Any visitor to Nigeria will immediately notice that Nigerians take religion seriously. Our cities and highways are filled with places of worship, religious signs and symbols; our cars, buses, and even airplanes are decorated with religious stickers and posters and emblems. Everywhere you go in Nigeria you cannot but notice that this country takes religion seriously. I am not aware of any Nigerian musician—living or dead—who did not have some explicit religious or spiritual songs. Most Nollywood movies are also very religious in nature or carry religious messages. Religious narratives pervade our national culture. Thus, the lines between what is religious and what is not are disappearing in Nigeria. Indeed, one of the complexities of our times is that in an environment where everything is clothed in religious narrative and spiritual languages, one finds it hard to distinguish what is truly religious or genuinely spiritual from what is not.
For better or for worse, one of the consequences of God’s gift of freewill to human creatures is that God has allowed us to freely use God’s name to justify most statements and actions in the name of God. It is always hard to verify who is on God’s side, and whether God approves all that religious and spiritual people claim in God’s name.
We face a complex challenge in Nigeria on why we have so much religious posturing in our country, but little fruits of deep religious living and acting in our society. Most of our politicians are all religious. Many Northern Muslim politicians build small mosques at the entrance of their homes and palaces in an apparent show of their deep religious life and commitment to God, so it seems. Many Christians of means also build small chapels and praying corners in their homes and gather men and women of God around them, filling their space with religious and spiritual presence. This is not unusual, palace religious cults and royal spiritual guides were common in many civilizations of the past. It is already customary that state houses have places of worship. We want to cover all angles in Nigeria when it comes to matters concerning God.
But why is it that our religious claims and external show of piety and love of God have not translated into a strong ethical and spiritual force for the renewal of our societies in Nigeria? Why is it that religious men and women who are increasing by the day have continued to promise so much to our people and so little is being realized in the lives of our people? Is it that God is deaf to the cries of many Nigerians who are dying from preventable diseases, from hunger and starvation, and who continue to wallow in the filthy plains of poverty, joblessness, failed government, failing national structures and institutions, and empty promises of a better future by religious and political leaders in the country? Why is it that the standard of living of our people has continued to decline even with the significant increase in oil earnings for the country and in spite of the promises of over one year ago that the largesse from the fuel subsidy will be applied to improving social amenities and the overall well being of Nigerians?
Why is our religious passion so superficial, so egocentric, and so deceptive? Our religious claims have not been able to transform our land because it seems to me that we are working on the surface of religion in Nigeria. Indeed, the religious enterprise in Nigeria has taken on a life of its own. It has its own strange narrative, logic, and mysterious systems; it is becoming in many cases a very sophisticated business with largely predictable pattern awash with stories of possessions, demonic origin of every evil or ill in our society. There are also the constant pressures on fragile minds and hearts of the need for redemption and the threat of damnation, and an appeal from religious leaders for an endless appeasement and gratification of God through offertories of all kinds given in response to subtle and overt suasions from many big men of big gods. Thus becoming a pastor or preacher or a founder of a Christian religious group has become an all comers territory, with no clear standards, accountability, oversight and expectations.
Anyone can become a preacher, a healer or a prophet, and rightly so because in the thinking of many that is the full consequences of the promises of the Holy Spirit. In the face of any setback or misfortune, we all become vulnerable and restless in search of quick and cheap solutions forgetting that Christianity is a call to come and die with Jesus, but to rise again with him. Unfortunately, the religious poison being served our people is now running over and something needs to be done to put an end to the abuses within our Christian communities. This is the reason for the present crisis within the Christian Association of Nigeria which I interpret as the crisis of authority, credibility, and identity.
There is no other area of life in Nigeria that is as invaded as the religious territory. Everyone in Nigeria is a preacher of good news! Politicians are given the pulpit in churches and mosques to ‘preach’ or sing of the goodness of God. There are no statutes of limitations to what is allowed in the churches. As a result, the healthy tension which should exist between the church and the state seems to have been dissolved through the unholy alliance between religious leaders and politicians ‘to scratch my back and I will scratch your own.’
It is clear that there are many of us religious leaders who have materially benefited and are still benefiting from politicians and governments through land deals, monetary gifts, and donations of cars, airplanes, and houses. This is not to say that religious leaders should not be given gifts, but we need to draw a line between what is given for the service of God, the intentions of the giver, and what the religious leaders actually needs. I am convinced more than ever that the challenges of our times now call on us religious leaders to be wary of gifts from all sources; and to question politicians and wealthy individuals who always wish to shower religious leaders with gifts using funds from the state which they should use to improve the quality of life of Nigerians. If Nigerian religious leaders (here I am referring to Christian leaders) do not curtail their secular-materialism and greed, their runaway flamboyance, the penchant to seek for recognition and gratification or donations from all sources, and the constant desire for adulation and the lack of openness to criticism or corrections, they risk becoming an obstacle to the establishment of God’s kingdom in Nigeria.
In an atmosphere of greed and materialism, corruption and dishonesty and ‘to make it big at all cost’ mentality, Christian religious leaders should embrace the simple life style of the poor man of Galilee (Jesus Christ), and so strive to live simply, so that most Nigerians can simply live. The words of St. Paul rings with solemn clarity: “However, we do urge, brothers, to go on making even greater progress and to make a point of living quietly, attending to your own business and earning your living, just as we told you to, so that you are seen to be respectable by those outside the Church, though you do not have to depend on them" (1Thesalonians, 4: 11-12).
The religious leaders are prophets because they are supposedly seized by God; aflame with divine insight, and grounded in sound morality and strong evangelical will to do good and to tell truth to power. Christian religious leaders should by their words and credible life style influence Nigerian society to climb the high road of authentic Christian living by modeling the way and inspiring a vision of hope, and courage and a culture of transparency, accountability, honesty, and hard work. Unfortunately, as long as politicians and wealthy men and women doll out money to the churches, grant churches and their leaders some privileges of land, return church schools to churches, and give financial support for church initiatives, they have always had the unquestioned support of most of our preacher men and women. As long as one paid his or her tithes, made huge donations to support the church and church officials, then they are assured that church leaders will ‘canonize’ them as good Christians and sing songs of praise for them in our churches. Unfortunately, many Nigerian Christian ministers who have become tithe masters and exploitative seekers of ‘the first fruits’ from struggling Nigerians, imposing heavy financial burdens on them(Matthew 23: 4), forget that Jesus never asked any person for tithes before blessing them. Honestly, I do not think our churches and ministers are as needy and helpless as they claim; just as I do not think that Nigeria is as poor as our leaders have made us. Most church leaders can get by with the Sunday and special collections from their faithful; Nigerian Christians are generous, but their generosity should no longer be abused by their Christian leaders.
Furthermore, Nigeria is a blessed country, and it is a scandal that poverty should be spreading like a wild fire in our land. It is a sin for me as a priest to hobnob with political leaders in the country, to paint them in shining armor, sing their praises in my homilies when I know that some of them have blood on their hands. The political leaders in Nigeria who have refused to invest our oil money to construct our roads are responsible for the thousands of Nigerians who are dying on our roads because of their bad conditions; the political leaders who have refused to invest our oil money in our healthcare, and who travel abroad when they get ‘small headache’ while the ordinary people die from preventable diseases in Nigeria, and our women are dying in thousands from childbirth will account before God for the blood of many Rachels who are going to their untimely graves. It is a scandal then when we use the name of God to legitimize our political and economic leaders and give them front rows in our churches, and change the time and structure of our liturgies to accommodate their occasional visits to our churches.
This is scandalous for the very reason that many of these people bear responsibility for the inexcusable and unjustifiable poverty in our land given the many blessing of human, cultural and natural resources with which God has blessed our land. Nigeria should be an oasis of prosperity where many Africans from other parts of the continent who are wallowing in the dry desert of want and suffering could drink some waters of life. We can no longer celebrate and legitimize prosperity Gospel for a few rich and privileged Nigerians, while turning a blind eye to their false life styles, corruption, and seamy business deals which have left the majority hanging on to a thin bare thread of survival in the desert of what is becoming an adversity Gospel.
Perhaps the growing discontentment with religious leaders and with religion in Nigeria is a reflection of the increasing critical culture in the country; it is also a pointer to a new level of consciousness among our people about what should be the role of authentic religion in our country. We cannot allow ourselves to be enslaved in this whole narrative of fear, the diabolic, ancestral curse, enemies-everywhere preaching, and the promise of success and prosperity without any grounding in authentic freedom and hard work.
It seems to me that we need to raise fundamental questions about what it means to be a religious person in Nigeria. We need to raise the bar of religion beyond the externalism, empty ritualism, magical devotionalism and materialism which define religious claims and counter claims in Nigeria today. We need to interrogate the religious claims and counter claims which dominate our national life. We need too to question the place of money and money bags in our religious institutions, and why religious leaders in Nigeria are among the richest and most influential people today in the country. Unfortunately, the influence of most religious leaders is not always of a spiritual or moral kind.
This calls on us to discover the heart of religion because it is only in discovering the heart of religion, in entering into the hallowed portals of the heart of our God, that we can soar to higher ethical heights, deep spiritual wisdom, strong moral character. Authentic religion will lead to a transcending spirit of sacrifice, integrity, and selfless love needed to meet the steady drift of our land away from God and the things of God which makes for a better and healthy society.
I want to admit without sounding fundamentalist, that religion will save our land because it seems to be the one single cultural reality which we all embrace. We may not all go to the same church, worship the same God or embrace the same religious value, but we all take religion seriously in Nigeria. What it means is that we must seek the path to true religion by critically contesting some of the unworkable, exploitative, intolerant, and dangerous religious narratives of our times. We can begin by finding the right balance between religion and superstition; between religious sentiment, devotions, and authentic spiritual acts, values, and virtues which flow from a deeply converted heart. We need also to make a distinction between a transcending God who for me as a Christian is revealed in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the gods which we have all invented (the angry God, the God of fire and brimstone, the god who is an ATM and not a safe; a god who is interested in our tithes before he can bless us, the god of terror, violence, and the god who will pursue and kill my enemies among other false images of God prevalent in our Nigerian society).
We need a change of the center of religion in our popular consciousness from a purely functional relationship with God which demands of us little for the construction and realization of the Nigeria of our dream; we need a religion which is centered on conversion of life, and the transformation of the self from egocentric search, choices, and sinful acts to the search for the highest good of everyone through daily sacrifices, commitments and self-surrender.
From a Christian perspective the heart of religion is love, that is, Christianity transforms the individual into a loving and lovable person. A loving person who wishes in his or her life to bring out the happiness and fulfillment of others and who only finds fulfillment and joy in being part of other people’s happiness and fulfillment, and joy. Such a person conquers selfishness by selflessness; pride by humility, and the drive to dominate and exploit by a ceaseless urge to serve, comfort, and reach out to others in genuine show of compassion and care. Christianity makes people lovable because when they are clothed with Christian qualities, values and virtues, they become admirable and attractive as a shining light which draws people to the circle of divine love.
Salvation consists then in this kind of transformation of individual from natural attachment to purely self-centered, unredeemed nativisitic ethos, to seeing, thinking, and acting like Christ with the help of God’s grace, and assuming a new life, and through that helping to change the world. This indeed is that heart of religion which centers all things in Christ through self-transcending and grace-filled daily choices. Being rooted in Christ frees our freedom to live abundant life, liberated from enslavement to wealth, power, lust, greed, envy, jealousy, laziness, and the fear and wrong options which we sometimes make when we feel powerless or powerful in the face of the limitations of life.
It is the heart of religion which places our heart at the very heart of God and through the lenses of God we can see God’s heart in the hearts of our brothers and sisters; and see God’s face in the faces of everyone we meet especially the wrinkled faces of those who suffer. Above all, true Christianity the one I have been describing in my own limited way in this reflection calls us to embrace the fact of our own vulnerability and intrinsic poverty: we are poor creatures because we do not have the capacity to realize what we dream about nor can we guarantee the future for ourselves. Eternity is our calling, what lies ahead of us is a promise which even now we can embrace by accepting the fact that we are creatures on a journey and to the extent that we journey with Christ, act and think like Christ, to that extent is our life and future guaranteed. But in all cases Christ is to be found when I commit myself unreservedly to things which Christ did, and to service to all for whom Christ died.
*Stan Chu Ilo, is a Catholic priest of Igbo extraction, he writes from Toronto. His latest book is Discover Your Divine Investment: Path to Spiritual Joy (2012).
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of SaharaReporters