Although the Church in her wisdom gives us 40 day’s notice ahead of Easter, we often have our minds fixed more on the mundane plans for the social calendar of the holiday period. Yet, these 40 days are meant to be days of sober reflection, meditation and prayer, with the joys of Easter being the climax. The spirit of the risen Christ, the assurance of our own resurrection and its joy are, in reality, supposed to be the reward for the penitential period.
Sadly, for us as Christians today, the Lenten season has become a rather routine and perfunctory period that we simply walk through. Christians tend to try to explain to their Muslim brothers and sisters that Lent is their equivalent of the Muslim Ramadan.
For Catholics, Lent is seen as the season for the Stations of the Cross, recitation of the Holy Rosary being regular at Masses and devotions during this period. The loss of a clear regime of penitential activities that should regulate our lives has left our people with no clear tools to rejuvenate and navigate through life.
So much has happened since we welcomed the Lenten season onAsh Wednesday. The resignation of Pope Benedict XV1 stunned the world, remained the focus on the international and national media for most parts of this holy season. The emergence of Pope Francis shows very clearly that movement of thefinger of God in the history of His Church and lend credence to the belief that the spirit is indeed at work.
Our own dear nation, Nigeria, permanently mired in controversy and threatening to drown in the morally polluted waters of corruption, continues to spin around in one spot. Of recent, the dominant theme in national discussion has been the theme of amnesty for members of Boko Haram on a cross section of Nigerians. Although, we have focused on amnesty as politics, I will like to look at the issues of amnesty and how it is a challenge to us as Christians.
Sadly, for a society with a very poor record of robust intellectual engagement and debate over crucial issues of national importance, it is little wonder that the debate over the theme of amnesty has thrown up the shades of extremisms and fundamentalisms that foreclose meaningful debate and discussions in Nigeria. Naturally, the demagogues have continued to apply extremist language, arguing more from the stomach than the head and thus generating more heat than light.
Rather than look at the issues of amnesty in the light of the past, present and future of the nation, we have focused more on how they fit the survivalist instincts of the president and his ruling party. As usual, selfish interests overtake national interests and survival. Sadly, as it is with Nigeria, the truth gets lost in the cracks of deceit, lies, and prejudice.
Despite the ubiquity of Chapels, Chaplaincies, Prayer warriors, Prayer Vigils, Pilgrimages and all the paraphernalia of spirituality in our nation, it is doubtful that this show of religiosity has had any commensurate and measurable impact on the quality of our lives. Seduced by power, and given the fact that religion has now become big business and a basis for survival, political and economic wolves have donned the sheep’s clothing of religion.
Clearly, the debate about the word ‘amnesty’, found its way from Greek through Latin to public use in the 16h century. The focus of its usage has tended to be more in the political realm especially in relation to ending belligerence by rebels and combatants or political prisoners or other forms of criminality. Thus, at the heart of the discussion about amnesty is the need to weigh public interest, the commonwealth, balancing the larger gains and benefits for the common good versus the irritation, instability, anger, physical or psychological injury incurred by the belligerent elements who may have caused pain and injury to the larger society.
We are concerned here with the moral dimension of amnesty as a true test or measure of the depth of our faith and whether its consideration and application override mere political posturing. Here, the challenge is how our faith squares or impacts on our decisions. On the political or spiritual sphere, the question is, are we Christians who are politicians, or are we politicians who are Christians? Where we stand here has substantial impact on the decisions we make. If we are politicians who just happen to be Christians, then it means that when certain Christian principles are challenged in the course of our public life, we temporarily suspend our faith and give reign to the political expediency of the moment.
For example, a politician or an electoral officer knows it is morally wrong to steal an election or manipulate the results of an election. However, for reasons of political loyalty, or having accepted a bribe, he/she decides to rationalize this perversion of a moral obligation on the altar of political or economic benefit ‘this is the only chance for our man to get into power, or this is the only chance for me to pay my children’s fees or build my own house!’. Here, this is a politician who is accidentally himself a Christian. On the other hand, a person who weighs the convictions of his faith and decides to act according to his conscience, stand by the truth and say, ‘No’. He is a Christian who happens to be a politician.
Thus, is our discussion about amnesty motivated by our political convictions or our convictions as Christians who know the mind of Christ? If, as we say, amnesty is about forgetting, forgiving as a means of reconciliation and healing, what did Jesus have to say about these to Christians? Here, contrary to what the political choristers are saying, it is not about what a President has to say or what all these will do to his political survival. It is about what choices a Christian should make considering the mind of Christ and not his Party’s manifesto.
I believe that the President ventured into this debate too early without enough homework and allowing the systems to exhaust the options. In other words, after weighing the pros and cons, it would have been important to ask, what would Christ enjoin me to do in these circumstances to prodigal children? This would require prayers and deep reflections. Here, the Bible and not the PDP’s manifesto should be a guide and indeed, deep moral convictions would lead to truth. The truth would set a leader free and whether his people are Christians or even unbelievers, truth is eternal. Thus, even if this presents a leader with a temporary political set back, the end, founded on truth, will justify him/her.
It will be a terrible mistake to think that the moral convictions of a leader should have no bearing on public policy. A leader should approach public policy with the sense of his conviction as long as these are in keeping with the ground rules of engagement, namely the constitution and his conscience. It is hardly ever the case that these convictions can be in serious conflict with the spirit of a democratic constitution, except perhaps in their application.
Therefore, on the issue of amnesty, a Christian should be guided by the words of the prophet Isaiah who speaks about the invitational, unfathomable and boundless nature of God’s forgiveness when he says: Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool (Isaiah 1: 18). The Psalmist enjoins us: The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast Love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast Love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us (Ps 103: 8-12. If we understand that it is God who first forgives us, then we must leave the doors of forgiveness forever open, seeing the sinner with the beckoning eyes of one who is lost and whose return is a restoration for the larger society.
It is significant that when His apostles begged Him to teach them how to pray, Jesus presented forgiveness as a basic condition for genuine prayer as we see in the ‘Lord’s Prayer’. Jesus tied our search for forgiveness from God to the commitment to forgiveness on our part. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you (Mt 6:14). Anxious to be on the side of God, Peter asked Jesus how many times must one be sinned against before revenge is accepted. He even proposed seven times as a proposal. But Jesus let him know that even keeping records was an exercise in futility (Matt 18:21).
In His own words, Jesus said: But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matt 5: 22-4). Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (Eph 4: 31-2)
For the Christian, we are enjoined to note that the greater the forgiveness, the greater the Love. Jesus said: He who is forgiven little, Loves little (Lk 7: 47-8).
Whereas many religions acknowledge Love as an attribute of God, Christianity actually does not see Love merely as an attribute. It is God Himself that is Love (1 Jn 4:8). Indeed, this Love is the fashion statement of every Christian because St Paul enjoins Christians thus: Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and be Loved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on Love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (Col 3: 12-14)
Without Love, there can be no reconciliation and without reconciliation, life is both nasty, brutish and a broken shell. The redemptive power of Jesus Christ has offered us a completely new way of seeing life from the view of God rather than the circumstances around us. In the process of this reconciliation, God does not keep record of our sins as Isaiah has reminded us. St Paul again reminds us: All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18-9). Every Christian, no matter the position is an apostle of Reconciliation.
This Love is characterized by sacrifice and gratuitousness. It is not hinged on what the other does, it does not count the cost and that is why St. Paul calls Love the greatest gift (1 Cor 13). It is amazing that this Love, when it attains perfection, drives out bitterness and fear (1 Jn 1:18). This Love is the hallmark, the badge, the identity card and indeed, the ‘DNA’ of all true Christians. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples if you Love one another (Jn 13:35)
Jesus did not cajole, exhort, plead, lull, or seek to entice Christians to Love. He gives an order, a command to be obeyed. This means that without Love, we cannot call ourselves Christians. This is my command; Love one another as I have loved you (Jn 15:12). Jesus did not only speak of Love, He lived and died for Love. This is at the heart of what we are celebrating at this period. As Christians, we are called to participate in the reconstruction of the world. Jesus Himself has offered us a template and that is His own life. It has to remain the mirror, the prism through which we must see life in its entirety. Even if a Christian lives alone among a billion people of another faith, the light entrusted to him or her is never put off by fear or intolerance. It must shine amidst joy, sorrow or persecution.
To return to the theme of amnesty, as I have noted, we have sadly turned it into a political football and have drained it of its moral content. No matter the crimes committed by members of Boko Haram, those of them who are Nigerians have not lost their membership of our community.
The processes of how an amnesty can be achieved are complex and they are a science of sorts. No one receives amnesty for nothing without surrendering something in return, that is, renouncing their moral perfidy. A sense of remorse, an assurance that one will get a hearing, that a prodigal son might even be considered for the role of a servant by a benevolent father all these are conditions that we must create as we search for the lost sheep. The return of the prodigal son would have been of no use had his father not been waiting and when he decided to return, he sough a much lower role for himself (Lk 15:11-32).
If Christians were just a group of people who merely defend themselves, then we are not better than a tribal union. If we turn Christianity into a religion that merely defends itself, then we are living in a prison and can never grow. St Thomas Aquinas assures us that were we to withhold this precious gift of the Love of God from anyone on grounds of their status, faith, gender, for any reason whatsoever, we would not be worthy of the name, Christian. Clearly, this message, then as now, is a revolution, it is senseless, and people who preach this kind of message do not deserve a hearing. Indeed, there is no reason why they should not be flogged, in prison or even killed. That is what we have just re-enacted as evidence that the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom
Many Christians have been tempted to use the persecution of Boko Haram, the destruction of our Churches and the brutal murders of our fellow citizens as a justification for rejection of amnesty. But every true believer must understand that these sufferings, these trials are not outside the mind of God and His plans for our faith. The challenge is for us to remain faithful and steadfast so as not to be swayed by the dictates and exigencies of the moment.
Persecution has been the hallmark of Christianity. International data suggests that from the death of Christ till date, some 70 million Christians have given their lives for Christ. Indeed, before the persecution of Christians in China after 1949, there were only 1.2million Christians in China. When persecution of Christians became a state policy, Christians bore the lashes and today, there are almost 100 million Christians in China. This is why the Psalmist tells us to remember that: Even if the earth trembles and mountains should fall into the sea, our faith will not be shaken (Ps 46:2) Prophet Habakkuk said that even if the stall of the pastoralists stands empty of cattle and all their crops vanish, he will trust in the Lord (Hab 3:17). After all, through the mouth of the Prophet Isaiah God says: My word will not return to me empty without accomplishing that for which it was sent (Isaiah 55:11).
To reject amnesty is to place oneself at the same level as these miscreants. Their destruction on our nation is not near the devastation of apartheid in South Africa. Yet, under President Mandela, Archbishop Tutu had to offer amnesty to leap frog the reconciliation process. To paraphrase the Yoruba adage, the hand that gives amnesty is on top of the hand that receives. An offer of amnesty is not the same as a declaration of amnesty. An offer of amnesty brings the penitent to the table as a first step. Amnesty is a process not a destination. The offer of amnesty will not solve all our problems, but it will bring us closer to a new dawn. May the spirit of the risen Christ guide us and restore wholeness to our dear country.