You might want to ask, how did Christianity influence democratic ideas? Or What is the role of Church in politics? The answer is that the role of the church in politics democracy and governance cannot be overemphasized. From the tiny little chiefdoms and fiefdoms that characterized primitive societies to the slave-dealing feudalist empires such as the Kanem Bornu, Oyo, etc that were supplanted by Western Colonial conquerors in the late 19th Century, followed by brief experiments in democracy that followed the nationalistic (and decolonization) movements of the mid-twentieth century, which were soon supplanted by military dictatorship, to what we see today as another attempt at the democratization, Nigeria has indeed come a long way in political evolution. Our recorded history has been dominated by centuries of brutal slave-trade, decades of colonial exploitation, and several years of one form of dictatorship or the other.
Recently, I made a post on Facebook that pointed to the fact that the Nsit Ubium Chapter of the Christian Association of Nigerian (CAN), an umbrella body for all Christians in Nigeria, had lent its support and solidarity for my principal, Hon. Otobong Edemidiong, to emerge as House member, Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly in the forthcoming elections. Many commenters on the thread wondered about the place, or rather the role, of religion in political matters.
Permit me to say here that that question was rather naive, as it indicated most people aren’t aware of the place of religion, and by extension religious leaders, in shaping the democratic history of any society.
This post, albeit a long read, seeks to clarify that position, and help shed more light on the role of religion, in this instance Christianity, in entrenching democracy in our milieu.
Our sad history of economic exploitation, political domination and social exclusion as a result of both external and internal forces, has not helped our journey towards democracy, and good governance. Nigeria, to a large extent, has been held hostage to the retrogressive forces of arbitrary rule and military dictatorship with the attendant abuse of power, corruption in public office and mismanagement of resources, and consequently economic stagnation.
Our nation has all along been characterized by arbitrary rule, the preponderance of feudal lords, the big man syndrome, a command and control culture, all manner of culture of impunity, corruption, oppression of the weak including women and young people, and of course ethnic bigotry, religious intolerance and civil strife, while the rest of the world has been making phenomenal progress in meeting the socio-economic and political aspirations of their people – advancing the cause of democracy, progressing in science and technology and developing the arts and the humanities.
One does not have to be a political scientist to recognize that the absence of a genuine democratic environment in the nation has, to some extent, robbed the people of this country of much of the gains of modern scientific and technological civilization.
Indeed, Nigeria is not alone here. The absence of a truly democratic environment in most African countries has held us back on all fronts, and that is why we appear to lag behind the rest of the world in what the United Nations classifies as indices of development – GDP and per capita income, infant and maternal mortality rate, quality of nutrition, adequate shelter, portable water supply, access to modern health care and good functional education, employment (and unemployment rate), and general life expectancy rate.
In today’s world, the continent of Africa is synonymous with poverty, disease (especially HIV / AIDS) and civil strife. Those who minister the Gospel to Africans must therefore look critically at the African situation and address critically the many causes of poverty, disease and civil strife, including absence of democracy and a good governance in many countries.
Thus, agents of the Gospel in Nigeria, nay Africa, must now be engaged in promoting democratic values and good governance if they are truly to be the voice of the voiceless; if they are to be truly agents of wholesome development of their people. Involvement in the work of justice and advocacy for democracy can no longer be seen as an optional extra.
But like the 1971 Synod of Bishops say, it should now be seen as a constitutive dimension of the work of evangelization. That is why we must now discuss what democracy is in detail, and how the promotion of this form of governance will enhance the quality of life of our people.
Democracy is about the freedom to choose, and so free and fair periodic elections at which leaders are chosen, are integral to the democratic process and good governance.
The Church is called to serve the poor in the nation – those who have no social and economic or political rights, those who have lost their human dignity due to the material circumstances they find themselves in. The common good, that is, the good of society as a whole, requires that the powerless be specially protected and defended. That is why the degree of development or civilization of a society is measured and evaluated not by how much material wealth that society has, but by how that society treats the weak and the powerless in its midst.
In the villages, towns and cities, the weak and powerless are with us but their conditions and well being have remained, for the most part, at the level of theory. We are often unable to give positive answer to the question of the condition of the hungry: the army of energetic but unemployed youths, the widows, the disabled, those with HIV / AIDS, the beggars and the mentally ill persons in our midst. We cannot give a positive response because we realize the scandal of our lack of compassion for our brothers and sisters in need.
In this regard the attitude of our leaders and the populace to those in need does not help matters. Immoderate love of riches and their selfish use characterize our general attitude which spells doom to the needy, the weak and powerless.
Created in the image and likeness of the one God, and equally endowed with rational souls, all men and women have the same origin and destiny. Redeemed by Christ, all are called to participate in the same divine beatitude; all therefore enjoy an equal dignity. Jesus extended his love to everyone, to the children, to the woman caught in adultery, to the tax collector, to the sick and suffering.
In most parts of the nation, we have witnessed widespread discrimination based on ethnic and tribal affiliations, for instance, the indigene / non-indigene / settler question. We have witnessed oppressive rule imposed by successive military governments in many countries. All these are a violation of the principle of human dignity and equality. To pursue the principle of human dignity, the Church must fight for democracy, justice and equality.
Looking at the socio-political and economic situation in Nigeria’s recent history, one can discern a near total neglect of the common good in the personal lifestyle, and in the value orientations, policies and projects, pursued by our leaders and the privileged few in our societies. The idea of the common good is a fundamental plank of the Social Teachings of the Church. It is anchored on the Christian notion of the dignity of the human person, the human person who is created in the image and likeness of God. This dignity of every man and woman is understood by the Church to be as a result of the human person’s divine origin, his or her supernatural end, and his or her transcendence.
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Also, the human person’s happiness and ultimate fulfillment are only realizable in community. Thus, against the crass individualism upon which liberal or unbridled capitalism is sustained, and in the face of human greed that is sometimes expressed in the wholesale appropriation of all the land and mineral resources by a tiny few, the Church maintains that the goods of the earth are meant for the sustenance of all in the human society. For a society to be truly human, individuals must consider the welfare of their neighbour as part of their responsibility. Thus, Pope Paul VI, in the encyclical letter populorum progressio, describes development as “the advancement of the person, the whole person, and all the people”.
The right to life which the Church promotes assiduously also implies the right of all to minimum resources required for sustaining life. And in seeking the basic requirements for the sustenance of life, “we are each responsible for all”. The common good therefore does not permit a situation where abject poverty will exist side-by-side with conspicuous consumption. A society where floating islands of wealth are to be found amidst a sea of degrading poverty cannot be said to be truly human.
Government exists in society to promote the common good and therefore the Government in Nigeria must strive to ensure the best possible good for everyone, or at least for the highest possible number of people. Our leaders must ensure that we put in place such laws, or such judicial structures that will guarantee the right of individuals to private property, but also checkmate the acquisitive instinct of individuals. In this way, our government will ensure just and equitable distribution of the resources of the land.
It is indeed the responsibility of government to protect the vulnerable poor from the excesses of the powerful who are often tempted to sell the poor for a pair of sandals. The role of government should hold particular attraction for Christians who appreciate the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ made a preferential option for the poor. That is to say that when there is a conflict between the rich and the poor, the Lord Jesus chooses to pitch his tent with poor who are more vulnerable.
Perhaps if our political leaders were less selfish and self-seeking, the situation would have been different. Perhaps if they gave some thought to the common good in the management of our abundant national resources, the situation would have been different.
For any nation to make true progress, the leaders must develop a new sensitivity to the common good, and members of the Christian Church as major stakeholders in the society must continue to champion this new commitment to the common good.
In conclusion, the Church has to play a pivotal role in helping elect our future crop of leaders. We can’t continue to leave the destiny of both our future and our children’s future in the hands of those who have neither compassion nor any moral compass for leadership. The Church has to continually play its role in helping elect responsible and highly credible individuals to hold offices, right from the grassroots to the highest office in the land.
That’s why we need to allow God lead in ensuring the right man is chosen to do the job.
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