Violence in Nigeria: Breaking the Country's Fatal Deadlock
When a suicide bomber drove an explosives-packed car into the flagship church of one of Nigeria's largest denominations, angry Christian youth retaliated by burning Muslim shops and killing nearby motorcycle riders.
The February incident, which killed 12 and injured 40 at the Church of Christ in Nigeria's Jos headquarters, fueled the global debate over whether Nigeria will erupt into a religious civil war. Christmas Day bombings of northern churches by Islamist extremists, which killed 44, also fueled such fears. The headlines haven't stopped since. On Sunday, gunmen attacked church services in Kano and in Maiduguri, killing at least 21 people, including a pastor preparing for Communion.
Missing from all the analysis and commentary on the ethnic, political, and economic causes of such violence was one crucial element: theology.
Decades of violence have tested the faith of Nigerian Christians, but have also warped their theology. Too many of them now believe that violence is more redemptive than nonviolence; in other words, they resort to human efforts—traditional retaliation—when seeking justice. Correcting this warped theology offers the best way forward. Violence is a moral problem that challenges the core of the nature, presence, and power of the gospel in any environment.
Nigeria began the 21st century with the February 2000 slaughter of thousands in Kaduna over the introduction of Shari'ah law, and September 2001 saw a spree of church and mosque burnings in Jos. In November 2008, disputed local elections triggered clashes between Muslim and Christian youth in Jos. Hundreds died. In April 2011, riots following the controversial election of Christian president Goodluck Jonathan killed an estimated 800 people. Hundreds more have died in 2012 since Boko Haram militants urged Christians to leave the north.
The escalating attacks on churches and their members have prompted two main reactions. Some church leaders proclaim that Christians have the right to fight back against such evil. "We have turned both [cheeks], and they have slapped us. There is nothing else to turn," says John Praise, general overseer of Dominion Chapel International Churches. Other church leaders argue that, based on Jesus' teachings, Christians must always turn another cheek. "[Jesus] did that when he was arrested. It was what he used to conquer the world," says Bishop Wale Oke, a national vice president of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria.
Today the eye-for-an-eye camp is growing in numbers, while the cheek-turners are dwindling. However, both arguments challenge the core teaching of Christian faith and theology, resulting in a deadlock. Rather than fighting back or folding our hands, Christianity teaches us to leave vengeance to God while taking concrete steps to bring peace. Scripture says, "Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves."
After years of researching, writing, and living in two flashpoints—Kaduna and Jos—on Nigeria's fault line between its mostly Christian south and mostly Muslim north, I argue for a third response that will finally bring healing: just peacemaking.
In the book The Impact of Ethnic, Political, and Religious Violence, and a Theological Reflection on Its Healing, I outline the salient reasons why just peacemaking is the solution to Nigeria's cycles of sectarian strife. My research shows that both Muslims and Christians fall victim to the Devil's scheme of using human agents to perpetuate moral excess and corruption. For example, in order to maintain the status quo of systemic injustice and structural inequality, the Nigerian political elite pit the poor from both faith communities—Islam and Christianity—against each other. They do so by creating an environment of political, social, economic, and ethnic dissatisfaction. The resulting violence has affected both the way Christians and Muslims relate to one another, and also the way Christians do theology in Nigeria.