to this rule of history. We won’t survive as a country because we are smarter or more sophisticated but because we are – we hope – stronger inwardly. In short, character is the only effective bulwark against internal and external forces that lead to a country’s disintegration or collapse.”
One of the most deplorable states of the soul is apathy. Unfortunately, Nigeria’s soul (and the soul of the church in Nigeria with regards to national issues) is presently defined by this most unfortunate condition—apathy, indifference, passiveness, unresponsiveness, lassitude, half-heartedness. In this hour of national crisis, the church is coasting along sleepily, aided by lullabies from many pulpits. History calls upon us in this hour to “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” It is clear from the Scriptures that God vehemently hates indifference: “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16).
“The role of character has always been a key factor in the rise and fall of nations,” Anthony Harrigan.
The determination of one man or just a few people has the potential to lift or sink a nation’s soul. From the early 1920s to the end of World War II, Hitler and the Nazis demonised the soul of the German Republic. On the other hand, the philosophy and sacrifice of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his fellow travellers brought about a significant shift in the soul of the United States of America in the 1950s and 1960s. The Bolsheviks took over Russia in the 1917 October Revolution with less than one percent of the population. As author Rick Joyner has noted, “The tipping points of history have often been caused by less than 1 percent of a population. For example, Lenin took over Russia, one of the largest and most populous nations on the earth at the time, with only 20,000 Bolsheviks, far less than 1 percent of the population. He was able to do this because of the principle that a tiny percentage of passionate or devoted people will control the majority who are passive.”
The revolution that will transform Nigeria will most likely not come from the mass of the population – but from a passionate few. The state of affairs of our nation has remained dire because the church has been a complacent majority.
The state of affairs of our nation has remained dire because the church has been a complacent majority.
Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize winner has brilliantly stated that “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” The famous quote by Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), the prominent German pastor and theologian who at first supported Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, but then became disillusioned when Hitler showed his true hand, and who afterwards became an outspoken public foe of Hitler, eventually spending the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps, is one of the most powerful warnings about the dangers of apathy:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
“You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say” – Martin Luther
It was Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.” Our backs have been bent for decades and the forces of evil and destruction have ridden triumphantly on it. We have successfully deluded ourselves as a nation into thinking we are a happy people: which for us means that we have perfected the art of living under a state of oppressiveness. Perhaps the apathy that presently holds us bound, stems from decades of oppression, but we must now shake off this destructive lethargy.
We have successfully deluded ourselves as a nation into thinking we are a happy people: which for us means that we have perfected the art of living under a state of oppressiveness.
One of the most stirring denouncements of apathy and fear in the scriptures is the Song of Deborah in Judges 5: 12–18
12 Wake up, wake up, Deborah! Wake up, wake up, sing a song! On your feet, Barak! Take your prisoners, son of Abinoam! 13 Then the remnant went down to greet the brave ones. The people of God joined the mighty ones. 14 The captains from Ephraim came to the valley, behind you, Benjamin, with your troops. Captains marched down from Makir, from Zebulun high-ranking leaders came down. 15 Issachar’s princes rallied to Deborah, Issachar stood fast with Barak, backing him up on the field of battle. But in Reuben’s divisions there was much second-guessing.16 Why all those campfire discussions? Diverted and distracted, Reuben’s divisions couldn’t make up their minds. 17 Gilead played it safe across the Jordan, and Dan, why did he go off sailing? Asher kept his distance on the seacoast, safe and secure in his harbours. 18 But Zebulun risked life and limb, defied death, as did Naphtali on the battle heights.
Deborah’s song is an apt metaphor for the church in Nigeria. Instead of decisiveness and courage, we have become masters at second-guessing; we have been having campfire discussions; we have been playing it safe; we have gone off sailing; and most damaging, like Asher, we have kept our distance on the seacoast, safe and secure in our harbours.
The church in Nigeria must shake off the apathy that presently defines it and become engaged, involved, and present in the affairs of the nation. We can become the salt and the light that the nation desperately needs if we make up our minds to do this.
Like Asher, we have kept our distance on the seacoast, safe and secure in our harbours.
FROM TAKERS TO GIVERS
The church in Nigeria presently has the dubious reputation of being a “taking church.” Our most prominent message is that people should give – but only to us. The church in Nigeria is anything but a giving church. The apostle Paul praised the Macedonian church for their generosity in giving. And he said it is more blessed to give than to receive. If the church in Nigeria will ever be the vehicle for change, there must be a radical change in this area. There are many examples of churches doing excellent social work in their communities and these should be praised and encouraged, but on the whole the culture of the church in Nigeria has been more of selfishness than sacrifice.
My work as a researcher frequently takes me around the country, and on a trip to one of the first generation universities about two years ago, I was really surprised by how run-down the school had become. It was a shock that a university that was founded with great hopes and dreams was now nothing more than a glorified secondary school. As I moved round the campus I was confronted by scores of banners advertising the student fellowships of various churches. The banners were in your face everywhere you went – there was obviously a real battle going on for the allegiance of students to individual groups.
As I pondered over the situation while conducting my business around the school, a thought suddenly struck me, it was like an epiphany, I suddenly realised that I had not seen any building with a plaque saying it had been built by any of the churches with the banners I had seen. There was no science laboratory or engineering building or students’ hostel or arts studio or basketball court or clinic or library or medical research centre or even any renovated structure dedicated to any of those churches with banners because they had fully or partly funded it.
The churches were fighting for religious space, competing for adherents, banners littered the whole campus, but not a single one of those churches or groups was making any contribution to the life of the school. They couldn’t care less if every facility, every structure, in that institution was collapsing or had collapsed. They would be fine as long as one more student joined their fellowship. They could not be bothered if the quality of teaching was appalling, as long as one more Halleluiah rang from church meetings going on every night of the week. At national leadership meetings of those groups, where they would be required to report their progress to the heads of their denominations or organisations, no questions would be asked about the state of their institutions, only about their fellowships. This, I thought, was the height of callousness.
The church in Nigeria presently has the dubious reputation of being a “taking church.” Our most prominent message is that people should give – but only to us.
CONTENDING FOR THE SOUL OF THE NATION: THE RISE OF A NEHEMIAH GENERATION
One writer has noted that “Social systems have a greater last minute breathing power and the guardians of the status quo are always on hand with their oxygen tanks to keep the old order alive.” In essence the forces that have kept the nation in a state of perpetual immobility will not give up their hold without a fight. History has however proven time and again that the chains of oppression cannot withstand the force of a determined people.
How determined are we to fight? What price are we willing to pay to see Nigeria’s broken walls rebuilt? How far are we willing to go in taking a stand against oppression, corruption, injustice and waste? How much are we willing to sacrifice for change?
Winston Churchill’s memorable speech to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940, around the time of the Battle of France during World War II speaks powerfully to us today:
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender . . .
“Social systems have a greater last minute breathing power and the guardians of the status quo are always on hand with their oxygen tanks to keep the old order alive.”
Our generation can successfully mount a sustained assault on the evil and foolishness that makes our oil industry one of the most corrupt in the world, that sends thousands of young Nigerians across the Atlantic (and now to Ghana – there are presently more than 70,000 Nigerians in Ghanaian universities, spending about one billion dollars annually) every year in search of useful and relevant undergraduate and graduate degrees, that has made Nigeria one of the three countries on earth where polio is still endemic (the other two are Pakistan and Afghanistan), that makes thousands of Nigerians travel to India and Europe every year for medical help (“We lose at least $500m every year to patients travelling abroad for treatment. India makes $260m from Nigerian patients annually. It is estimated that this year  alone, India would gain between $1bn and $2bn from medical tourism,” Osahon Enabulele, National President, Nigerian Medical Association), that has made northern Nigeria one of the most troubled regions on earth, that makes Nigeria the 8th most corrupt nation in the world in 2013 (Transparency International), that has made Nigeria the country with the highest prevalence of Vesico-Vaginal Fistula in the world (with over 200,000 patients and an annual incidence at 20,000 – that is 40% of the global cases in Nigeria alone, according to USAID), that has made Nigeria the country with the second highest number of HIV/AIDS patients in the world (National Action Committee on Aids (NACA)), and that has made Nigeria the seventh worst country to grow old in (Global Age Watch Index 2013 ranking of 91 countries).
We can march, and keep marching, until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).
We can make up our minds to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah 61:4:
Then they will rebuild the ancient ruins,
They will raise up the former devastations;
And they will repair the ruined cities,
The desolations of many generations.
“Profound, history-changing restoration of culture is possible through the vision and enterprise of a people motivated by a vital faith.” Douglas Holladay
We must gradually build up our moral strength (and that of coming generations) to reject oppression. When we consider the destruction and death that has been perpetrated, and that will possibly still be perpetrated, by those who are bent on holding Nigeria hostage, it is easy to hide in self-preservation. It is easy to choose to keep quiet when one considers the desperation of men whose consciences have been sold to greed and evil and who by the very nature of what their soul has been given over to, are willing to steal, kill and destroy. But we can, like Nehemiah, refuse to be intimidated by Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem.
Those who have challenged tyrants and changed history are not those who do not have anything to fear, but those whose faith in God and desperation for reform are greater than the tyranny of oppressors.
Because of the magnitude of the ruins that lie all around us, many have given up hope that Nigeria can recover, or recover quickly enough, from the results of almost fifty years of decline. But Nehemiah’s story gives us hope. The fierceness of his determination in the face of despair and intimidation can energize our spirits. The opposition was clearly strong. Nehemiah reported:
1 Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered at the Jews. 2 And he said in the presence of his brothers and of the army of Samaria, “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore it for themselves? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish up in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?” 3 Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, “Yes, what they are building—if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!”
But Nehemiah prayed and then moved on. Some verses later he wrote, “So we built the wall.”
The same question tugs at our national soul today: Will we build the wall? In the midst of moral, social and cultural decay, will we build the wall? In the midst of institutionalized corruption and sabotage, will we build the wall? In the midst of a growing Islamist insurgency, will we build the wall? In the midst of continued threat to our lives, will we build the wall?
One thing is sure, when Nehemiahs rise, tyrants fall and nations are rebuilt.
The same question tugs at our national soul today: Will we build the wall?
The Sword versus the Trowel
I have been a part of many hot debates and sat through conferences where the argument revolved around the means of achieving national reformation: prayer and being a good citizen OR activism and deliberate engagement.
Many Christians who are concerned about the state of the nation are quick to criticise other Christians who do not go about it their way. The argument is that theirs is the Christian way.
Many who are actively involved in intercession and promoting good citizenship and social responsibility believe that is the proper way for a Christian to fight the ills of society and stand against injustice. Others believe in publicly speaking out against the ills of society, organising rallies, and mobilizing to challenge specific issues. Both sides have been pitched against each other for too long and this hurts our chances of rebuilding the nation.
Nehemiah presents us with a model that marries the two strategies:
15 When our enemies heard that it was known to us and that God had frustrated their plan, we all returned to the wall, each to his work.16 From that day on, half of my servants worked on construction, and half held the spears, shields, bows, and coats of mail. And the leaders stood behind the whole house of Judah, 17 who were building on the wall. Those who carried burdens were loaded in such a way that each labored on the work with one hand and held his weapon with the other. 18 And each of the builders had his sword strapped at his side while he built. The man who sounded the trumpet was beside me. 19 And I said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, “The work is great and widely spread, and we are separated on the wall, far from one another. 20 In the place where you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us.”
What makes the difference is the heart through which either strategy is employed. Either strategy can simply become “only a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (I Corinthians 13:1), or as the Message translation puts it, “the creaking of a rusty gate,” when it flows from a selfish motive and not out of genuine compassion. Like Nehemiah, we will only have true authority to rebuild the nation, regardless of the strategy, to the degree that our hearts pulsate with love and genuine devotion.
A LESSON IN STRATEGY FROM WILLIAM WILBERFORCE
William Wilberforce’s campaign against the abolition of the slave trade and slavery throughout the British empire is considered to be one of the greatest moral achievements in recent history. One commentator goes as far as to say that he “arguably led the single most effective stand against evil and injustice in all history.” Wilberforce’s campaign was deeply influenced by his faith and his example can provide us with great inspiration today. The following lessons from Wilberforce’s career are reproduced from Douglas Holladay’s preface to a 1996 lecture on Wilberforce’s life by John Pollock.
Wilberforce’s whole life was animated by a deeply held personal faith in Jesus Christ. Rather than ascribing to lifeless dogma or dull, conventional religious thinking, Wilberforce and his colleagues were motivated by a robust personal belief in a living God who is concerned with individual human lives, justice, and the transformation of societies. At their core was a profound sense of the presence and power of God, giving them vision, courage and the necessary perspective to choose their issues and stand against the powerful interests aligned against them. Wilberforce, along with his friends, viewed himself as a pilgrim on a mission of mercy, never defining his identity or purposes by the flawed values of his age. This transcendent perspective made him the freest of men and therefore the most threatening force against the status quo.
Wilberforce had a deep sense of calling that grew into the conviction that he was to exercise his spiritual purpose into the realm of his secular responsibility. Too often people of faith draw a dichotomy between the spiritual and the secular. Religious activities are considered a lofty calling while secular involvements are viewed with disdain and believed to have little to do with true spirituality. As Wilberforce came to see, such thinking is flawed at its core and frequently results in a two-tiered religious caste system. Those with spiritual sensitivities are urged to pursue “religious” affairs, such as the ministry, rather than face the tough, complex struggles inherent in the swirl of business or politics. . . . Wilberforce’s life forcefully demonstrates that a person of conviction can make a real difference within a secular environment.
Wilberforce was committed to the strategic importance of a band of like-minded friends devoted to working together in chosen ventures. History bears testimony to the influence of individuals combining energies and skills to achieve a shared objective. As the [Scripture] states, “One can chase a thousand, two can put to flight ten thousand.” In his pursuit of reform, Wilberforce embodied this approach, which enables a small group to achieve extraordinary results. . . . The achievement of Wilberforce’s vision is largely attributable to the value he and his colleagues placed on harnessing their diverse skills while submitting their egos for the greater public good.
Wilberforce believed deeply in the power of ideas and moral beliefs to change culture through a campaign of sustained public persuasion. As historians point out, he and his associates actually pioneered many of the familiar modern forms of political organization and lobbying through their campaigns to change the attitudes of their nation. This was no small task, particularly in an age that pre-dated modern media and technology.
Wilberforce was willing to pay a steep cost for his courageous public stands and was remarkably persistent in pursuing his life task. As one who worked toward ideals that endure, he stands in dramatic contrast to both the “headline grabbing” of our age and the “bottom-line” mentality concerned only for swift results regardless of long-term consequences. For forty-seven years Wilberforce laboured for what some thought unachievable – the total eradication of slavery from the British empire. Suffering defeat upon defeat, he would not be denied. Only three days before his death in July 1883, Parliament took one of the greatest moral decisions by a legislative body in history, a decision counter to its own economic advantage. Wilberforce and his commitment to enduring virtues had prevailed.
Wilberforce’s labours and faith were grounded in a genuine humanity rather than a blinded fanaticism. Throughout his life he evidenced a disarming wit and unassuming modesty, possessing a contagious joy even in the midst of the most serious of personal and professional crises. . . . It was characteristic of Wilberforce that he worked comfortably not only with friends but with those opposed to his views on faith and society. His character remained the same. Without being defensive or sanctimonious, he expressed his beliefs in a natural and straightforward manner. . . . Wilberforce, while committed to deeply passionate causes, had his identity anchored elsewhere. So he was a man at peace in the storms of his times, one who integrated every facet of his life and thought within the perspective of his faith.
Wilberforce forged strategic partnerships for the common good irrespective of differences over methods, ideology, or religious beliefs. He attacked evils vigorously but worked with a spirit of respect and tolerance for people of very diverse allegiances. What mattered to him was real change, not rhetorical posturing.
This can be the beginning of the rise of an intelligent nation. History can look back to this time and say this was our finest hour.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” Edmund Burke