Why are our churches silent?

Last Saturday I posted an article on my Facebook wall written by Father Anthony Akinwale, a Nigerian Dominican priest, professor of theology, and vice chancellor of the Dominican University in Ibadan. Father Akinwale, my former teacher, wrote the article titled ‘Its not about SARS’ for his weekly column in Independent, the Ibadan Catholic newspaper, but sent a copy to me. In the article, the brilliant professor offered a socio-historical commentary on impunity in Nigeria, tracing its roots to the era of military rule in the 70s and 80s. The brutality and lawlessness that SARS has come to characterise in present-day Nigerian sensibility, Akinwale noted, is only a symptom of a bigger national malaise: “the impunity by the government.” In a country where the government is the largest marketer of serial human rights violations, is it surprising that law enforcement agents such as the police have become the poster-child of this dysfunctionality?

I must confess that I was glad that Father Akinwale was proactive enough to offer his own critique of our present situation. His views seem to resonate with many critical minds. As many others have come to observe, the #EndSARS protests taking place in cities across the country are a powerful statement not just against police brutality but against everything that bad governance has midwifed in Nigeria today: bribery, corruption, violence, banditry, robbery, extortion, fraud, nepotism, sectionalism, mediocrity, lawlessness, impunity, ineptitude, etc. The Nigerian youths calling for change are using the hashtag #EndSARS as a motif for #EndCorruption in government. #EndNepotism and #EndSectionalism in appointments to public offices and in the distribution of job opportunities. #EndElectoralFraud. #EndViolence that is decimating lives across the nation. #EndExtortion. #EndEverything that is crippling Nigeria’s chances of becoming a modern and an attractive nation.

Surprisingly, not many religious voices have been heard in this nationwide protest. Many religious leaders and institutions have been silent. Yesterday, one of my young friends, an old girl of Regina Pacis College where I once served as chaplain, sent me an inbox message on Instagram wondering why she has not heard anything from our own church. In her words, “The church is a very very powerful institution with influence and the ability to educate the masses. This is a voice we very much need to hear. Our people are dying and it is not Christ-like to be silent in the face of oppression and injustice. I urge you to please use whatever avenues are accessible to you, to ask the bishops and priests to say something on this matter. Thank you! Stay blessed.”

Frankly, her message caught me to the heart. I told her that I very much share her concerns and explained what I tried to do at Mass on Sunday during my homily and at the prayers of the faithful. But I know that my own modest individual effort does not commensurate for the force and power of the institutional church’s prophetic moral voice. The truth is that many young people are observing the silent attitude of our churches at a time when they direly need the church to stand up and speak out for them and use its moral voice to amplify their struggles for a better and saner society.

It would seem as if churches and religious leaders today are more concerned about their own personal interests than with the interest of the common people. When the issue of the new CAMA came up a few weeks ago, we saw how many religious leaders, especially the ‘Big Men of God,’ reacted swiftly. They all jumped into the public foray to condemn the Act as an unacceptable intrusion into the governance structure and financial management of their churches. Why have they not adopted the same proactive stance in condemning police brutality? Why do they seem to be silent now when they should lend their moral voice to the demands of the Nigerian youth for better governance in the country?

Nigeria is a notoriously religious country. Our churches and mosques are largely peopled by young people. And these young people are out there in the rain, in the sun, with harassment and threats to their lives, demanding for a better society. They have a right to ask: “Where are our religious leaders? Where are our pastors and priests? Why are our bishops and daddy GOs not identifying with our cause?”

In April 1963, Martin Luther King Jr wrote his famous ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ in which he expressed his utter disappointment with the Christian clergymen in Atlanta for criticising his social activism for an end to racial injustice in America. He berated his fellow clergymen for their silent acquiescence in the face of racial oppression in the land. He regretted that instead of standing on the side of the oppressed, the contemporary church has departed from the prophetic example of the early church and has become an ally of the oppressor state and 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. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before.” He then warned: “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 the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.”

Sadly, what King said of the Christian church in America in the 1960s is true of our churches in Nigeria today. Do you notice that many young people in our society today loathe organised religion? Do you see how many people have turned their backs on institutional religion? Do you see how many young people are increasingly self-identifying as “spiritual” rather than as “religious”? They believe that religion is no longer advancing their spiritual development but has in fact become an obstacle to their spiritual growth. They have come to the conviction that the Jesus marketed by our churches today is not the Jesus they love: the Jesus who stood up against social injustice, against oppression, and against exploitation of the poor and defenceless. The Jesus they connect with is the One who identified himself with the hungry, the poor, the naked, the thirsty, the sick, the homeless, the suffering, and the dying. This Jesus would have joined in the protest for an end to police brutality. But this Jesus doesn’t seem to be in the churches today, which is why many young people are leaving the church and searching for him elsewhere.

As churches and as church leaders, we need to really sit down and review our strategies and mode of operation. We need to be proactive in our engagement with the society in which we live. We are the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.” We are the moral thermometer for our people. We need to let them know that we care about the things that matter to them, especially when those things are in the interest of justice and the common good. Wherever these issues are on the front burner, the church’s prophetic voice should never be found wanting.

I repeat for the umpteenth time: Young people today are desperately yearning for the kind of moral leadership that offers them a compass to a better society; the kind of moral leadership that connects with their hopes, their struggles, and their aspirations. The church is well positioned to provide this kind of leadership. If the church is failing to offer it, does anyone still wonder why today’s youth are turning over to celebrities of all stripes and shades? As with the #EndSARS demonstrations, the youth are taking note. They know the Wizkids and the Davidos, the Sowores and the Aisha Yesufus, the Burna Boys and AYs who are standing up for them. They also know the ‘Big Men of God’ who are keeping mute. When the time comes, they will remind you!

© Omokugbo Ojeifo, 2020.

Rev Fr Omokugbo Ojeifo is a priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja.