“Isn’t it right for us to take up arms and fight back against the enemy?”
The passion with which my student asked his question hinted at the enormity of the situation it represents. For Christians in Nigeria right now, this question is more than just theoretical. In the last week I have heard it come up in casual conversations, Sunday school lessons, and master’s degree classes.
Why? Because Christian churches and communities have been increasingly frequent targets of Muslim attacks. Because Nigeria’s mixed population of Christians and Muslims has become polarized by rivalry, violence, and fear.
“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.
For the decades now Nigerian Christians have turned the other cheek. But their collective wounds have accumulated with each additional bombing, each raid on their communities, and each restriction on their rights. The cry I have been hearing from this young pastor and from many others like him is one of frustration and angst.
“We have turned the other cheek so many times that there is no cheek left to turn!”
I feel for their dilemma, and the red-blooded American part of me wants to pick up a gun and join them. I was raised on stories about the Alamo and slogan’s about fighting for our rights. I have no problem with the use of arms to protect the vulnerable and oppressed. In fact, I think that is one of the core responsibilities of any government.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
But what about church leaders encouraging their people to shoot Muslims who threaten or harm them? Apparently this is what happened in one region of Nigeria, and such a bloodbath followed that leaders on both sides were appalled. The police ran for cover as Muslims and Christians slaughtered each other until their hatred and their ammunition were spent. In the end, those Christians gained the fearful distance of their Muslim neighbors, but they lost their testimony.
My spirit recoils from the violent outcome of this sort of pragmatic solution. Didn’t Jesus forgive His enemies and offer His back to His oppressors? If I were living here, shouldn’t I be more concerned with ministering to my Muslim neighbor than with killing him? But for these Christians, the tidy categories of “ought to” have been blown open by the painful reality of kidnapped sisters and demolished churches. Being passive is no longer an option.
But is being aggressive the solution?
Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. … Live in harmony with one another. … Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
This morning I witnessed a very different sort of solution to the crisis, one so subtle that I almost failed to recognize it. Here in the north central region of Nigeria, Muslims outnumber Christians. They control local government policies enough to be able to stop Christians from running orphanages, building new churches, or even renovating existing ones. In light of the mounting opposition and the upcoming elections, many Christians have left this region. For understandable reasons they have taken their businesses and their families to the less Islamic areas of the country, further depleting this area of its Christian presence.
But a dedicated band of pastors led by their tenacious bishop have courageously stood their ground. They have neither given in to their enemies nor attacked them. Instead they have patiently toiled with minimal resources to advance the presence of the kingdom of God in this place. These pastors oversee three churches each, often going without their monthly salary because it simply isn’t there. Their bishop doggedly works the socio-political system, making the necessary compromises and outlasting the opposition until he finally gets things done. An orphanage built and government permission relentlessly pursued to take in the area’s many needy orphans. A tiny, open-air church established for the community of refugees who immigrated here last year. A clean water project and sustainable animal husbandry developed to help to support local pastors.
Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
But of all the work these Christians are doing here, the project that spoke the loudest to me was the school that I visited today. Initially I was most moved by the sight of teenaged girls sitting in a classroom, refusing to relinquish their education to the threats of Boko Haram. But when I heard that both Christians and Muslims have been welcomed as students in this school, I was dumbfounded. Such an audacious move speaks louder than any number of guns or grenades ever could. This is taking love for enemies to the next level.
Refusing to retaliate against enemies takes a massive amount of courage. But refusing to quit loving them takes even more.
I am humbled by what I have seen here, and am still processing the difference between how governments should respond to violent oppression verses how churches should. This much I can say:
The empire may strike back, but the kingdom of God will advance one act of mercy at a time.