Several years ago, Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. He stood there not to preach nor to campaign, but to share a dream – a dream inspired by the belief that all men are created in God’s image and are therefore equal. His thought and civil action were clearly driven by his belief in the truth about humanity as revealed in the gospel.
Martin Luther King is an inspiration for a different but related challenge in our own society.
Nigeria may not have a challenge of racial injustice, but she does have a problem of ethnic intolerance. Like most countries in Africa, she is blessed with a racial homogeneity. However, the uniformity in race is more than offset by a diversity in tribal groups. According to the CIA World Factbook, she has more than 250 different ethnic groups. Over the decades, ethnic conflicts have sprung up in locations as far apart as Lagos and Kano. While the discord flares up from time to time in actual conflict, the disharmony is normally of a much more subtle nature. A remark, a look, a sneer – are some of the expressions which reveal our dislike of the other tribe. But also there is the discrimination in organizations, there is the coldness toward a neighbour from another tribe, and there is the outright distrust of some groups from the northern part of the country.
Just as the Gospel provides a stimulus for abolishing racial prejudice, it also gives a basis for seeking ethnic harmony. We may not all be excited about our 103-year-old Nigeria project. Some of us might still harbour a longing for a Biafra or some other autonomous region. Regardless of our hope or desire, the existence of Nigeria as a multiethnic nation is a present reality. Different peoples have been brought together to comprise one nation. Perhaps wrongly or imperfectly, the union has been several decades in the making. It is certain that this union was not brought about because the colonial masters wanted to realize the promise of the gospel. They did it to make the administration of this vast territory easier. But what began as probably a wrongheaded venture could be an avenue for the Gospel to be displayed in its grandeur.
Political force and legislation has not succeeded, and cannot succeed, in creating ethnic harmony; only the Gospel can bring this about. Why? Because ethnic sentiments are deeply rooted. As long as our identity lies in our ethnicity, we will always view those of other tribes with suspicion and we will regard them as inferior to ourselves. The Gospel, however, subverts this tendency by altering the basis of our identity. For the Gospel unites ethnic groups and tribes by proclaiming that they all have the same God and a common Saviour. Our ultimate identity does not lie in us being Hausa, Edo, or Gwari. It lies in us being humans created by a personal God who also redeems us through Jesus. And this same Gospel encourages us to look forward to a point in the future, at the end of this present age and the return of Christ, when the scene below shall be a reality:
‘After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”’ (Rev. 7:9,10)
May Nigeria (along with other African countries), under the influence of the Gospel, be a little picture of this.
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