By Ezekiel Ette
5 January 2012
A few years ago, I served as a pastor of a Methodist Church in a sub-urban neighbourhood in Portland Oregon, in the United States. I was young and just graduated from seminary.
I was then the first black pastor of what was then an all-white church. The church had historical significance in the region for it was said to be the first church built by the pioneers as they moved west in what was then called the Oregon territory. It was the beginning of fall season and the women were getting ready for the annual church bazaar. I had settled in that fall morning and was going over the day's expectations with my secretary when the chair of the women fellowship came in. She did not look happy and it was apparent that something was wrong. I told Estelle, the secretary, to leave us for a moment and closed the door behind her.
"Pastor", Mrs. Smith began, "someone is bringing filth into the church and you must do something to stop this". I was at a loss with what she was referring to and after calming her down I asked what the matter was.
"Come, let me show you", she said and stood up and stomped towards the door. I stood up and followed her and stopped briefly at Estelle's office to ask her to hold all my telephone calls. As we made our way to the storage area where the women were sorting out the donations for the bazaar, Mrs. Smith rushed to the area where books were stored and held out a book with the title: The Gift of Sex. I was familiar with this text having studied sex and sexuality as part of my graduate training in family social work.
"This is what I'm talking about", she exclaimed with all the righteousness of someone whose faith has been wounded. "Someone brought this filth into the church, what is this world coming to?", she asked with an air of begging me to join in the condescension. "I want all this bad books thrown out of here for we will not accept books like this" she concluded.
I told her that there was nothing wrong with the book as it was written for Christian couples. Looking back at this incident now with the benefit of time, I must have shocked Mrs. Smith because I told her that if we were to throw out all the books that mention sex from the church building and church library, then we also would throw away the Bible because it has stories with sex in it.
As I read the reactions of Nigerians and the outrage following the bombing of the church on Christmas Day by the radical Islamic sect, Boko Haram, I am reminded of the encounter I had with my parishioner. We tend to want everyone to believe the way we do and when others see the world differently, we fume. My fellow Christians have tended to see the bombing as an act of Muslim conspiracy against Christians rather than an action of a radical murderous sect that is not speaking for all Muslims. One writer on the Internet even went as far as quoting the Quran pointing out that Islam sanctions the killing of Christians. This murderous group, it should be recalled also unleashed its mayhem during the Muslim celebration of Eid el Kabir a month earlier in Jos. Religious fundamentalism is found in all religions, and is not peculiar to Islam.
Are you ready for stories of violence in the Bible? The fact is that all revealed religions are just that "revealed" and therefore, open to interpretations by the adherents. It is the reason we have so many denominations in Christianity because we do not all agree on the meaning of a particular passage of our scripture. Yes, Islam has a history of violence and so does Christianity. Do the crusades come to mind? How about wars and killings in Ireland and Uganda? I am not defending Islam nor do I advocate for Christianity to be seen as the religion of the "civilised". The fact remains that religion remains a source of conflict in the modern world because of ethnocentrism. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu eloquently stated in his new book, "God is not a Christian", we belong and practice a particular religion because of the accident of our birth.
If our parents were born in Saudi Arabia instead of southern Nigeria, chances are that you and I will be Muslims today and how we practice that religion would depend on our level of education and socio-economic status. We have this tendency to evangelise and see our culture and religion as "the way" and all others as savages. No one religion has a monopoly on fundamentalism; it is a function of how we see the world. To many, religion may be the only way of making sense of the world and so everything else is filtered through such lenses. The French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, had taught the world that the primitive form of the religious life forces those who know nothing else to see the world exclusively through the workings of the supernatural. It is when we defy the gods and ask questions that we can escape the grip of the primitive as the British writer, Salman Rushdie, noted.
Rather than blame Islam as a religion, religious fundamentalism should be seen as a symptom of what is wrong in the society and our educational system. As a social scientist, I do not like simple answers because the world is too complex for finger pointing. The Boko Haram menace and religious fundamentalism in Nigeria depend on the ability to recruit the poor and those who are not educated. Religious violence depends on the ability to convince those who cannot read and write that one interpretation of an ancient text holds the key to liberation from poverty and suffering. Ability to convince people to look past human emotions and the sacredness of human life depends on that ancient and primitive reasoning that the individual is serving a higher purpose by being non-human. In the end, it is the human being who thinks that he or she is serving the divine by killing others that is evil. Religion in itself is not bad, it is we who are bad; it is what we make of it that is bad.
Professor Ette teaches social work and community development at the Northwest Nazarene University, Nampa Idaho, USA.