BY EMMANUEL OJIEFO
“If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for our times.” – Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963).
REVEREND Father George Omaku Ehusani is one of Nigeria’s fiery and most prolific writers. He is also a theologian, teacher, poet, administrator, musician, human rights activist, social commentator and leadership expert. When he marked his 30th anniversary as a Catholic priest in 2011, Bishop Emmanuel Badejo who delivered the sermon at the Mass of thanksgiving at Asokoro remarked that, “Father Ehusani ranks comfortably among the top ten Catholic priests in Nigeria.”
During the years of military dictatorship in Nigeria under General Sani Abacha, Father Ehusani was one of the few leading lights of the Catholic Church that stood up in fierce opposition against the regime. In the heydays of the junta, Father Ehusani, together with Father Matthew Hassan Kukah (now Bishop) and late Father John Uba Ofei constituted the trio that turned socio-political activism into a spiritual art from their enviable positions at the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria. In what some astute observers have termed the “Golden Age” of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, the trio of Ehusani, Kukah and Ofei were busy churning out provocative articles and essays in several national dailies on a weekly basis.
In his writings at the time, Father Ehusani rose in defence of human rights, social justice, civil liberties and equity in the land. He protested against tyranny, against the conversion of Nigeria into an “animal farm” by the rapacious military junta of General Sani Abacha who, according to him, “subjected Nigeria to the most punitive and callous dispensation in its political history.” As a social crusader, Father Ehusani challenged the government of the day to halt the rapid descent of the nation into anarchy. He believed at the time that Christians had lost the core values of Christianity, as enunciated in the contextualised social setting of the early Christian community, and that this was partly responsible for the alarming level of social decay in the nation.
This was the subject of his classic book, A Prophetic Church first published in 1996. In his introduction to the book, Father Eugene Lewis warned potential readers to beware of its fiery nature: “If you do not wish to be disturbed, do not take it up… If you need to retain a sense of inner peace, uncontaminated by inconvenient truths… do not read this book.” Little wonder the book has generated a lot of interest and controversy within and outside the Christian fold in Nigeria. The reason for this, according to the author, is that it came “at a time when some people thought the book contained certain ideas that were too revolutionary for comfort.”
In the book, Father Ehusani aroused the consciences of Nigerian Christian leaders and issued a rallying call for organised religion to return to the timeless values of the Christian Gospel. For him, this was the most powerful way for Christianity to draw inspiration for confronting the socio-political evils of the day. He thus declared: “Nigeria needs a prophetic church that will act as the conscience of the nation, a prophetic church that will courageously highlight the evils of society which constitute the obstacle on the way of peace and prosperity. Nigeria needs a prophetic church that will be forthright and consistent in denouncing individual evil and evil structures in our society… Nigeria needs a prophetic church that will stand alongside the oppressed, the impoverished, the marginalised, those denied their just rights and those discriminated against in the society.”
He took a long leap back to the beginnings of Christianity and discovered how the life and teaching of Jesus Christ instituted a revolution in world order. He studied the lives of the early followers of Jesus Christ and saw how they championed groundbreaking changes in the world of their time. They went to the ends of the earth bearing the torch of the Christian Gospel, transforming the mores and values, the customs and traditions, the thought-patterns and behaviours of the people of their time.
But Father Ehusani wonders why Christians of today, amazing in numbers, talents and resources have failed to bring about the same positive change in their own societies. He locates the problem in the twisted values that have come to take the place of authentic Gospel values: the craze for material comfort, conspicuous consumption, and a pleasure-seeking life.
Twenty years after its first publication, rather than diminish in stature and value, Father Ehusani’s book has grown to become a historic reference point, not only for understanding the defining features of Nigeria’s socio-political history, but also a nostalgic reminder of the failure of Christians to reclaim “the old time religion.” Today’s Christians have so much derailed from the original goals of Christianity.
The Christian faith seems to have lost its role as the conscience of society. In a country so richly endowed with abundant resources, many people are still dying by instalments due to abject poverty, hunger and disease. Majority of the people now live in near destitution while the few super-rich members of the elite revel in affluence and conspicuous consumption. In the midst of all these, religion has failed to summon its capacity to generate prophetic outrage and moral revulsion against the ills of society.
I believe it was this situation that Martin Luther King Jr. was lamenting in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail when he said: “There was a time when the church was very powerful – in the time when the early Christian rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace.’ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were ‘a colony of heaven,’ ‘called to obey God rather than man.’ Things are different now. 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.”
In Father Ehusani’s view, if Nigerian Christians are to save our nation, they have no option than to return to the pristine values of the “old time religion” – the values of justice, honesty, hardwork, sacrifice, compassion, mercy, peace, love, hope, faith, self-discipline, frugality, simplicity, kindness, gentleness, humility, prudence, temperance, solidarity, and tolerance. He, therefore, calls us out of our moral lethargy to begin to live for higher ideals, inspired by the social principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
• Ojeifo is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Abuja (firstname.lastname@example.org).