Olu Ojedokun, Ph.D
Monday, February 11, 2008
THE NIGERIAN AND THE 'BORN-AGAIN' PHENOMENON
n recent months I have stumbled into the middle some rigorous and thought provoking conversations, many of which have taken place on the internet in Nigerian Yahoo groups. Several have centred on what they would describe as 'Christianity' and whether it remains one of the last vestiges and forms of oppression from the Western world. Some of the conversations have thrown down a number of challenges to my own Christian faith. Some of the protagonists have queried the existence of Jesus Christ beyond the pages of the Holy Bible and the 'White' images of angels that are abound in many publications and query why His virtues are not matched by the integrity from its many adherents.
With every statement of justification I advance in support of the Christian message they attempt to match it with a response, attaching evidence of some alleged atrocities committed by a 'born again' Christian. With every rebuttal I deploy against such stereotypes and generalisations I am presented with more evidence of a perceived lack of grace and truth on the part of the 'born again Christians'.
Recently my 'protagonists' directed me to a breaking story of a Pentecostal pastor who was charged to court in Lagos for embezzlement. They pointed this as evidence of the shallowness and futility of the Christian faith. A few others have ventured the mention of the vast amounts of wealth which seem to be concentrated with the Church. Whilst some have queried the need for prayers in the midst of the abject poverty the Church faces in around it. This theme I hope to return to in the course of this article.
In continuing this article, I must pause and draw from the example of my respected learned friend, Sean Akinrele, the author of 'Foxes in the Vineyard', by stating absolutely clearly, that my desire to write this article is not predicated on any basis that I am a solution but more relevantly because I have not always stood for or spoken the truth, seen my own wilful backslidings and because I am an answerable member of the body of Christ.
I recall with nostalgia, a time in Nigeria when references to the word 'born-again Christian' imputed integrity, purity and certainty even when various observers wondered whether these were downright fanatics or members of the deranged class. I became 'born again' against this background in the very late 70s. On personal reflection I remember that one of my very first acts of repentance was to make restitution to a number of mates I had swindled in my local area. In my memory is etched, the change of my attitude to chores at home to the extent of transformation and how my Mother noticed a difference in me. I recall how my use of language became more refined and abuses and curses fled from my vocabulary. I remember very vividly the humility of the men of our great God that surrounded and influenced me at the time.
However, the word 'born again' appears to now be equated with activities of the 419 varieties, given rise to a coverage and a cloak for all sort of questionable activities that ought not be associated with Christians. And some argue that 'Christians' attempt to dignify their misdemeanours by creating a Sunday space of praise, thanksgiving, blessing, repentance and forgiveness to atone for the misdeeds of the previous six days only to resume their activities after that space has expired.
If stories that constantly circulate in the Nigerian press are to be believed then it appears that the hallmark of many 'Christians' today does not in fact manifest and consist in being salt and light in/of their respective communities. Yet the same scripture they hold with reverence and believe to be inerrant states: "If any man be in Christ he is a new creature". It is also sad that some of the traits described above are not limited to Nigeria but have assumed a global dimension. The other day I was in conversation with a man of God in the United Kingdom, who shocked me, by revealing that insurance scams and other fraud of similar varieties where alive, thriving and present in the Church.
But it will be a wrong and a gross misrepresentation of the many Christians who manifest the grace and love of Christ to take the above as the common narrative that dominates the landscape. For every 'born again' that betrays that profession, there are many who by the power of God live exemplary and sacrificial lives attempting to bring, truth and grace into many situations they face and encounter. There are many acting as the salt and light of their communities and therefore any brush that sweeps away born agains or characterises them together as charlatans would be misleading and unfortunate.
I return to the theme I referred to above, the linkage of wealth and prayers. I use Nigeria as the context to explore this theme. There is no doubt that beyond the 'propagation' of the gospel many Churches in Nigeria are beginning to realise the need for social action of some description. Many can lay claim to periodic feeding of the hungry and destitute, the seasonal visits to orphanages or the periodic missions into parts of the hinterland. I am not sure, however, that many have understood the need for this to be part of an integral mission in Nigeria. Simply put, I draw from Justin Thacker of the Evangelical Alliance UK's, quotation to illustrate my point further:
'Integral Mission: Jesus Style does not deny that evangelism and social action are distinct activities - on occasions, they may be - but it does say that the nature of the integration does not reside in the fact that we enact the two alongside each other, or that we find appropriate connections between them. Rather, it argues that the integration that is relevant is that we respond as whole people to the whole person or person before us.'
I refer to a scripture used by Justin as a means of further illustration of the point:
"So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, "Will you give me a drink?" (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, "You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me or a drink?" Jesus answered her "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water." (John 4:5-10)
The question I venture to ask is when Jesus voluntarily engaged a social outcast like the Samaritan woman in face to face conversation, was he performing a 'political action' in challenging the political taboos of his society? It has been advanced that Jesus responded not as simply the evangelist, nor the social reformer, but as Jesus the Christ, or Integral Mission. We see in that text, the whole of Jesus responding in love to the whole of this woman's needs, and we see him doing it in word and in deed. This woman clearly had social, emotional and psychological needs, but Jesus met them by openly talking with her. She also had spiritual needs, to know him as a saviour, and Jesus clearly communicates both her need and his ability to meet it. He neither neglects any aspect of who she is, nor any aspect of his responsibility towards her. By his words and his actions he communicates God's love into the whole of her life and both evangelism and social reform are communicated together.
However, in the Nigerian context it is not quite evident that we have fully appreciated this aspect of integral mission that brings the vastness of our resources, both material and spiritual to deliver wholeness to the soul and reforming and transforming society. For the danger of what happens when we fail to understand what integral mission is about as Ramachandra argues:
"Integral mission flows out of an integral gospel and integrated people. There is a great danger that we transform the mission of the church into a set of special 'project' and 'program', whether we call them 'evangelism' or 'socio-political action', and then look for ways to integrate these methodologically. Rather, the mission of the church is located in the adequacy of faithfulness of its witness to Christ. Our core-business is neither the take-over of the world's systems nor the maximising of church membership. Moreover, we need to remember that the primary way the church acts upon the world is through the actions of its members in their daily work and their daily relationship with people of other faiths. A congregation with huge social welfare projects or many 'church planting' teams may be far less effective in secular society than congregations which have none of these things but train their members to obey Christ in the different areas of civic life which they are called."
May I draw some conclusion by suggesting that the Nigerian Churches, in their magnificence, beauty and size cannot truly exist to His glory except the people that inhabit them by their action speak to the wholeness of men and women they come into contact on an everyday basis. Let our boasts and our responses to the cynics be, not in the number and size of our congregants but in the evidence of the transformation of Society. For within the Church lays the potential to reclaim the counter cultural force it once was in years past rather than in the realm of the norm that it exists today.
Olu Ojedokun is a Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria and currently works as a Field Director for Friends International