Nigeria is a very religious nation. With an almost equal distribution between the two major religions of Islam and Christianity, it is one of the few countries where the major religions have an almost equal number of adherents. According to the Pew Research Center, Christianity and Islam claim the allegiance of 49.3% and 48.8% of the population respectively1. The CIA World Factbook, however, puts the ratio at 40 and 50 percentage points respectively2.
With such a religious, God-affirming, revelation-dependent population, it is often puzzling to outsiders and alarming to observant insiders how she could have earned such a reputation for corruption, fraud, human rights abuses, and now terrorism. How could she have so many poor people when she has been blessed with so much wealth in the hands of elites, many of whom are religious? How could you have so much evil in a nation so religious?
The proposal in some quarters has been to eliminate or reduce the influence of religion altogether. This view is not unique to Nigeria. Western writers from Voltaire to Karl Marx to Christopher Hitchens have argued against religion, particularly Christianity, claiming it destroys the good in humanity and poisons human freedom. They assert it has been a force not for good but for evil. They claim that it stifles our innovation and creativity, promotes discord in society, and generally impoverishes humanity. In the case of Nigeria, we could point to the several ethno-religious crises which have sprung up over the years in different parts of the country, especially in the North; detestable crimes and abuses involving religious leaders; exploitation of the poor on religious pretexts; the ostentatious lifestyles of some religious leaders; and the general disharmony between leaders and organizations on both sides of the religious divide. Religion, it would be argued, has not profited Nigeria. Our constitution seeks to minimize the perceived disintegrating influence of religion by prohibiting political parties based on religion. Our schools generally avoid teaching from a religious perspective (though they maintain the teaching of religion as a subject). Our workplaces operate on putatively neutral policies which discourage appeals to religion or religious belief. In short, we seek to minimize the supposed corrosive effect of religion by ‘privatizing’ it.
This approach is unhelpful: it is both wrong and false. It is wrong because it prevents a person from being fully herself, and false because it simply doesn’t work. Religions are worldviews; they colour and influence every aspect of a person’s life. So it is futile to profess a religion and not expect it to affect areas like Politics, Education, or Work. Like smoke, religious beliefs must surely seep out to shape practical life for good or ill.
Religion is basically a person’s ultimate commitment. To whom or what do you hold allegiance? What is that thing or being you depend on as your utmost authority? That, in essence, is your religion. Secularism is not a substitute for religion; it is an alternative among religions. Whereas other religions offer worship to God or some deity, secularism places humanity or human reason on the altar. Far from being a way to minimize religion, it merely offers a different kind of religion.
Nigeria isn’t corrupt because she is religious; she is corrupt because she has a false religion. We worship a pantheon of gods, including the trio of Money, Power, and Fame. And this actual religion is practiced under the guise of the major ones. I was privileged to be at the inaugural service of the City Church, Lagos a week ago where my friend Femi Osunnuyi, the Lead Pastor, pointed this out. In describing how he came to plant the church in Lagos, he narrated how he was also confronted with this basic dualism in Nigerian society. So much religion, yet so much ungodliness. And he came to realize that the problem is that we have not really grasped or understood the Gospel. While a lot of people enter into Christianity by believing the Gospel, they sort of abandon it as a truth to shape how they live. And they go on living according to the dominant worldview in the society. The Gospel is Christianity, and when we lose the Gospel we virtually adopt another religion. And the consequence of that loss is all too obvious.
In the words of A.W. Tozer, “The Gospel not only furnishes transforming power to remold the human heart; it provides also a model after which the new life is to be fashioned, and that model is Christ Himself. Christ is God acting like God in the lowly raiments of human flesh. Yet He is also man; so He becomes the perfect model after which redeemed human nature is to be fashioned.”
The Gospel is the story of divine redemption. It is God offering himself for our sins and defeating death through Christ’s resurrection. This victory of God over all things is at the centre of the Christian story. It is a story that abases human pride while directing him to look beyond himself and live for the good of others. How? By following the example of his Saviour. If humanity’s saviour was none other than the eternal God taking up human nature in order to bear the misery of his creatures and heal them, how can anyone live differently?
The Gospel kills human pride, stifles greed, promotes love, encourages chastity, inspires diligence, and fosters true unity. The Gospel reveals our weakness but displays God’s profound strength. It shows our corrupt hearts but points us to the true solution. The Gospel goes behind the human facade and artistry, striking at the root of our social problems. When we recover the Gospel as both a power to transform lives and a principle to live by, we uncover the power of God to renew our society.
The Gospel will heal our political system by pointing officials to a Jesus who came to serve and not be served. It will turn around our educational system through the influence of a Jewish rabbi who poured himself into the lives of twelve ordinary men and shaped them into ambassadors of a heavenly kingdom. The Gospel is the bedrock of human rights because it reveals a God who cared enough for the weak and helpless to heal them and die for them. The Gospel is a display of divine justice in harmony with divine mercy; it is a lesson for our justice and legal system. The Gospel reveals the profound love of God which does not destroy in the name of religion but restores and redeems through grace. The Gospel condemns arrogance for it tells us the King of glory left his throne and came to die for us. The Gospel subdues empty boasting and displays of power for it proclaims that the crucified Jesus is the reigning Lord over every nation.
If we desire to transform Nigeria, let’s give her a lot of religion – let’s give her the Gospel.