a few words concerning ecumenism and secularism in religious affairs


“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are Good’s” Matthew 22:21

By Biodun Jeyifo

The relationship between a “postscript” and the statement or series of articles to which it acts as either an afterword or an action is not a tightly regulated one. This is particularly true of this “afterword” on the series that ran in this column in the previous two weeks. This is particularly evident in the fact that in that series, I had focused mainly on Christianity, even though I had clearly meant all my observations, all my claims to refer to all the religions of the world. But as we shall see in this “postscript”, secularism, together with ecumenism, the new term that I am bringing into the discussion in this piece, the dimension of comparative religion that was lacking in the series on “Spirit” (capital “S”) is a dominant framework here. On the basis of this additional factor, I wish to start this piece by declaring upfront that my intention herein is to demonstrate that the case for an effective and robust secularism in our country – and indeed all the countries of the world – is perhaps best made on the need for ecumenism among all of the world’s religions.

Let’s start then, with a tragic incident that stands as perhaps the worst case of religious persecution in Nigeria. This was the so-called “Quds Day Massacre” in Zaria on Saturday, December 12, 2015. In the incident, an estimated number of 348 members of the Shiite sect of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria were mowed down by units of the Nigerian Army. All reputable and credible reports of the incident testified that the slaughtered men, women and children were peaceful in their demonstration, though Nigerian Army spokespersons alleged that the protesters had blocked city traffic as part of a tactical maneuver whose ultimate objective was the assassination of the then Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai. In the Report of the official Commission of Inquiry under the chairmanship of Justice Mohammed Garba that was released in August 2016, the Army was held entirely responsible for the massacre, with the recommendation that the officers who gave the order for the massacre should be prosecuted. Needless to say, that recommendation has to date not been carried out.

What is hidden should be exposed: the government, federal and state, under whose authority the “Quds Day Massacre” was carried out was/is dominated by members of the Sunni Muslim Sect in Nigeria. Moreover, the leader of the Shiites in Nigeria, Sheik Ibrahim Zakzaky, is known to be a persona non grata of the governments of Mohammadu Buhari (federal) and Nasir Ahmad el-Rufai (Kaduna State), both of whom are prominent members of our national Sunni community. As a matter of fact, Sheik Zakzaky, together with his wife and some of his children, was wounded during the punitive action against the Shiites on that fateful day in December 2015. Thus the import of the slaughter is as clear as it is inescapable: religious conflict, religious persecution in our country as in other countries of the world, can be as brutal and pitiless within the same religion as it is expected to be between separate religions. And indeed, who is by now not aware of the fact that the insurgency of the Boko Haram, though initially primarily directed against Western education and its attachment to Christianity, very rapidly targeted the religious and secular establishments of the Islamic faith in Northern Nigeria and became a menace, a security nightmare to all Nigerians, whether they are Moslems, Christians or Traditionalists (Animists)? Primarily, the main issue between Sunnis and Shiites are the contending claims on each side on who should have been the rightful successor of Prophet Mohammed, together with the structure of the clergy that was then instituted after the contested successor of the Prophet. Was/is this difference so chasmic as to generate centuries of conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites in different regions and countries of the world, especially in the Middle East and the Near East? Ask the Sunnis and the Shiites themselves!

Of course, Christians have their own form of the Sunni/Shiite split. For almost three hundred years between the 16th, 17th and the 18th centuries in Europe after the Protestant Reformation of 1517, Catholics and Protestants bitterly fought each other in wars that laid entire cities, towns and villages to waste, with great human casualties. Prior to this, in the early medieval period between 1095-1204, the so-called “Crusades” had been fought between Christians and Moslems. [And please, do not forget that to this day, Catholics and Protestants are still going at each other in Northern Ireland] Thus, viewed against the historical backdrop of the “Crusades”, the wars between Catholics and Protestants that lasted for centuries from mid to late early modern Europe provides us with an important lesson: what we do to others, we sooner or later do to ourselves. This is the basis of the moral and pragmatic value of ecumenism and secularism for us: what we do to ourselves as Christians or Moslems we will sooner or later do to those who belong to other religions. Ecumenism is the project to find unity, community and cooperation between the world’s religions. And what is secularism in relation to ecumenism? It is the project to keep State and Religion separate in order not to enable the theological, doctrinal and liturgical differences within and among religions infect and overwhelm the state.

The enormity of the task before ecumenism may be gauged by the fact that first, every main or world religion has to achieve unity and community within its own ranks before attempting to achieve tolerance and cooperation with other religions. Here is one example: if among Christians, Trinitarians don’t achieve mutual understanding with Unitarians, how can either of them become “ecumenical” with Islam which has a totally different theological understanding of the divinity of God, specifically of Jesus Christ? For mainstream Trinitarian Christians, Jesus is part of the “trinity” that is God, whereas almost like Islam, Unitarians have tremendous respect for the moral and spiritual identity of the historical Christ but do not believe that he is part of the Divine Oneness or Unity of God. And of course Judaism and Christianity are an immeasurable distance apart on the divinity of the same person, Yeshua in the Judaic Hebrew Bible and Jesus of Nazareth in the Christian Bible. Indeed in spite of tremendously erudite and inspired biblical scholarship of more than a thousand years, the gap between the three Abrahamic religions on the divine or non-divine essence of Christ has not changed; it has only hardened with time and only ecumenism can establish tolerance of difference and diversity between the three religions on this issue.

Needless to say, as far as theology goes, I am a complete novice; indeed, I am far below a novice who, at least, is expected to have committed him or herself to systemic study of theology. What I am is, I hope, an informed inquirer into how ecumenism might be beneficially enhanced by secularism. Which is why I leave the specific field of theology and locate myself in ideas pertaining to prospects for ecumenism in a world which, while it will probably never reconcile itself to theological and doctrinal differences among religions, must nevertheless reduce clashes within and among religions to minimal levels before they spill over into social unrest and civil wars driven by the forces of religious zealotry. Permit me to put this in plain English.

Spirited attempts at theological, doctrinal and liturgical ecumenism between Christian denominations and interfaith conversations between the world’s religions have been going on for almost a century now. But perhaps understandably, they are much too slow for the simple reason that in religion, orthodoxy is the norm while heterodoxy and/or unorthodoxy is the exception. The last major document on ecumenism between Christian denominations, the so-called Vatican II, was issued in 1965. This means that for more than a half century now, no major document of the stature of Vatican II on ecumenism and interfaith dialogue among the world’s religions has seen the light of day. With absolute certainty but disclaiming any privileged access to prophetic insight, I nevertheless prophesy that in all likelihood, another century will pass before another small step will be taken to bring the world’s religions closer theologically and doctrinally. But can we afford such a long wait? The resounding answer is No, we cannot afford to wait that long. At any rate, the secular powers that govern the nations of the planet, cannot afford to wait that long. They must intervene with secular protocols protecting religious rights but also circumscribing religions from using intolerance and zealotry to cause civil unrest and religious conflicts that may lead to wars. This observation leads to my closing reflections in this piece.

We are a long way from the “Crusades” of the early medieval period in which religion was a declared, primary cause of war. Or, to take another example, the early modern period in Europe when wars between Catholics and Protestants were fought almost exclusively on the basis of religious doctrines and practices, that period seems now to belong to an age that we cannot recognize as similar to our own period. But we are not too far from the period when religious intolerance and persecution caused millions to emigrate from Europe to the Americas. In other words, although we still have theocratic or quasi-theocratic states in the world, under secularism even they also must at least pay lip service to protection of the rights of their religious minorities. But we should not be complacent about the tremendous pressure that is still placed on secularism by the forces of religious bigotry, especially in majoritarian Islamic, Hindu and Christian nations. In such states, violent and savage strife are sometimes deliberately precipitated in order to curtal the rights of minorities, whether such minorities are nationals with centuries of belonging or migrants newly arrived in their new homelands. Among such examples of the crises of religious extremism that have proved extremely challenging to secularism worldwide, Islamophobia in Europe and India have been two of the most confounding developments in contemporary global civilization. The case of India, Narendra Modi’s India, is particularly apposite here. In Nehruvian India, the country had one of the most robust and resilient theory and practice of secularism in the world. But all that has turned to dust in the wake of the advent of the Hindu religious and cultural extremism of Modi’s India.

In Nigeria, we like to cast our religious conflicts in projections that pit Christians and Muslims against each other in an all out war, this in a metonymy that substitutes “North” for Moslem and “South” for Christians. But that is not how religious conflicts that become major crises of social strife are operating in our country now and that is not how they will operate in the future. Compatriots, let it be noted that at least so far, though the most volatile elements among the poor that have taken to insurgent revolt in Nigeria may have used Islamicist ideology, their targets have been the Moslem and Christian political and cultural establishment nationwide. It is very doubtful that something like the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) of Joseph Kony in Uganda, an insurgent Christian guerilla militia, can ever arise in Nigeria. Indeed, it is interesting that Islamicist insurgencies rooted in the poor have been more prominent in our country than their Christian counterparts, but that topic belongs in another piece, not this one. It is definitely a thought-provoking idea that the poor among Moslems in our country resort to radical jihadist insurgencies while the poor of other religions apparently place their faith in a Pentecostal apocalypse. To bring the often quoted statement of Jesus Christ that serves as the epigraph for this piece to our concluding note, I wish to emphasize the fact it was poverty that drove those that came to Jesus to ask him whether or not they should pay taxes to Caesar, standing for imperial Roman domination. I wish to conclude with a short reflection on this particular point.

The response that Jesus gave to the question seems quite clear-cut in the manner in which most secularist tenets separating Religion and the State tend to be clear and unambiguous, but notice that the response raises other questions, not the least of which is value correspondences between what Jesus said should be given to the State and what he said should be given to God. Concerning this enigma, we have a clue: community and fellowship as conceived and practiced by Jesus and the early Church were based on equality before God and men and everyone shared what they possessed in complete equality. And indeed, what more powerful incentives are there for secularism and ecumenism than social justice and equality? As long as you accept the equality of all women and men before God, the most complex and abstruse theological and doctrinal differences between religions should not prevent ecumenism in the worship of God and secularism among men and women constituted as citizens of an egalitarian State. Please remember, compatriots, the persons to whom Jesus spoke were driven by passionate yearnings for liberation from the imperial Caesarian State.

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