Monday, December 29, 2008

Christian and Moslem relations

RECENTLY, the city of Jos, the capital of Plateau State, the home of "peace and tourism" was in the news for all the wrong reasons. So many factors, religious, political, ethnic and even economic have been adduced as causing the incredible violence that engulfed some parts of the city on the morning of Friday, November 28, 2008.

There is no denying that in Northern Nigeria, religion, ethnicity and politics are inextricably bound in ways that boggle the imagination of even the ordinary onlooker. Politicians especially have been disingenuous in taking recourse to or employing religious sentiments to divisive effect. It is also pertinent to observe that, our society has become not only cosmopolitan but also multi-religious. The necessity and urgency of Inter-Religious dialogue and relations therefore can not be over-emphasised.

In the past, in the Catholic Church, it was affirmed that outside the church, there is no salvation. Today, we know better than that! I think we can equally say with the same degree of conviction that without an inter-religious dialogue or relation that is sincere and worthy of the name, the salvation we hope for would only be "a pie in the sky". After all, we are all Children of the one God whom we address as Father.

However, barring any recourse to Scriptural and Theological debates and controversies, there are series of facts that we must face and try to address as Christians and Moslems alike, if we must engage in any serious conversation.

To begin with, in October 2007, 138 Moslem officials from around the world issued a statement titled, "A Common Word Between Us and You", addressed to the Pope and other Christian leaders, the "Letter of 138" proposed a dialogue based on the two great commandments of love of God and love of neighbour. While we see this as a welcome development, the question to ask is, can Christians and Moslems speak frankly about such "abiding realities" of the human condition as forgetfulness of God and rebellion against him, or oppression in the sense of exceeding the appropriate limits of behaviour in dealing with others, while violating their essential human rights? Is instruction in the dual commandment of love of God and love of neighbour sufficient to overcome the human propensity for wickedness toward the "other"?

In other words, do Christians and Moslems share an awareness of our need to be liberated by God into the freedom of his gift of love? Are we agreed that we must all repent of the times when coercion has been used to advance the cause of God? Besides, is self-criticism part of our spiritual self-awareness as Christians and Moslems?

Secondly, is it possible for Christians and Moslems to study their sacred texts with piety and critical rigour? In other words, is it possible to create a critical Christian-Moslem scholarship marked by the will to understand out of love? Does the application of modern scholarly methods to analysis of the origins and character of ancient texts involve a betrayal of faith?

The reformation has meant for Jews and Christians, a minimal willingness to reconsider their Holy writings and subject them to literary and textual scrutiny. Today we know, for example, that the Christian term "Jehovah" is a mistranslation of the unuttered spaces between the letters of the Hebrew "Yahweh". Yet, no comparable project has ever been undertaken in Koranic scholarship.

Thirdly, do we agree that God himself has inscribed human rights, "into the nature of man"? Are we agreed that human rights and divine rights cannot be played off one against the other? And if what we mean by human rights is the recognition and protection of the minimal conditions under which human dignity, due to the human person as creature of God is protected, then can we agree that, to recognise and respect human rights is nothing but obedience to the will of God. In this light, therefore, the protection of human rights is tantamount to a fulfillment of the dual commandment of love God and love of neighbour. If "Islam" means "submission to the will of God", and if respect to the dignity of the human person is the will of God, then does Islam by its very nature require Moslems to recognise basic human rights?

Fourthly, doesn't the love of neighbour require, as a religious obligation and not merely a practical political accommodation, respect and legal protection for the religious convictions of others, so long as those convictions do not compromise the common good? Do Moslems agree that this principle holds even if Moslems regard what the "other" believes is false?

As Christians and Moslems, can we agree that the institutional separation of church and state, religious and political authority, enshrined in our constitution, is ultimately good for the state? The reason is obvious, it prevents the state from sacralising itself and the misuse of religion for political purposes and above all, it creates social space for faith and the workings of conscience.

Christians have developed, over the past centuries, a deep theological critique of past attempts to advance Christianity coercively. They now recognise that the attempt to create "Christian States" was a failure that involved great costs on all sides. Are Moslems prepared to recognise that the attempts to create "Islamic States" will likely lead to the same bad results, for both justice and faith?

Fifthly, it is affirmed that "Islam is a religion of peace that respects human life". Can Islam, therefore, understand its faith in such a way that Moslems reject violence in the name of God, not only in terms of a cleansing of conscience about the past but also a commitment to the future? Can this commitment also extend to those who leave the house of Islam for other faiths? How willing are the leaders of Islam to challenge, discipline, and, if need be, dramatically marginalise the jihadists who preach and commit murder "without the sanction of God, his Prophet, or the learned tradition? The Koran teaches that no one may be forced to believe; "there is no compulsion in religion". The Moslems should agree that this principle only comes to fruition if it guarantees the freedom also to abandon the faith, to understand it differently, or even to despise it.

Unless Islamic leaders find the intellectual resources and the moral courage to condemn, on religious grounds, those who would murder in the name of God, more than a billion Moslems will be held hostage to the fanatics among their co-religionists. So will the rest of the world. It is long past time for Moslem leaders to stop quibbling over the meaning of "jihad" and to condemn the jihadists who are turning the planet into a free-fire zone - and imagine that they're doing God's will in the process.

These posers are pertinent in any attempt at inter-religious dialogue or relation and the way we answer them will determine the depth and dimension of our efforts towards imbibing a culture of tolerance in a multi ethnic and religious society like ours. I have no doubt in my mind that as Nigerians, we can live together irrespective of what faith or creed we profess. As human beings, our needs are basically the same; food, shelter, peace, prosperity. I agree totally with Martin Luther King who once observed that, "we must learn to live together as brothers and sisters or die together as fools".

It is important therefore that we begin to ask ourselves some serious and soul-searching questions as Christians and Moslems. We should leave the matter of deciding which religion is true and which one is false to God alone, that is his prerogative. I think that when the chips are down, it does not matter whether we have the fullness of the faith, what is paramount is whether we live the fullness of the faith. This, to my mind, amounts to an inter-religious dialogue or relation that is robust, sincere and responsible.