Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Christianity in Nigeria

In the last century Christianity has seen explosive growth in Nigeria, so much so that by the middle of this century the global heartland of Christianity will be in northern Nigeria. Eliza Grizwold, whose father was once Presiding Anglican Bishop in America, has an interesting and mostly disheartening look at the state of Nigeria's Christianity in the new issue of Atlantic Monthly (subscription only).

The population of Nigeria is evenly divided between Muslims and Christians. In the last decade violence has flared and attrocities have been committed by both sides. In addition there is plenty of inter-religious conflict between different brands of Christians and different brands of Muslims. On the Christian side Grizwold identifies two powerful, and sorry, players. The first is the now well-known Archbishop Peter Akinola. Akinola is best known in this country for his hostile views towards homosexuality. Conservative Anglican churches in the US are attempting to have him be their presiding bishop rather than the liberal American alternatives. But in Nigeria, Akinola is probably better known as the past president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, an umbrella organization founded in the 1970s to give Christians a collective and unified voice as strong as that of Muslims.

Grizwold tells the story of one Christian-Muslim conflict in the town of Yelwa, where in 2004 a group of Muslims brutally attacked and killed members of a Church of Christ who were meeting for worship. Members of the Christian Association of Nigeria responded:
According to Human Rights Watch, 660 Muslims were massacred over the course of the next two days, including the patients in the Al-Amin clinic. Twelve mosques and 300 houses went up in flames. Young girls were marched to a nearby Christian town and forced to eat pork and drink alcohol. Many were raped, and 50 were killed...

During the Christian attack, ...two young women took shelter in an elder’s guarded home. On the second day, the Christian militia arrived at the house. They were covered in red and blue paint and were wearing those numbered white name tags. The Christians first killed the guards, then chose among the women. With others, the two young women were marched toward the Christian village. “They were killing children on the road,” Danladi said. Outside the elementary school, her abductor grabbed hold of two Muslim boys she knew, 9 and 10 years old. Along with other men, he took a machete to them until they were in pieces, then wrapped the pieces in a rubber tire and set it on fire.

When Danladi and Ibrahim reached their captors’ village, they were forced to drink alcohol and to eat pork and dog meat. Although she was obviously pregnant, Danladi’s abductor repeatedly raped her during the next four days...
Here is Akinola's response to questions about this episode of violence by Christians against Muslims:
When asked if those wearing name tags that read “Christian Association of Nigeria” had been sent to the Muslim part of Yelwa, the archbishop grinned. “No comment,” he said. “No Christian would pray for violence, but it would be utterly naive to sweep this issue of Islam under the carpet.” He went on, “I’m not out to combat anybody. I’m only doing what the Holy Spirit tells me to do. I’m living my faith, practicing and preaching that Jesus Christ is the one and only way to God, and they respect me for it. They know where we stand. I’ve said before: let no Muslim think they have the monopoly on violence.”
The violence is appalling on both sides, but it is particularly disturbing to hear a Christian leader condone - no - support it. (It is also somewhat amazing to me that there are "pacifist" Brethren I know who like this guy; anyone who is anti-gay is our friend, I guess.)

Then there are the Pentecostals who are thriving by preaching a prosperity gospel. Pentecostalism stepped into the vacuum created by the collapse of the oil boom in the 1970's. Since then the Pentecostal Gospel of Prosperity, and the African Initiated Churches, or AICs, have converted millions to the prosperity gospel version of Christianity:
...Today, AIC members account for one-quarter of Africa’s 417 million Christians.

One bustling Pentecostal hub, Canaanland, the 565-acre headquarters of the Living Faith Church, has three banks, a bakery, and its own university, Covenant, which is the sister school of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Canaanland is about an hour and a half north of Lagos, which has an estimated population of 12 million and is projected to become the world’s 12th-largest city by 2020. With 300,000 people worshipping at a single service at the Canaanland headquarters alone and 300 branches across the country, Living Faith is one of Nigeria’s megachurches, and the dapper Bishop David Oyedepo is its prophet. The bishop, whose bald pate glistens above deep-set eyes and dazzling teeth, never wanted to be pastor: he had no interest in being poor, he told me. “When God made me a pastor, I wept. I hated poverty in the Church—how can the children of God live as rats?”

Bishop Oyedepo built Canaanland to preach the Gospel of Prosperity. As he said, “If God is truly a father, there is no father that wants his children to be beggars. He wants them to prosper.” In the parking lot at Canaanland, beyond the massive complex of unusually clean toilets, flapping banners promise: Whatsoever you ask in my name, he shall give you, and By his stripes he gives us blessings...

“God isn’t against wealth,” Professor Famous (a convert from Muslim) said. “Revelations talks about streets paved with gold.” He added, “Look at how Jesus dressed.” When I appeared baffled, he patiently explained that since the soldiers cast lots for Christ’s clothes, they were clearly expensive. In Canaanland, clothes matter: the pastors wear flashy ones and they drive fast cars as a sign of God’s favor. They draw their salaries from sizable weekly contributions. On Sundays at some Nigerian Pentecostal churches, armored bank trucks reportedly idle in church parking lots, while during the service, believers hand over cash, cell phones, cars—all with the belief that if they give to God, God will make them rich. It’s said that if the Christian Prosperity churches disappeared, the banks of Nigeria would collapse.
In fairness, part of their recipe for success is the way they foster discipline and hard work, which is all very good but not the same as the message of Jesus. Jesus had expensive clothes?

There are bright spots, like Pastor James Movel Wuye and Imam Muhammad Nurayn Ashafa, friends turned enemies turned friends again:

At a Christian conference in Nigeria sponsored by Pat Robertson—one of the most anti-Muslim preachers in the world—a fellow pastor pulled James aside and said, in almost the same words as the Sufi hermit, “You can’t preach Jesus with hate in your heart.” James said, “That was my real turning point. I came back totally de­programmed. I know Pat Robertson might have had another agenda, but I was truly changed.”

For more than a decade now, James and Ashafa have traveled to Nigerian cities and to other countries where Christians and Muslims are fighting. They tell their stories of how they manipulated religious texts to get young people into the streets to shed blood. Both still adhere strictly to the scripture; they just read it more deeply and emphasize different verses...

...As Pastor James told me at his office, Peace Hall, in Kaduna, he still believes strongly in absolute and exclusive salvation mandated by the gospel: “Jesus said, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life.’” He still challenges Christians to rely on the strict and literal word, and he’s still uncompromising on fundamental issues of Christianity. “We see same-sex marriages in the United States as signs of end times: it’s Sodom and Gomorrah,” he told me. “But I also want to say you can believe what you want to believe. We have to find a space for coexistence.”

Like many conservative Christians, he is misreading the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. But at least he understands the need to coexist. Let's hope that the views of more Nigerian Christians and Muslims evolve to this point.

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