A Cause for the Nigerian Church

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A God of Justice

God is righteous and just in himself and he desires justice in his creatures. His divine righteousness is thus the basis and obligation for human justice.

When we say that God is just, it means that ‘God always acts in accordance with what is right and is himself the final standard of what is right’. According to the late Dutch-American theologian Louis Berkhof, “Justice manifests itself especially in giving every man his due, in treating him according to his deserts.” This is what God does, and he does so because that is what he is. In other words, God acts justly because he is just.

In Deut. 32:4, Moses declared concerning God that, “All his ways are justice. A God of truth and without injustice. Righteous and upright is he.” Abraham also appealed to this attribute of God when he asked rhetorically: “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25)

A God for Justice

Justice is dear to the heart of God. Several Bible passages bear this out:

“Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey!” (Isa. 10:1-2)

“Woe to those who devise wickedness and work evil on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in the power of their hand. They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them away; they oppress a man and his house, a man and his inheritance.” (Mic. 2:1-2)

“Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.” (Psalm 89:14)

In Psalm 82, God notably declares his anger against rulers who pervert justice.

The psalmist begins by painting a scenario whereby God sits in council with the leaders of the earth and rebukes them. Why? For judging unjustly and being partial to the wicked. Then comes the instruction to

Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. (v.3)

He wraps up the meeting with a stinging rebuke of these princes in that much-twisted passage:

‘I said, “You are gods,

sons of the Most High, all of you;

nevertheless, like men you shall die,

and fall like any prince” ‘ (vv. 6-7)

The psalm comes to an end with an appeal to God for global justice, for all nations are his inheritance.

The prophet Jeremiah was also keenly aware of the contrast between God’s just character and the ungodliness in his society, and in 12:1-4, he called on God to act.

‘Righteous are you, O Lord,
    when I complain to you;
    yet I would plead my case before you.
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
    Why do all who are treacherous thrive?
 You plant them, and they take root;
    they grow and produce fruit;
you are near in their mouth
    and far from their heart.
But you, O Lord, know me;
    you see me, and test my heart toward you.
Pull them out like sheep for the slaughter,
    and set them apart for the day of slaughter.
 How long will the land mourn
    and the grass of every field wither?
For the evil of those who dwell in it
    the beasts and the birds are swept away,
    because they said, “He will not see our latter end.”’

A People for Justice

The church is the body of Christ, his arms and legs, continuing his work on earth. We are the light of the world, God’s elect and chosen people. Our lives should reflect the heart of our Father. Where, as we have seen, his heart beats for justice, his people cannot be indifferent.

Jesus also makes care and concern for the suffering a criterion for judgment on the last day. The King will assess how we have treated the stranger, the hungry, the sick and the prisoner while we were on earth (Matt.25:31-46).

The Nigerian Situation

Our own society requires the church to fight for justice. For anyone who has lived within or studied it for a while, Nigeria is a society in dire need of reform. Consider just one instance: our prisons.

We have overcrowded prisons and it is heartbreaking to learn that a huge percentage of inmates are yet to even go on trial! According to the World Prison Brief, we have 63, 142 prisoners in our prisons. Out of this total, 71.7%  (45, 263) are awaiting trial or remanded. With an official capacity of 50, 153, our prisons have an occupancy level of 125.9%*.

Besides the appalling state of our prisons, we hear of repeated battery and harassment by members of the police force. Many are reluctant to report crimes to the police because they can end up being either branded as criminals or forced to part with money before their complaint is addressed.

What can the Church do?

As God’s community in the nation, what can believers do?

First, we should repent of our failures to take justice seriously as the church. In many respects, we have closed our eyes to the sufferings of the poor and the mistreatment of the weak.

Then we should pray for God’s justice to be restored in our land.

Next, we can petition parastatals and organizations that are noted for injustice and oppression. How about a signed petition from diverse Christian leaders urging the Nigerian Police Force to address abuses by its officers? Can we call on the Nigerian Prison Service to urgently address the plight of prisoners?

What about peaceful protests? We can organize peaceful demonstrations to call our government to tackle specific instances or areas of injustice. And we would do this in the name of Christ, who is the Judge of all the earth.

We should preach sermons which expound biblically the theme of Justice: both its nature as a divine attribute and our obligation to practice justice. Instead of messages which proclaim our comfort and prosperity, we need sermons which arouse our concern for the needs of others besides ourselves. And these sermons must be specific, highlighting how we often practice injustice to our employees, spouses, children, and neighbours.

In our individual spheres, let us cultivate fairness and justice. Are you in charge of a department or unit? live above board. Are you a parent? Avoid favouritism among your children. Are you a government employee? Be diligent and faithful. Do you run a business? Offer excellent service to both your employees and customers (in that order). Do you work in the Police or the Armed forces, I will repeat to you what John the Baptist said to the Roman soldiers in his day: “Be content with your wages”. Do you have the poor and needy around you (we all do)? Help them.

We must bear in mind the instruction of the apostle James:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (Jam. 1:27)

It is not enough to keep ourselves unstained from the world; we must also remember  widows and orphans.


*World Prison Brief, Institute for Criminal Policy Research. Figures are as at end of March 2016.

 

Community and the Christian Worldview

little-children

The idea of community is central to a Christian understanding of life.

First, God himself is revealed to be an eternal community of persons, ‘the same in substance, equal in power and glory’. So, community is not an invention by man; it is as timeless as God.

At creation, God established a human community by giving a partner to Adam, thus creating the community of family through the institution of marriage.

After the fall, man’s rebellion came to a peak when he attempted to build a hostile community in the city of Babel which God had to disband.

God does not save individuals to exist independently as atoms; he brings them together into a holy community – the Church. The execution of the plan of redemption has been strongly centred on communities.

First, God made a covenant with Abraham that through his seed all the earth would be blessed. God went on to command him to circumcise all his family, designating them as God’s covenant people. In line with this covenant, the families of his son, Isaac, and then Jacob, become God’s covenant people. The twelve sons of Jacob (now Israel) would go on to form the Jewish nation. And when Christ came, he formed the New Testament church as a holy community built upon the foundation of the twelve apostles. As he expressed shortly before his death, his desire was that they may be one, just as he and his father are one (John 17:11, 22).

The great goal of redemption is the establishment of a community of redeemed humanity united with Jesus as the head. The redemptive love which God has and expressed is not merely for individuals but for the whole world (John 3:16). Much later after the ascension of Jesus, John would see a vision of redeemed humanity gathered “from every nation, from all tribes and people 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!” ‘ (Revelation 7:9-10)

In other words, what rebellious humanity attempted by establishing the city of Babel (Genesis 6), and currently seeks through numerous secular initiatives for world unity, God brings about through Christ’s redemption.

What then shall we do?

In view of its importance, we should nourish and nurture community in our families, churches, and organizations. God’s revelation points out that this is the best way for us to function as humans. Individualism will neither fulfill nor satisfy our human spirit; we were made for community. We are to establish a fellowship with God through Christ, and then seek community with others, with the Church as primary.

Let us build loving and godly families. If we hope to build godly societies, the family is our starting point. It is the bedrock of human society.

Build strong closely-knit churches which will bear witness to Christ through their unity. This was Christ’s desire and it was a major factor in the early church’s growth.

Establish communities and organizations which recognize the diversity among her members and is deliberate about making use of their different gifts and talents. Such an organization would take seriously the counsel of Peter:

“As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Pet. 4:10)

Community is crucial; it is an important way by which we image and reflect God in the world.

Of Rocks, Spirits, and Humans

stones-rocks

The traditional African believes in a universe in which the spiritual world is closely integrated with the physical. ‘Natural’ events are often not really natural but are the result of the activities of spirits and immaterial forces. Birth, agricultural harvest, road accidents, economic prosperity, are some of the diverse phenomena of life which the spiritual world can influence.

The secular or modern individual is apt to dismiss this system as sheer nonsense. Births are a purely biological process resulting from copulation; economic prosperity or otherwise is subject to human decisions with respect to a lot of factors like capital, innovation, time, opportunity, etc; accidents could simply be as a result of human error, mechanical faults, or environmental factors. Imbued with a naturalistic mindset, every incident or event in life is explained on purely natural grounds.

What would the Christian say to these? Or, better still, what does a worldview based on God’s revelation point toward? For one, the biblical worldview would not disparage the African worldview outrightly. The universe was created by God and He interacts constantly with it. In fact, the universe is sustained by God’s spirit and, as Paul said, it is in God that we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). The biblical worldview also admits of the existence of angels, who are spiritual beings acting as God’s messengers. Some of these have rebelled against God and, in league with their chief known as Satan, now actively oppose God (cf. Daniel 10:13).

A major point of departure for the Christian or biblical worldview is the structure of this spiritual world. The Christian’s creed begins with the assertion that there is only one God, and not a pantheon of gods and spirits. The affairs of our universe are in the hands of a wise, loving, and good God, and is not subject to the whims of good and evil spirits. He fills the universe with his presence. Of course, there is a host of evil angels who can exert influence on humans, but their power is limited and they must answer to the higher authority of God. Besides, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, Satan and all angels in league with him are a defeated lot awaiting their final destruction.

However, it is equally true that the physical universe is an orderly system which operates according to given laws. In other words, though God is able to intervene in any aspect of the universe at any time, things generally occur according to a given and regular pattern. Births follow a certain biological process, economic prosperity answers to certain principles, and even climate follows generally predictable patterns.

The truth, therefore, lies in acknowledging both the truths of divine providence (the guidance and control of human affairs by God) and that of a natural God-imposed order. We have a regular pattern of day and night each 24-hour period because God has structured the universe that way. And He remains free to intervene in this natural cycle if He so wills. Any worldview which holds to  one without acknowledging the other is false.

The God my Ancestors knew but didn’t know

My Yoruba ancestors (along with most African cultures) believe in a supreme being; they call him Olodumare. They revere him as the source of all life and the originator of all that exists. He is too great to come into contact with the universe, so he is somewhat distant and aloof. This task of dealing with the mundane affairs of humanity is handled by the lesser gods, the orisa. Thus in theological terms, we have a transcendent deity who is not immanent, but reigns as the king over a large group of smaller deities, spirits, and forces.

Abstract Africa in a Tiger Camouflage

Abstract Africa in a Tiger Camouflage

Centuries ago, in the very different climate of Palestine, God was unveiling himself to us. Amidst the ruggedness of the middle eastern terrain, and the simplicity of their diet and clothing, Jesus was born. Earlier prophecies about him, as well as his subsequent life and ministry, would reveal that this was no ordinary Jewish prophet; he was God himself. And he revealed a very different kind of God from what my ancestors (and even many Jews) believed. Among others, this difference lies in two key respects: Immanence and Love.

Immanence

The Incarnation (what Christians typically call the act of God in taking up human nature in order to redeem humanity) is the climax of God’s ongoing interaction with his creation. Ever since creation, God has been involved with his universe. He sustains it and animates it by his spirit. Paul wrote of this when he described God as the one ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:25,28). As it were, He has this intimate interaction with us always. This idea about God’s immanence is also spoken of in passages of scripture like Psalm 139:1-10; Jer. 23:23-24; Ephesians 1:11; 4:6; and Hebrews 1:3. Thus it gives a very different picture of God from that of my ancestors. The God revealed in the Bible is not a distant God; he is a God who draws near to his creation. And he has demonstrated this most powerfully in the Incarnation. Here the second person of the trinity left his throne to lodge with humanity. Olodumare has lesser gods in charge of the Human Affairs department, but does not involve himself directly. Some might say it’s just delegation; the way any busy executive might do today. Well, the immanence of God is certainly a comfort for the Christian believer. To know that my God is with me all the time, that I can reach out and call to him, that I never leave my house without walking through his corridor, is an awesome and superior privilege. And clearly, such a view of God answers better to who we are as humans.

Love

The second point ties closely with the first. You cannot love what you have no relation with. By losing immanence, Olodumare loses love. Perhaps, it can love the orisa, but it cannot love humans. This structure of interrelationships between the spiritual realm and the human world thus emphasizes Power rather than Love. And this explains why Power, and the fear of it, is so important in the Yoruba life and world view. The Biblical or Christian view goes against this outlook. Yes, God is powerful; immeasurably so. Yet, when John was to describe God, he identified his character as Love (1 John 4:8). The entire life and ministry of Jesus was a massive demonstration of God’s loving character in defeating sin and establishing the kingdom. And God’s expectation from humans is for just such a relationship based on love (see Deut. 6:5; 7:7; 10:12; 13:13; Joshua 23:11; Psalm 42:8; Matthew 22:36-40). Olodumare is a powerful being, but he is not a God of Love. And that makes a lot of difference.

When Paul met with the philosophers in the city of Athens, he observed that they had a statue to an “unknown God”. In their religious fervour and devotion, they wanted to be sure that they had not left out any ‘god’. So Paul used the opportunity to tell them of the true God who came in human nature rather than have some wooden statue be his reference point.

The ‘God’ which my African ancestors believed in, without fully knowing, has revealed himself. Jesus Christ came to our world several centuries ago and lived among us. His mission was to inaugurate, and ultimately consummate, God’s kingdom on earth. The scriptures describe him as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15). Therefore, whoever desires to know what the God who created heaven and earth looks like should look to Jesus.

Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus was speaking to his disciples when one of them, Philip, asked him to show them the Father. To which Jesus responded,

“Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)

Hope in troubling times

Looking for Hope

Looking for Hope

It is so tempting to withdraw into cynicism after all the events of the past few weeks. We might ask ourselves, “Is there still hope for our world?” “Can any person or society still speak positively of our universe?” It might seem all that is left is for the Great Judge to bring his swift judgment and put an end to all the mess we hear and read about daily.

Well, there are two things that I think need to be considered. Firstly, as Sam pointed out to Frodo in the book and movie The Lord of the Rings, and our own careful reflection will confirm, there is still much that is good in our world. It’s not all bad. God hasn’t abandoned his world. We still enjoy his goodness in the gentle morning breeze, the soothing rain, the smiles and care of our loved ones, the tokens of love we find in a good meal, music which delights and inspires, the opportunity to do meaningful (though sometimes poorly rewarded) work, and much more. Let us not lose sight of these. For they are whispers of love from a caring God to his beloved humans.

Secondly, there is hope for our troubled world. Not a vague desire that something good might turn up in the end, but a firm assurance that the evils we observe and experience will be dealt with and will cease to be. This is the promise of the gospel. Not only will evil be removed, but the universe itself will be renewed and there will be a new heaven and a new earth. In this realm, there will be no tears for there will be nothing to cry over. A brand new world in which God and Christ will dwell with their redeemed ones.

Christ already introduced this era when he defeated death through his own death and resurrection – a new era, the age of God’s kingdom, which he will perfect at his return.It is to this present goodness and assured hope that he calls all humans in every nation. He does not call humanity to despise joy and happiness; he calls us to enjoy true joy and lasting happiness in this renewed world. Such joy as we can only faintly grasp in our present state.

Why not reach out to him?

The clock is ticking…

Where is God?

The truck which rammed into a crowd in Nice, France after the driver was killed.

Tragedy in Nice, France

The past several days have been alarming. Different tragedies broke out in different nations with the rapidity of lit firecrackers. The gory headlines include:

  • Police shoot two black men in two separate incidents.
  • Sniper shoots and kills 5 police officers in Dallas.
  • Conflict in South Sudan. Over 300 killed.
  • Man rams truck into a crowd in the city of Nice, France. At least 84 people dead.
  • Attempted coup in Turkey. Over 160 killed.

In such times of crisis, it is not unusual to hear that familiar question: “Where was God?” Why didn’t he do something about the innocent children who were murdered in Nice? Why didn’t he protect Alton Sterling and Philando Castille from the policemen who shot them? Why couldn’t God keep the 5 Dallas policemen alive? In moments of intense grief, it is normal to ask questions in order to make sense of tragedy. And my heart goes out to all those who have been personally stung in these atrocities.

While it is necessary to ask questions, we often ask the wrong questions. Instead of asking where God is, I think we should be asking: “Where am I”, or “Where is my society, in relation to God?”

These incidents confirm again and again that our world is broken. Things are not as they should be, and our world needs to be put right. Human nature is capable of so much mindless evil (and whoever said evil is rational?); advances in technology sadly seems to correlate inversely with our moral character. In the age of WiFi, we experience so much racial hatred, and all our technological sophistication only makes it easier for a man in France to subscribe to a heartless creed.

And we ask where is God?

Actually, God is where he has been all along since the foundation of the world.

He was there when the first human family rebelled against him and decided they could make out the meaning of life on their own. God was there when nations and societies spurn the light of nature and devise substitute gods for themselves. God was there in 1789 when citizens of France ushered in the modern world with their cry of ‘No king, No God’, a creed which still virtually governs our modern (and postmodern) world. God is there when, instead of reaching out for him, modern man devises all kinds of plans to solve economic, political, and social issues. God is always there, but the problem is that modern society has habitually seen him as the problem rather than the solution. We should run to God and not from God.

Can we change that narrative?

Instead of seeing him as a God to point fingers at, can we see him as a God to stretch our hands to? And I do not refer to something which only individuals in their private rooms should do. This is a responsibility which our modern governments and societies have long ignored. To the modern society, God is irrelevant; he is a relic of our medieval past. We have outgrown him. Sadly, our troubles and crises seem to have outgrown that conceit. Human wisdom has shown itself inadequate to solve human problems; they reach deeper than we tend to think.

We must bury our pride and become truly human once again, by remembering the God who made us and who has redeemed his creation through the work of Jesus Christ.

God’s hands are stretched out to transform not just our individual hearts but our entire societies. He can heal racial strife. He can give the terrorist a better cause to fight for, and with better weapons than guns and explosives. He can cure our lust for power by teaching us that power is a tool for service. He can satisfy our deepest longings for relationship and meaning, and resolve our anxiety over the great question of personal and social identity. Through him, and by coming to terms with Christ’s work of redemption, our lives, our institutions, and our societies can be transformed again.

But it will require us stretching out our hands in return.