by Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA
So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are. - Martin Luther King, Jr.
The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state and never its tool. - Martin Luther King, Jr.
Pastor E.A. Adeboye
Pastor Tunde Bakare
Pastor W.F. Kumuyi
Bishop Mike Okonkwo
Pastor D.K. Olukoya
Pastor Chris Oyakhilome
Bishop David Oyedepo,
Grace, mercy and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
In the aftermath of the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr invited 60 other black ministers to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta to discuss the formation of an organization to address the injustices melted upon members of the African-American community. The organization, which was named The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), was formed to draw on the unity of the churches to fight for racial justice through nonviolent resistance.
In explaining the purpose of the organization, Martin Luther King stated that "This conference is called because we have no moral choice, before God, but to delve deeper into the struggle - and to do so with greater reliance on non-violence and with greater unity, coordination, sharing, and Christian understanding''.
A similar climate of injustice and oppression is prevalent in today's Nigeria as in yesterday's America. Income inequality in Nigeria is at an all time high, life expectancy is on the decline, while infant mortality and maternal mortality rates are on the rise. Corruption, tribalism and religious strife are plaguing the country. The masses continue to be oppressed by some sections of the privileged class including the political and economic classes. Nigeria has become a giant Ponzi scheme in which the sweat, toil and earnings of the masses at the bottom of the pyramid have been used to improve the fortunes of a privileged class at the top of the pyramid.
Consequently, the average Nigerian has become tired of being tired, frustrated of being frustrated and sick of being sick. Unlike the Civil Rights era in the USA where a strong majority oppressed a weak minority, in today's Nigeria, a strong minority is oppressing a weak majority. Similarly, while a number of African-Americans were lynched and hung on trees or buildings, many Nigerians have met their untimely deaths on the nooses of inadequate health facilities and poor roads; while African-Americans experienced racial segregation, many Nigerians experience class segregation whereby the 'have's not' are denied access to justice, quality education and healthcare.
As a result of the above, a similar combination of vision and practicality is needed now in response to the oppression, injustice and classism currently taking place in Nigeria. In short, we need a Nigerian Christian Leadership Conference (NCLC).
You may wonder, why I have chosen to select and write to you out of the numerous church leaders in the country. I have done so for two reasons. First, I want to direct the letter to a target audience as this could make it more personal than the general nature of my previous letter titled An Open Letter To the Nigerian Church, which was addressed to over 500 ministers.
Second, you happen to be either at the vanguard in the fight for social justice or you shepherd some of the fastest growing churches in the country and your congregation cuts across a varied segment of the Nigerian society.
Why Do We Need a NCLC?
Unfortunately, there is a perception among a large section of Nigerians that the church has aligned itself directly or indirectly to the privileged class oppressing the masses. Politicians have used a number of church gatherings for photo opportunities in order to sway potential votes in their direction. Furthermore, the church has often been silent to the corruption perpetuated by the political class and has accommodated criminal bankers that have impoverished millions of depositors and shareholders. The church has become a radio that broadcasts the ideas and principles of the privileged class to its congregation rather than a television that exposes the injustices of the oppressor. The formation of a NCLC should go a long way in correcting this perception.
Another reason why a NCLC is needed is because of the significant role the church plays in the Nigerian society. The church is one of the major pillars of Nigerian society and plays an important role as one of the moral guardians of the community. Every Sunday, millions of Nigerians gather at various churches around the country to worship God. As a result, the church leadership as well respected members of the community can play an important role in mobilizing the congregation towards demanding social justice from the ruling class.
Moreover, as shepherds to their congregation, the church leadership cannot afford to remain silent when government policies and actions negatively impact their flock. Afterall, who is better positioned to articulate the concerns and aspiration of the people more than the church leadership?
In addition, Scriptures is full of expressions of social justice. From the Gospels, we understand that Jesus had compassion for those at the lowest end of the social and economic ladder. Consequently, the Nigerian church leadership has a moral obligation to follow the footsteps of Moses and tell the Pharaoh of oppression, injustice and classism ÔÇśLET MY PEOPLE GO'.
Finally, a broad based organization like the proposed NCLC could help to effectively amplify the Christians cry against injustice, oppression and classism. Currently only a few Christian leaders are vocal and active on issues relating to social justice; as a result, the cry of these lone voices standing in the wilderness of concern have been drowned by the silence of the majority of Christian leaders sitting on the mountain of apathy.
Structure of NCLC
What form should the NCLC take? What issues should it address? How should it be structured?
As the name suggests, the NCLC could be formed by a coalition of leaders from the various churches in Nigeria. An elected Board comprising of representatives from the various church leadership and representatives from the laity could govern the NCLC. For the NCLC to be successful, membership should comprise of individuals who are committed to eradicating oppression, injustice and classism in Nigeria. Membership could also be open to non-Christians.
The objective of the NCLC would be to use Christian principles to confront all forms of oppression, injustice, tribalism and classism in Nigeria.
The NCLC would begin by engaging with policy-makers to ensure that government policies and actions protect the people at the margin of society.
The second task of the NCLC would be to highlight and attempt to address the poverty and income inequality that is prevalent in Nigeria.
The third task would be to engage with leaders in the Muslim community with a view to promoting and encouraging harmony between Christians and Muslims.
Like the SCLC, the fourth crucial task of the NCLC would be to frame the struggle of the millions of oppressed Nigerians in moral terms. Where actions of the privileged class impede the economic, political or social rights of the masses, the NCLC should be at the vanguard of resisting the oppressors. The NCLC should not be afraid to challenge corrupt politicians, unscrupulous bankers, greedy oligarchs and uncivilized civil servants.
The NCLC could use various strategies to achieve these tasks including advocacy, sermons, dialogue and mobilization of its large congregational base to carry out non-violent peaceful mass protests. However, in carrying out its tasks, the NCLC should always have as its foundation the principle of love as instructed by our Master and Lord Jesus Christ.
Nigeria currently faces a lot of challenges, but I have faith that God will see us through the shadow of the valley of despair. However, all hands must be on deck to secure a brighter future for our great country. The formation of a NCLC or a similar organization by the Nigerian church leadership should be a step in the right direction.
I strongly believe that the church leadership must be ready to face the moral challenge of the day and stand up and be counted. Failure to do so will have the pages of history record that that there was once a generation of church leaders in Nigeria who had an opportunity to lead the fight against oppression, exploitation and classism, but due to their complacency, apathy and indifference; the oppression continued in the land.
I will conclude by rephrasing what Martin Luther King wrote a couple of decades ago while in prison for leading a mass protest against injustice:
If the Nigerian church leadership does not recapture the social justice spirit of the early prophets and apostles, they will lose their authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant bunch of Disc Jockeys (DJs) with no meaning for the twenty first century.
Your fellow citizen of the Household of God
Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA
PS: If you would like to discuss the issues raised in this letter with me, feel free to contact me using the email detailed above. Also feel free to forward this letter to other church leaders.