The church and society
Why is it that the Church in Nigeria does not appear to be engaged in any significant manner with some of the most important challenges confronting our nation? Most Nigerians will agree that Nigeria has been held down by deep-seated corruption, in government and the private sector; the will of the majority is being subverted by an unrepresentative democracy; society is held captive by an unenlightened and rapacious elite; and the vast majority of people are victims of social injustice particularly poverty, oppression, insecurity and abusive use of power.
Every other national problem in my view can be traced to these fundamental causes. Corruption is at the root of our infrastructure deficiency, particularly power and transportation-appropriations get into private accounts rather than deliver power stations, roads, bridges, hospitals, schools, and rural infrastructure. Corruption is at the root of the violent struggle for power and election rigging that destroys our democracy-if public office were about service and sacrifice, we would struggle to find enough people interested in them to fill all the offices we have created in our constitution. Corruption means that police men and military men are so poor and angry that they take out their frustrations on innocent citizens and civilians.
Private sector corruption prevents the corporate sector from fulfilling its developmental role in our economy. CEOs quickly turn public companies and depositors’ funds into private fiefdoms or individual bank accounts, ensuring that those enterprises are soon destroyed by mismanagement, fraud and corporate governance scandals, while employees, poor investors and depositors who had staked their life savings are impoverished. Corruption denies the poor justice in our police stations and magistrates courts, and turns the ‘big man’ into an oppressor over the less fortunate. It is due to corruption that the politician, once elected or selected into public office, becomes unaccountable to the electorate and even erstwhile “godfathers”, as he quickly amasses enough loot to silence the majority and terrorise the dissenting minority.
So why have these and other social issues not been at the top of the agenda of the contemporary Nigerian Church? Jesus Christ himself spoke out especially on behalf of the poor or weak, those who mourn, the meek, the sick, all those who labour and are heavy laden, widows, the lame, blind etc and he railed against oppression. He declared that he did not come to save the righteous, but the sinners and asked them to allow little children come unto him. It is clear from the ministry of Christ that he was keenly interested in social justice. This is also the case when we examine the impact of the Church on western society.
The Protestant Reformation and the revolutionary teachings of John Wyclif, Martin Luther and John Calvin presaged the economic and industrial progress that Europe would later experience. The personal and social transformation which the beliefs and personal examples of the Puritans and Quakers brought to bear on Western society cannot be de-linked from the Christian value system and pattern of behaviour that was later to accelerate their economic development. As a particular example, Gary Hamel, a Professor of Strategy (and one of my favourites) notes that it was the beliefs of Frederick Winslow Taylor, a Quaker that led him to seek ways of improving workplace practices and led to his path-breaking work in developing the principles of scientific management.
Indeed history suggests a connection between the so-called Protestant work ethic (with its principles of honesty, fair-dealing, hard work, trust and integrity) and the industrial revolution in Europe. As many employers of labour in Nigeria (frustrated by the poor ethics and values of employees) would recognise, it would have been impossible to have an industrial revolution without values which encouraged honesty, productivity, diligence, a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay etc-the value system embedded in the Protestant work ethic. So why is the Christian faith not having a similar impact on Nigerian and indeed African society? Why do we have so many Christian Churches of the Orthodox, African, Evangelical, white-garment and Pentecostal varieties and yet there is so much corruption in the land? How come the Churches don’t even talk about these things? Are we like the pre-reformation Catholic Church in Europe, “selling indulgences” to the corrupt and so unable to criticise them?
Jesus himself said in Mathew 5: 13-16 that the Church is supposed to be the salt of the earth and light of the world, and warned against the salt losing its savour or the light being put under a bushel. He specifically entreated the Church to “Let your light so shine before men…” and warned against a Church that loses it impact and becomes good for nothing, “except to be cast out, and trodden under foot of men”. Can we say today that the Church in Nigeria, in spite of the large number of people attending Churches, is having the kind of impact a pinch of salt has on a whole pot of soup? Are we like the Quakers and Puritans redefining moral and ethical standards or is the Church in fact complicit in them? Christianity is an agent of personal and societal transformation. That was the message Christ preached, and that was the example of the early Church. The Nigerian Church must rediscover this essence.
•Columnist’s Note-This article was first published on December 31, 2008. This ends the 5-part serial of spiritual recollections.
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