A genuine theological emergency

Friday, March 3, 2006

Communion since General Convention 2003. Up to that point he had vigorously defended Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold against charges of not being theologically sound. Since GC, however, Bishop Peter has been perhaps the leading Anglican critic of the USA Episcopal Church, largely on issues related to homosexuality.

If I am not mistaken, the Anglican Church in Nigeria has more members than does any other country in the world. The explosive growth of Christianity in Africa, and Nigeria in particular, has been widely noted. Now, suddenly, the Christian community in that land has taken on a high degree of geo-political significance. An article in The New York Times on February 24 reports on the Christian-Muslim riots taking place in Nigeria. “Dozens of charred, smoldering bodies littered the streets of this bustling commercial center [the city of Onitsha] on Thursday after three days of rioting in which Christian mobs wielding machetes, clubs and knives set upon their Muslim neighbors. Rioters have killed scores of people here, mostly Muslims, after burning their homes, businesses and mosques in the worst violence yet linked to the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad first published in a Danish newspaper. The violence in Nigeria began with attacks on Christians in the northern part of the country last week by Muslims infuriated over the cartoons.”

That is just the beginning. In the middle of the article we read this:

“At the central mosque, rioters burned the building and hacked down trees surrounding it. Someone wrote in chalk on a charred wall, ‘Jesus is Lord.’ The message went on to warn that ‘from today’ there would be no more Muhammad. Thousands of Muslim residents fled the city, some on foot over the bridge leading to Delta State, taking refuge in neighboring cities. Thousands more huddled in police and army barracks in Onitsha and surrounding towns.

” ‘What has become of us?’ lamented the Rev. Joseph Ezeugo, pastor of [Roman Catholic] Immaculate Heart Parish. ‘This cannot be Nigeria today. We have been living side by side with our Muslim brothers for so long. Why should a cartoon in Denmark bring us to civil war?’ “

The use of the earliest Christian confession, Kurios Iesous (Jesus is Lord) in such a context simply staggers the imagination. Issues about sexuality are very important indeed but must be set aside in this genuine theological emergency. This is not about barbarous, primitive Africans. This is about the universal human capacity to move rapidly from relatively peaceful co-existence with others to murderous mob action in a matter of days when certain conditions are present, and to appropriate even the most sacred religious beliefs for lethal purposes. The 20th century is full of examples– the Afrikaners in South Africa, Gentiles all over Europe in the Nazi era, segregationists in the American South, Serbs in the former Yugoslavia, the Hutu in Rwanda who murdered Tutsis in their churches with frequent cooperation from the clergy.

Even so, there is something particularly horrifying about this example from Nigeria. The use of the name of Jesus Christ to celebrate destruction and murder is beyond sickening. This is the Name of the One who voluntarily gave himself up to a tortured death to show us how to forgive our enemies and not to seek vengeance. Bishop Tutu of South Africa led his people in non-violence for more than thirty years under conditions of utmost provocation. Let us fervently pray that Archbishop Akinola is made of similar metal–for the sake of Nigeria, for the sake of the Anglican Communion, for the sake of the Gospel around the world, for the sake of the Name of the Crucified One.

This just in: a friend has sent this link to a statement by Abp. Peter Akinola. I find it profoundly disappointing.

I look in vain in this statement for any sign of a transforming cruciform theology. It has a truculent sound, as if he were saying: if you’re going to beat us up, we’re going to let loose our young men to beat you up. This is not encouraging. I am comparing it in my mind with something that any of the recent Popes might have written, for instance. I think of Lech Walesa in his great early days, Martin Luther King– not to mention Desmond Tutu. There was no doubt about these leaders’ strength and determination, but it was clear to everyone that they intended to rein in their troops. They were enabled to exhibit dauntlessness while at the same time still teaching us about what a distinctively Christian witness looks like. When a Christian leader speaks truth to power, it should have that unmistakable note of trust in an invincible unseen Power that arms its servants with alternative weapons.

A friend sends this email:

“I hope the Anglican Communion might spend a little more time on the sins of Nigeria than those of New Hampshire. To have an Archbishop fanning the flames of civil war takes us all back to a dreadful time in church history to which we should never wish to return. Kyrie eleison.”

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