Violence in Nigeria: Breaking the Country's Fatal Deadlock
The Language of Violence
The loss of ethical perspective stems from a reactionary theological method prevalent during the heyday of African independence in the late 1950s and early '60s. It prompted political and cultural criticism of the West and caused African theologians to engage in a hermeneutic of suspicion. Their theology began with the burden of trying to indigenize Christianity so that Africans who saw it as foreign would accept it. They criticized Western imperialism on one hand and Islam or traditional African religions on the other.
This approach did more harm than good. African theologians spent too much energy judging Western theologians, and spent little time developing theology to benefit God's kingdom in the African context. This impaired dialogue with the global community and other faiths. It censured society without equally criticizing itself. Consequently, in Nigeria today, "The land is full of bloodshed and the city is full of violence" (Ezek. 7:23). The Christian community has been lured into the language of violence instead of the language of dialogue, love, and compassion. Christians lack the antibodies to resist the temptation to fight back when attacked.
Christian leaders across the country argue that the Christmas Day bombings were a declaration of war on Christianity. "Nigerian Christians may have no other option than to fight back their attackers," the Christian Association of Nigeria recently told President Jonathan. Pastor Philip Mwelbish, the association's leader for Plateau State, told the Associated Press, "We have a proverb in Nigeria: 'If you push a goat to the wall, he will bite you.' [Muslims] have pushed us to the wall."
But do Nigerian Christians truly have no other option than to respond with the same violence meted out by Muslim extremists?
The unfortunate truth is that after decades of religious violence, many Nigerian Christians are no longer willing to listen to Jesus' command to turn the other cheek. Feeling that Muslim extremists have had enough of a field day, these Christians have placed their hope for redemption in violence because they misinterpret Jesus' cheek-turning as mere passivity. What they don't realize is that what violence cannot do, active nonviolence—just peacemaking—can do. "Violence begets violence," said Martin Luther King Jr. But active nonviolence begets justice, love, forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace.
Just peacemaking requires dialogue and reconciliation. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught his disciples the principle of just peacemaking. Many think that just peacemaking is an impossible ideal. But that is misreading the text—one of many effects of violence upon the clarity of the gospel in Nigeria. Close attention to the text shows that Jesus was offering something else: a "transforming initiative," in the words of ethicist Glen Stassen.
Christians need to understand that the central message of the Sermon on the Mount is a protest against the socioeconomic and sociopolitical injustices of Jesus' day. In preaching this sermon, Jesus demonstrates that he loves righteousness, justice, and human flourishing.