“There is neither truth nor goodness nor knowledge of God in the country; only perjury, lies, murder, theft and adultery, with continual bloodshed. That is why the country is in mourning with all who live there wasting away… But let no one apologize or accuse the other, for it is you, priest, whom I single out!” – Bible (Hosea 4:1-4).
In 2003, a BBC report noted that Nigeria is the most religious country in the world. Another report sometime later stated that Nigerians are the happiest people in the world. For many years, the Transparency International corruption perception index has put Nigeria on the list of the most corrupt countries of the world. Nigeria is also one of the poorest countries of the world.
A 2013 report of the National Bureau of Statistics observed that about 120 million Nigerians are living below the poverty line of $2 a day. These barometric indicators have always puzzled me: How can a people be simultaneously poor and happy? And how can a nation be very religious but also very corrupt? For the discerning Nigerian, these obvious contradictions defy any rational explanation. With churches and mosques springing up by the day right across the nooks and crannies of this country, poverty and misery continue to walk freely on the streets, with treasury looters smiling to the bank with what is clearly our commonwealth.
The sad part of the situation is that religion, as it is currently practised in Nigeria, has lost its capacity to generate a sense of moral revulsion and prophetic outrage against the ills of the society. Rather than help to confront the myriad challenges facing us as a people and as a nation, religion has sometimes taken a backseat, and at other times a willing collaborator to the collective oppression of the people. The gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen today, not just in the open society but also in houses of religion, where the poor are made to serve as puppets to rich patrons, who dole out ‘peanuts’ to them in the name of charity and philanthropy.
On a fundamental issue such as social justice for the poor, we are a backward society, a failed nation. Add to this phenomenon the rise of nouveau riche prosperity gospel preachers who continue to feast on the ignorance and gullibility of the people, capitalising on their socio-economic condition to rob them of their faith and money. Some religious leaders are among the richest citizens in this country, and one wonders how the Christian gospel has become so reduced to financial inducements and promises of wealth, power, position and privilege.
In today’s religious geography, God is more or less a first-aid box, a quick fixer and a money doubler. For the sake of fame, some religious preachers today have sold their souls to the devil and are eager to acquire supernatural powers from the occult world. These are a few symptoms of the collapse of values in our society and how religion has fast-tracked the descent of our nation into the abyss of moral chaos, and spiritual anarchy.
Because today’s version of religion has made it look as if life is all about material accumulation and financial prosperity, people are willing to cut corners, cheat, and exploit others just to make it. And then they bring fat pay cheques to churches and mosques in thanksgiving for what, they claim, God has done for them. We hardly hear religious preaching today that focus on and emphasize the virtues of honesty, integrity, truth, sacrifice, modesty, frugality, selfless service, righteousness, and moral goodness. The pursuit of hedonism – a pleasure-seeking life – has overtaken the sanity of faith.
In his Wednesday General Audience of March 2, 2016 at St Peter’s Square, Rome, Pope Francis issued a stinging rebuke to rich patrons who offer the Church dirty money gained through exploitation, outright stealing and deprivation of workers of their just wages: “I think of some benefactors of the Church that say, ‘take this offer for the Church,’ and it is profit from the blood of those abused, treated as slaves, workers with poorly paid jobs. I say to these people: ‘Please, take back your cheque and burn it’. The people of God, the Church, do not need your blood money. They need hearts that are open to the mercy of God.” The Pope has branded such money “the dung of the devil” and has consistently condemned the evil of unbridled capitalism. He has also denounced those who profit from corruption, including several heated attacks on the mafia.
On March 21, 2014, Pope Francis attended a vigil of prayer organized by a citizen’s group called Libera, in the Church of San Gregorio VII in Rome, aimed at demonstrating the Catholic Church’s opposition to organized crime. The vigil was filled with those who had suffered at the hands of the mafia, including people whose family members and loved ones had been killed. As the names of 842 victims killed in Italy by the mafia since 1983 were read out, the Pope listened, deep in sombre thoughts.
After expressing solidarity in front of a crowd of more than 1,000 at the vigil, he said he would not leave the vigil without addressing those who were absent: The protagonists of blood-stained mafia violence: “This life that you now live will not give you happiness. The power and money that you have now from many dirty dealings, from many mafia crimes, is blood-stained money, is blood-stained power – you cannot bring them with you to the next life. There is still time for you to repent and not end up in hell, which is what awaits you if you continue on this path. You have a father and a mother – think of them and convert.”
It was this same sort of evils that biblical prophets were confronted with when they issued series of divine warnings to people on account of their prophetic interpretation of the socio-political and economic vicissitudes of their time. Their stern warnings are extraordinary messages to religious leaders of today, not to compromise with evil wherever it exists and whichever guise it assumes.
In his 2011 book, Witness to Justice, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, one of Nigeria’s leading public intellectuals, highlighted this issue: “Some of those who have become rich by corrupt means find a moral basis for their corruption by supporting religion. They erect places of worship, they sponsor pilgrimage and keep holy men and women in the holy shrines around the world, and they make large donations in exchange for the holy waters of legitimacy.”
For Kukah, the danger is that “both religious bodies and the beneficiaries of these seemingly noble actions run the risk of mistaking criminal bargaining with God for spirituality. When religious leaders turn a blind eye to the actions of certain individuals and use material generosity as a basis for gauging the depth of spirituality and commitment, we run the risk of draining religion of its ideals and goals.” He continues with an indictment of religious leaders, “those false prophets who have taken it upon themselves to compromise with Baal, those who revere the wealthy and powerful and refuse to prophesy about a God who provided for all his children.”
To reclaim the values of ‘old time religion,’ all honest, committed and God-fearing religious leaders must wake up from moral lethargy and forestall the further depletion of our moral and spiritual capital by enemies of God and enemies of progress. If Nigeria is to be redeemed, it must start from the doorsteps of churches and mosques.
•Ojeifo is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Abuja (firstname.lastname@example.org)