There has been a great deal of discussion regarding the Sharia or the Islamic law. Christians in the West are usually fearful, suspicious and confused. What if Muslims in various parts of the world begin to demand the application of the Sharia. In my blog of October 26, 2017, I presented the argument of a Muslim scholar on the subject. Today I would like to consider a Christian perspective on the subject coming from Nigeria. Why Nigeria?
Nigeria is a federal republic in West Africa which is considered the “Giant of Africa” because of its population and economy. It has a population of about 186 million divided roughly in half between Christians and Muslims. Christians live mainly in the south and Muslims live mainly in the north. Some northern states have incorporated the Sharia law into their previously secular legal systems, which has brought about a great deal of controversy. Kano State in the north has sought to incorporate the Sharia law into its constitution.
When Nigerians discuss the Sharia, it is not theory and mental gymnastics, but a present reality which needs to be faced and addressed. In Nigeria, the rubber hits the road when it comes to the discussion of the application of the Islamic penal code or the Sharia. Christians in Nigeria responded to their challenging situation over the years with resignation, fear, frustration, or anger that has sometimes boiled over into violence.
Here is a document which is very much worth reading where the author addresses the fact that Nigerians are now at a junction with five roads ahead of them: conversion, confrontation, segregation, secularism and consensus. Which of those roads will lead to peace? Jesus said: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). According to the document below, Nigerians have traveled down all five roads a bit but have not yet chosen one road and excluded the others. What is the Christian perspective on these five roads.
Here is an opportunity for Christians around the world who are fearful about the possibility of the Sharia coming to their lands, to learn from our brothers and sisters in Nigeria. They are ahead of the rest of us in understanding the practical implications of the application of the Sharia in their country.
Which Road Leads Beyond the Sharia Controversy?
A Christian Perspective on Sharia in Nigeria
a Keynote Address for
“Comparative Perspectives on Sharia in Nigeria”
an International Conference sponsored by
the University of Jos (Faculty of Law and Department of Religious Studies) and the Universität Bayreuth (Lehrstuhl für Religionswissenschaft)
at the Multi-Purpose Auditorium, University of Jos
on 15 January 2004,
by Dr. Danny McCain
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). These were the words of Jesus during his first major address. Although there are many things Jesus could have stressed in the early part of his ministry, he stressed peace.
This scripture means that whenever there is a controversy between two persons or within a family or in the society, the Christian response should always be to seek for a peaceful solution. And Jesus says a special blessing is promised to those who seek peace.
The road we have traveled since the introduction of Sharia has been a rough one. It has not improved the peace in this region. Christians have responded to Sharia with resignation, fear, frustration, and anger that has sometimes boiled over into violence. But Jesus calls us to peace. So what must we do to make sure there is peace in our society?
I believe our experiment with Sharia here in Northern Nigeria has led us to a junction with five roads. Which of those roads will lead to that peace that both Christianity and Islam teach? We have traveled down all five roads a bit but have not yet chosen one and excluded the others. It is my responsibility to present the Christian perspective on these five roads.
The first option is the road of conversion. One of the last things Jesus said was “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). One of the main convictions of Christianity is that Christians should share the good news of God’s kingdom with all the nations of the world and try to persuade everyone in the world to become a follower of Jesus. Islam has similar convictions.
And herein lies much of the tension between Christianity and Islam. Both religions are evangelistic in nature. Both are attempting to solidify their positions in Nigeria and to gain more ground. Islam is pushing hard to win Nigeria’s middle belt for Islam and Christians are aggressively evangelizing Muslims, even in the core north.
Although conversion to one religion or the other would solve the Sharia debate, it is not a realistic possibility in the foreseeable future. Both Christianity and Islam are very firmly rooted in Nigeria and neither is going away. We must recognize that the immediate conversion of all those in other religions is unrealistic. Thus, we must embrace one of the other options.
The most visible response to the Sharia debate that Nigeria has experienced to this point has been the road of confrontation. The perception of many Christians is that Sharia was not introduced through the mosque so Muslims could truly practice their religion. It was introduced through politics so Muslims could marginalize Christians in Muslim-dominated areas and embarrass and put pressure on the “Christian” government.
The response by Christians has all too often been to shout at Muslims and even abuse Islamic images, including the word “Sharia.” This kind of confrontation has often escalated and led to physical violence. The catastrophe, which Kaduna experienced in February 2000, is a good example of what happens when there is this type of confrontation. Hundreds of lives were lost; thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed. Almost a thousand churches and mosques were destroyed, damaged or defaced during that confrontation. Unfortunately, the Kaduna crisis, which was directly linked to proposals to introduce Sharia in Kaduna State, has fueled the rumor mills in parts of Northern Nigeria with horrible stories of atrocities and this has led to other crises.
Although this may not be obvious to the average Muslim in Northern Nigeria, this kind of violent confrontation is not a legitimate option for the Christian. Although warfare was allowed and even authorized by God for the Jews in the Old Testament period, when Jesus came to this world, he instituted a new kind of kingdom. This was a kingdom that was to be superimposed upon other nations without replacing them. Individual nations would maintain their sovereignty. They would field armies and police forces that confront evildoers and mete out justice but Jesus made it clear that individual Christians were not to defend his causes with violence.
Jesus’ statements about violence are well known. Perhaps the most well known is where Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said, `Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:38-39). Jesus not only taught about non-violence, he practiced what he preached. When his disciples produced a sword to defend him while being arrested, Jesus said, “Put your sword back in its place . . . for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).
Some Christians have attempted to justify a violent response to violence by appealing to Jesus’ words in Luke 22:36: “He said to them, ‘But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.’” Anyone versed in Semitic languages and culture knows that this was a common Hebrew way of telling his disciples to prepare for violence. It is an idiom similar to Jesus’ statement, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters--yes, even his own life--he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). This statement certainly did not mean one was literally to hate his family members. It was a Semitic way of showing that one should be more committed to Christ than to his family. A fundamental rule in communication is that we interpret figures of speech in light of clear passages. Therefore, Jesus’ statements about taking up a sword, in light of all his clear teachings on violence, simply mean his disciples should prepare themselves for the coming violence that would result from being a new minority religion.
Although Jesus very clearly taught against violence, unfortunately the Christian Church has not always followed his teachings. These inconsistencies are well-known. However, these historical shortcomings do not excuse us from applying Jesus’ teachings in our own situation.
Though Jesus did not remove from governments the responsibility to protect its citizens, with violence if necessary, he did remove that right from individual Christians. Therefore, for a Christian to respond to the Sharia issue by attacking Muslims or destroying mosques is not a legitimate option for the Christian. In fact, the Bible consistently teaches that violence is evil and wrong. It not only destroys the society but ultimately hinders the progress of the Christian church.
All Christians and Christian leaders in Northern Nigeria should fully embrace Jesus’ teachings about peace and violence and teach them to their followers. We must reject violence in all its forms. However Christians should choose to respond to Sharia, the teachings of Jesus demand that violence must not be one of them.
The third option in light of Sharia is the road of segregation. Because of violence and discrimination, some Christians are moving to predominantly Christian areas and some Muslims are doing likewise. Christian families who have lived for generations in northern Nigeria no longer feel safe there and are leaving. In a similar way, some Muslims have sensed a new antagonism in the South and are moving north. Of course, the ultimate example of segregation would be the division of Nigeria with one country being made out of the Christian south and another country made out of the Muslim north.
Is segregation what we want? Is segregation what is best for us? Is segregation what our religions teach? I will allow my Muslim colleagues to explain what Islam teaches about the responsibility of Muslims toward those who practice a different faith. I will say a few words about the Biblical response to this issue.
Old Testament Legislation about Aliens
In the Old Testament period, the Mosaic law demanded that the nation of Israel should be hospitable and treat fairly those non-Israelites among them. Exodus 22:21 says, “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.” An even stronger statement is found in Leviticus 19:34: “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt.” One of the reasons the prophets condemned Israel in its later history was because she had ignored this command. Malachi 3:5 says,
“So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty.
It is amazing God considered mistreating aliens in the same category as sorcery, adultery, perjury, abusing laborers and taking advantage of widows and orphans.
We must recognize that though Christianity accepts both the Old and New Testament as authoritative, we no longer have a sacred nation of which we are a part. Jesus came to introduce a new kind of kingdom—a spiritual kingdom that would be superimposed on other nations without interfering with the governments of those nations.
How do we Christians interpret and apply the Old Testament? We look for principles that were part of the nation of Israel, which can be applied to our modern world. The Old Testament principles related to aliens imply that God expected His followers to accommodate and be fair to anyone living among them who was different.
New Testament Teachings about “Non-Christians”
Does the New Testament support this teaching? Because of the nature of the kingdom Jesus came to introduce, the New Testament reveals that there is even greater flexibility in interacting with “unbelievers.” Jesus recognized that, at least at first, Christianity would be a minority religion. The emphasis that Jesus and the early apostles made was that Christians were to be a positive influence on any society that was non-Christian. Jesus said that we were to be “in the world” but not really “of the world” (John 15:19; 17:11; 14-16). In other words, we were to be part of the mainstream part of society but we were not to allow the evil influences of the world to be a part of us.
Jesus raised the standard even higher than it was practiced in the Old Testament period. He reiterated the teaching, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 19:19; 23:39) but was even more specific. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27). He added later, “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.” Even if we consider our neighbors to be our enemies, there is to be no segregation. We should treat them with kindness.
Jesus spent much time visiting non-Jewish areas, including Tyre, Samaria, Decapolis and other predominantly Gentile places. This shows his interests in the whole world. One of his most well known stories is about a Samaritan who is presented in a very positive light, even though he would have practiced a different kind of religion than the Jews. These kinds of positive statements about those who were not Jesus’ followers demonstrate the kinds of attitudes Christians should have toward non-Christians.
Segregation is not in the best interest of Christianity. It is not in the best interest of Nigeria. And I do not believe it is in the best interest of Islam either.
A fourth road available to Nigeria is the superhighway of secularism. Secularism has been defined as “a system which seeks to interpret and order life on principles taken solely from this world, without recourse to belief in God and a future life.” In a popular sense, secularism refers to the separation of religious practices from public life. This implies little or no overlap between the church or mosque and the state. Secularism is usually promulgated for one of at least two reasons. First, if one does not believe in God or believes God is irrelevant to society, naturally that person would promote secularism.
Second, secularism, as it was originally developed in America, was promoted to protect religion, particularly the minority religions. If one religion is recognized and funded by the government, this means that the minority religions help to finance the majority. This is viewed as inherently unfair to the minority religions in western countries.
An African application of this is to say that, in a multi-religious society such as Nigeria, it is not government’s responsibility to underwrite the expenses of the hajj or pilgrimages to Jerusalem. The government’s responsibility is to make sure that there is no obstacle in the way of anyone wanting to make a religious pilgrimage. The government should expedite the production of passports and foreign exchange for pilgrims. However, pilgrimages are purely religious affairs. It is unfair to require Christian taxpayers to help underwrite the expenses of Muslims going to Mecca or for Muslim taxpayers to help underwrite the expenses of Christians going to Jerusalem or for those who do not believe in either to help fund religious pilgrimages.
Although that is certainly a reasonable position, the modern application of separation of church and state in the Western world usually goes much further than that. For example, in the last forty years, secularism in the USA has led to the removal of prayers, religious teachings and even religious symbols from schools, courtrooms and other public facilities. The recent legislation in France that bans the wearing of head coverings by Muslim school children is a demonstration of how this kind of secularism is now applied in some western countries. Secularism has too often ceased being non-religious and become anti-religious.
Although the second reason for promoting secularism has a noble objective, secularism is not really an option for Christians. Jesus said,
You are the salt of the earth . . . You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:13-16).
This passage teaches us that Christianity is not to be separated from the world but we are to engage the world. Christianity is not just a religion that is to be practiced on Sunday and ignored the rest of the week. Christianity is that which affects the totality of our being and must be practiced twenty-four hours a day, even when we are in public. Christians are not called to impose our faith on others, but neither are we expected to compromise or hide our faith when in the public. That makes secularism an impossibility if Christians are to truly practice their faith. It would be a serious mistake for the African church to embrace secularism in reaction to Sharia.
Little needs to be said about Islam and secularism. The very Sharia debate itself demonstrates that secularism is not an option for Islam. In fact, Christianity has many things it can learn about secularism and holistic theology from observing the way Muslims view life holistically and their willingness to submit themselves to the teachings of their Sacred Writings, regardless of how modern secular society views them.
Secularism is not a realistic option for Africa either. John Mbiti, a Kenyan expert on African Traditional Religions, once said, “Africans are notoriously religious.” When Islam and Christianity came to Africa, they did not meet a religious vacuum. The fervor and commitment to the traditional religions were transferred to the new religions of Christianity and Islam. Religion in Africa is considered a very real part of life and is not restricted to private life. Separating one’s religious life from his or her public life is a foreign concept in Africa and must be rejected.
Although Islam has led in the opposition to secularism, Christians should stand shoulder to shoulder with their Muslim brothers and sisters and oppose it because it is not in the best interest of our society and it is certainly not in the best interest of either Christianity or Islam. An English proverb states that sometimes a person will “cut off his nose to spite his face.” Christians must not so react against Sharia that we hinder our own ability to publicly practice our religion. It is better to make some concessions to accommodate Muslim convictions and preserve the opportunity to practice our own religion publicly than to lose our religious soul to the godless forces of political correctness and secularism.
If these roads will not lead to the peace and harmony we all seek, which road will lead us forward? Although it is rather narrow, there is little go-slow on this road because not many people travel that direction. In fact, the road is a rather dangerous place because travelers on this road tend to get shot at from both sides. The road I speak of is the narrow path of consensus. The word “consensus” includes several concepts including respect, cooperation, compromise and unity, practices that must be a part of the Sharia discussion.
Christianity and Islam are both “voluntary” religions. God is not interested in our worship if it is forced or contrived. Thus, there must be no compulsion in religion. If God only accepts voluntary worship, then giving others the right not to worship or worship in a different way is an essential belief of our two religions. Thus, it is the principle of voluntarism that demands Christians and Muslims give one another the freedom to practice their religious faiths whenever they find themselves living together.
Within the Christian community, there are standards of behaviour and ethics. Christian members who violate those standards are often subjected to “church discipline.” The ethical standards and the punishments apply only to voluntary members. If Sharia were voluntarily practiced only within the Muslim community and did not have the threat of state enforcement, most Christians would have little objection to its implementation.
From a Christian point of view, it would be most ideal if everyone lived by the Ten Commandments and other Christian principles. However, where the Christians are in the majority, the non-compulsion tenet of our faith demands that we give non-Christians the right to practice their religion to the extent that it does not infringe upon the rights of others. Where Christians find themselves in a minority, particularly where there is a Muslim majority, Christians should attempt to “live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18) and respect not only the laws of the land but the cultural traditions of that society. The Apostle Paul underscores this point:
Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone , to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law) (1 Corinthians 9:19-21).
Where Christians reside in a place where the laws of the land require them to do something that will violate their faith or prohibit them from doing something demanded by their faith, they, like the Apostle Peter, must chose to “obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29). If it ever becomes necessary for Christians to practice civil disobedience in order to preserve their consciences, they must do so respectfully and peacefully and be fully willing to accept whatever consequences that accompany that decision.
There is no good example in the New Testament of Christians working closely with non-Christians. However, once Jesus’ disciples came to him and said (Mark 9:38-40), “Teacher . . . we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” Here is Jesus’ response: “Do not stop him . . . No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.” Though this story does not suggest Christians and Muslims should remove all their distinctives and create one amalgamated religion, it does suggest that there should be mutual respect for and an absence of antagonism toward those who have different opinions about the best way to worship God.
Christians and Muslims must come together and mutually work out the best way for Muslims to observe the tenets of Sharia without infringing upon Christian rights. This should be done in a spirit of peace and harmony not suspicion and anger. When we shout at one another, we become angry. When we interact peacefully, we come up with workable solutions.
In light of these observations, what should be the response of Christian and Muslim leaders? I make the following recommendations.
Recommendations for Christian Leaders
1. Stop giving silent consent to violent “Christians.”
Jesus is abundantly clear about violence. Christian leaders have the responsibility to teach and defend Jesus’ teachings. Christian leaders have found it convenient to “look the other way” when their church members have failed “to turn the other cheek.” An old proverb says “two wrongs do not make a right.” You will never stop Sharia or spread Christianity with violence.
If your feel fellow Christians have had their rights violated, you should first try to resolve the issue by using Jesus’ principles of reconciliation. If that does not work, you are free to use the court system. Until the Nigerian court system gives a definitive ruling on the constitutionality of Sharia, we will not know the extent to which Sharia can be implemented in Nigeria.
2. Stop rumors among your constituents.
Thousands of people have lost their lives in Nigeria—both Christians and Muslims—because of unfounded rumors. Rather than reading only what your Christian colleagues are writing about Sharia, give the courtesy to your Muslim colleagues to read and listen to them. Whenever there is a rumor of some pending “crisis” by Muslims, be courageous enough to go see your Muslim counterparts for clarification. The entire Bible condemns gossip and rumor-mongering (Proverbs 16:28; 20:19; 26:20; Romans 1:29; 1 Timothy 5:13; James 4:11). Whenever we participate in it or even tolerate it, we are undermining the very Christianity we are pledged to support. It is evil to slander and spread lies, even against one perceived to be your enemy.
3. Focus on the positive.
The Apostle Paul declared in Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Even from a radical Christian point of view, not everything about Sharia is bad. In fact, much of Sharia is consistent with Christianity. For example, both Christianity and Islam (Sharia) condemn drunkenness and immorality. Both promote strong family values. Both encourage compassion toward the poor and needy. Both practice prayer and fasting. If Christians and Muslims refused to listen to the gossip of their members and focused on the positive elements their religions share, it would be easier to reconcile the areas of disagreement.
4. Establish wholesome relationships with your Muslim counterparts.
As community leaders, you should work at reconciliation without compromising your own doctrinal beliefs. You owe it to your constituents to develop positive relationships with the imams and other Islamic leaders. You will find you have much in common with them. These relationships can also be helpful in preventing crises and in bringing peace in times of tension.
In addition, where Christians have offended Muslims, Christian leaders must lead in seeking forgiveness. Also, pastors and other Christian leaders must teach their people to practice what Jesus taught about forgiving others. If Jesus made any statement more radical than “turn the other cheek” it was the one he made in response to Peter’s question, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" His startling reply was: "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:20-21). This means even if Muslims have been violent against them, our Christian duty is to forgive and be reconciled.
Recommendations for Muslim Leaders
1. Reign in the radicals.
In the last three years, the peaceful nature of Islam has been greatly tarnished by those who practice violence. And, unfortunately, from the Christian perspective, this has been done with little vocal opposition from the leaders who represent the great majority of Muslims. If you want to promote Islam, you must present a more positive peaceful image than what has been presented to the world since September 2001. If Bin Laden does not represent your understanding of what Islam is, then you need say so publicly. Muslim leaders must condemn everything that the Qur’an condemns, including violence against non-Muslims.
2. Push religious leaders to the forefront in the Sharia debate.
At a recent national conference of religious leaders in Abuja, a Catholic bishop said, “If the Sharia issue had been introduced by known religious leaders, we Catholics would have supported it. However, the fact that it was introduced by politicians meant that its real objective was political and not religious.” Whether the thesis or the application of the statement is a true or not is unknown. However, what is true is that the perception most Christians have is that Sharia was introduced primarily by political leaders to promote political ends. If this perception is wrong, it must be the religious leaders who come to the forefront to clarify that point.
3. Apply Sharia equally and fairly.
One of the primary arguments of the Sharia proponents has been that the religious courts would be able to function more quickly and more fairly than the government courts. This is a noble objective because the perception in society is that there is much inefficiency and corruption, in the court system, whether those courts have been led by Christians or Muslims. Certainly there have been some positive examples of cases being resolved quickly. However, the perception in the Christian community is that the implementation of Sharia has been very unfair. It is cow thieves and unwed mothers who have so far experienced the Sharia penalties. What has been missing is highly placed political and business leaders feeling the sting of Sharia.
Sharia proponents have gotten some very bad media coverage through the Amina Lawal case. If you want to get Amina Lawal off of the front pages of the world’s newspapers, you need to start taking some of the “big people” in society to the Sharia courts. When the Sharia courts start punishing those big people who have stolen billions of Naira and the rich men who prey upon young schoolgirls to be their “sugar-daddies” with the same kinds of penalties that cattle thieves and unwed mothers receive, Christians will start viewing Sharia much differently.
Here is another question: How has Sharia been applied to those committing religious violence? What have the Kaduna Sharia courts done to those young men who were apprehended burning churches and destroying property of Christians after the Miss World debacle? If you want Sharia to be accepted by Christians, let it be seen that Sharia implementation is so fair it will defend even the rights of Christians and will punish Muslims who practice violence against non-Muslims. I suspect the single biggest way you can remove Christian opposition to Sharia is to implement its laws as fairly and consistently as they were originally intended to be implemented.
4. Leave Christians out of Sharia.
The proponents of Sharia continue to state publicly that Christians have nothing to fear from Sharia. However, it is obvious that some of the “Sharia” laws are being applied to everyone. Apparently prostitution laws and even alcohol laws apply to everyone in some states, regardless of their religion. This is certainly not a call to excuse Christians who participate in such social vices. However, the proponents of Sharia must clarify what does and what does not apply to Christians. Surely, the recent closing of churches and the refusal to allow the teaching of Christian Religious Knowledge in public schools in core northern states must not be a part of Sharia. These kinds of practices have hurt the credibility and fairness of those promoting Sharia.
In addition, those responsible to implement Sharia must train the Sharia policemen and enthusiastic supporters of Islam to treat Christians with respect. Christians must be left out of the Sharia unofficially as well as officially. Remember, it is not just the official implementation of Sharia that creates the perception of Sharia in the society. That perception is also shaped by the actions of those reckless Muslims who, without any legal authority, have taken upon themselves the responsibility to enforce what they perceive to be God’s mandate for their communities.
Recommendations for Christian and Muslim Leaders
1. We must move beyond government solutions to the religious solutions.
Our tendency in Nigeria is to look to the government to solve all our problems. However, Sharia is primarily a religious issue. The state legislators in the Sharia states have done their part in crafting legislation they think is appropriate in their respective states. The Sharia courts have made some good attempts at implementing these laws. The media have presented blistering attacks against Sharia and brilliant defenses of Sharia. Although we all look to the federal government for the ultimate solution, it has been remarkably passive in this debate so far.
If we are going to solve this problem, it is likely going to be solved by the respective religious bodies themselves. It is now time for the national religious leaders to act, with or without the mandate or funding of government. Whenever there is a national problem, most governments are looking for good ideas and solutions and are open to those that come from the religious community. As indicated earlier, whenever religious leaders in Nigeria approached the government, both at the state and federal levels, with ideas about fighting the AIDS battle through a faith-based programme in secondary schools, they found that government was not only willing to listen but also willing to accept and implement such ideas.
Religious leaders should take the initiative and appoint a national religious coalition (or adapt an existing one) that will make recommendations to government for solving this and other religious problems. Representatives from the various religions and their respective religious scholars should come together in Nigeria’s version of the loya jerga. This committee should lock themselves into some venue, if necessary, and stay there until they arrive at a solution we can all live with.
If we are going to solve this problem, all parties are going to have to make painful concessions. No group is going to get everything they want. However, by constructive cooperation among religious leaders on this issue, we will get much closer to the ideal than we will by sponsoring demonstrations, writing inflammatory editorials and feeding destructive rumors.
We also must be patient. Solving religious problems takes time. Northern Ireland has struggled with religious differences for thirty years and those are differences among Christians.
This conference is a wonderful step in the right direction. However, courageous religious leaders must walk that narrow path of consensus and cooperation and lead their followers beyond the laudable theories of academia to real reconciliation, observable peace and a brighter future.
2. We must move beyond Sharia to active cooperation on other issues.
It is an unfortunate reality that Nigeria experienced religious tension even before the recent introduction of Sharia. Therefore, even if we are able to totally solve the Sharia problem, that would still not resolve the religious tension in the country. I believe the time has come for Christians and Muslims to go beyond dialogue about Sharia to active cooperation on issues of common interest. There are many things that we believe jointly. In fact, Christians and Muslims have more common beliefs than they have divergent beliefs. Most of the social ills in society such as prostitution, drunkenness and corruption are taught to be wrong in both the Bible and the Qur’an (though unfortunately adherents to both religions have often practiced these). Poverty and disease and illiteracy affect Christians and Muslims alike. Rather than focusing on the few areas where we disagree, we must focus on those areas where we agree and work together.
One positive thing that has happened in recent years in Nigeria is the cooperation of Christians and Muslims in creating the “Faith-Based AIDS Awareness Programme for Senior Secondary Schools.” In 1999, Christian and Muslim members of the Department of Religious Studies, at the University of Jos, in response to the growing AIDS crisis here in Nigeria, came together to create some themes on human sexuality for the Christian and Islamic studies curricula in the public secondary schools of Nigeria. Our reasoning was if we, the people of faith, do not come together and create a faith-based approach to the AIDS problem, the secular NGO’s, who have no place for God in their projects, are going to create a programme for us. Our convictions about the issue of human sexuality are much closer to one another than they are to the secular approach. Because of that conviction, organizations as diverse as the Fellowship of Christian Students and the Jama’atu Nasril Islam joined in this initiative to develop a faith-based plan for fighting the HIV/AIDS battle. This public school project promotes sexual abstinence as a way to fight AIDS. To do this, we had to produce joint material. In addition, we jointly conduct five-day workshops for teachers of Christian and Islamic Religious Knowledge, guidance counselors and health officers in the public schools of Nigeria. We have so far conducted this project on a state-wide level in three of Nigeria’s states, including Plateau, Nasarawa and Benue States. Kaduna and Bauchi States are planned for implementation within the next few months.
Not only is this project making a contribution to the AIDS battle, it is also making an impact upon Christian-Muslim relationships. We are not just talking to each other about our differences; we are actively working together. That kind of cooperation produces understanding, respect and friendship. At our most recent workshop, which was conducted in Benue State in mid-December 2003, one of the Christian participants came to me and said, “Sir, this is the first time I have ever been in a workshop with Muslims. I pray that your organization will continue to do this. This has helped me understand Muslims more than anything else I have done.” Several Muslims participants expressed similar sentiments.
Is AIDS the only issue on which we can work together? Why cannot Christians and Muslims, whose religions teach similar things about theft, work together to create positive approaches to dealing with corruption in society? Why cannot we create faith-based approaches to protect our society from pornography and other media that undermine our social morals?
If Nigeria wants to get beyond the Sharia debate, we need to move beyond just talking to active cooperation. It is only as we work together that we will understand one another. It is only as we understand one another that we will have the peace that both Christianity and Islam teach. Let us unite to wage war against our common social and moral enemies and then separate to practice our respective religions.
Christians must not deny Muslims the right to practice their religion to the extent those rights do not infringe upon the rights of non-Muslims. And Muslims must not alienate themselves and their religion from others by demanding the implementation of laws that create the perception of injustice, intolerance, discrimination and violence.
Sharia is not the death knell for Nigeria. In fact, I believe the Sharia debate is a powerful assignment, given to us by God Almighty, to provide us an opportunity to learn to solve problems and live together. If we cannot solve the Sharia problem, our children will continue to experience hatred and violence and the unfortunate distortion of their religions as they kill and destroy in the name of God. However, if we rise to the challenge and find the right road around this and other difficult religious and moral problems, we will have assured a much brighter future for all who love and serve God. And, in so doing, we will be able to teach the rest of the world about how to live successfully in a multi-religious society.
Dr. Danny McCain is an Associate Professor of Biblical Theology in the Department of Religious Studies, University of Jos, Jos, Plateau State, Nigeria.
Christian theologians have differed on the issue of personal self-defense. Some insist on total passivity. The majority position, however, would teach that it is legitimate for an individual Christian to defend himself or his family against an armed robbery or other personal attack or threat.
The issue of potential segregation along ethnic lines did arise in the early church period. One hundred percent of the early Christians were Jews. And the Jews wanted to continue the policy of separation they had practiced for generations. This was illustrated by their insistence on making circumcision a requirement for Gentile believers. Even some of the apostles were temporarily swept up into this very narrow position (Galatians 2:11-14). Had this issue been allowed to continue, it would have led to the segregation of the Jewish part of the church from the Gentile part of the church. See the Book of Galatians and the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) for the way the early church resolved this problem and avoided segregation.
F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Second Edition)
(Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1983), p.1255.
See David Smith, Against the Stream
(Leicester, UK Inter-Varsity Press, 2003), pp. 65-79 for a thoughtful discussion of Islam, Christianity, and western values. On pages 77-78, he makes this insightful observation: “Nothing could be more tragic than for the churches of Nigeria to simply repeat the terrible mistakes made by Western churches in relation to modernity in the past two hundred years through an uncritical embrace of technology and the acceptance of a system of economics cut adrift from moral restraints and principles.”
John Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy
(Anchor Books Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970), p. 1.
All aspects of Christianity are voluntary, including the initial personal commitment to God, prayer, fasting and worship. Jesus referred to hypocrisy, which is insincere worship, at least 20 times in his teachings.
In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus outlines a three-step process to resolve problems. 1) Go to the offending person alone and attempt to resolve the problem; 2) Go to the offending person with one or two others;
3) Take the matter to the public. Jesus specifically mentions taking the matter to “the church.” However, the word translated church (ekklesia
) can also be translated assembly. Where all parties are Christians, the church is the logical place to solve problems but where all are not Christians, there are neutral courts that will help resolve problems. Jesus also made a very strong demand that his followers should be reconciled as quickly as possible even with their enemies (Matthew 5:25-26).
A loya jerga
is a traditional council of elders from very diverse backgrounds in Afghanistan that meets to solve problems. A loya jerga
was recently conducted to draft and approve Afghanistan’s new constitution.
What are the steps this committee needs to take?
1. Identify specific problems.
The things about Sharia that offend Christians do not include more than four or five specific issues. Also Muslims should identify things Christians do in their communities that are particularly offensive to them. These also need to be addressed and resolved.
2. Work out a solution for each problem
. As long as we view the problem as “Sharia” itself, we will continue to have problems. Therefore, we must work at a solution for each of the specific problems raised by the Sharia debate.
3. Present recommendations to the government and the religious communities
. If religious leaders work out a solution, government will listen. And if religious leaders promote these recommendations public and privately, their constituents will follow.
4. Pledge to defend and promote the solutions
. Religious leaders must be seen as leading the way in resolving these issues. They must pledge to renounce violence and resolve all problems peacefully.
For a discussion of the foundational teachings of Christianity that affect society, see my presentation “Christianity: A Moral Foundation to Nigeria,” a paper presented to the Tenth Annual Conference of the National Association for Biblical Studies in Owerri, on 25 October 1995. In this paper, I present eight basic principles of Christianity that should provide the foundation to societies. I believe that Islam shares these same eight convictions. These include: 1) sacredness of truth; 2) dignity of labour and work; 3) sacredness of human life; 4) the importance of justice; 5) respect for individual human rights; 6) compassion for the poor; 7) peaceful co-existence of people of diverse backgrounds; 8) preservation of the environment.
For an overview of the faith perspective on HIV/AIDS, see my article entitled “The Christian-Muslim Perspective on HIV/AIDS” in the UNICEF publication, Answers to Questions on HIV/AIDS
, January 2003.
This paper focuses primarily on the relationship between Christians and Muslims. However, there are still many who practice one of the varieties of African Traditional Religions and their views and convictions must also be considered in any solution to the Sharia controversy.