BY SEGUN AYOBOLU
OBI, THE CHURCH AND POLITICS
(Published in The Nation newspaper of Saturday, 24th December, 2022)
Who exactly is Jesus Christ, the rock solid foundation on which Christianity rests? Some say he was a great man, a moral exemplar, an inimitable teacher or a gifted story teller among other perceptions. When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say I am?”, they replied that some said he was John the Baptist, others that he was Elijah or one of the prophets. However, when Jesus asked who the disciples themselves thought he was, Peter responded by saying that Jesus was the son of God and the expected Messiah of mankind. Impressed, Jesus said this truth could only have been revealed to Peter by the Holy Spirit.
For those who perceive the Lord Jesus in mere human terms as morally good or as one of the great out of the many great personages of history, Professor Clive Staples Lewis, one of the brightest minds of the 20th century, a former atheist turned Christian, affirmed in his book, ‘Mere Christianity’, that “I am trying here to prevent anyone from saying the really foolish thing that people often say about him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God’. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things that Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the son of God or else a madman or something else…But let us not come up with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that door open to us. He did not intend to”.
It is astonishing that with a substantial number of Nigerians still unreached with the message of the gospel of Christ, and many more ranking among the billions in the world who remain completely at sea as regards who the man of galilee is, many Nigerian Christian leaders are so obviously preoccupied with and distracted by partisan politics especially in the run-up to next year’s elections. But the prime and most critical mission of the church is to preach the good news of salvation through Christ and win souls into God’s kingdom. It is in this sense that the Lord Jesus described the church as the salt of the earth. But of what use is salt when it has lost its saltiness, Jesus asked?
Is the church losing its saltiness by descending into the arena of partisan politics? This appears to be the case sadly. But the church is not a political organization. It is first and foremost a spiritual body.
A situation in which churches take partisan political positions and even some trying to corral their members to follow their choices by declaring on their altars that those who vote against a Christian candidate would go to hell, could have long run deleterious consequences especially because membership of churches comprise people of different partisan preferences.
Perhaps the first distraction for the Christian church in Nigeria was the astounding prosperity with which God has blessed her. This has led to an obsessive materialism on the part of many church leaders that has made it difficult to distinguish the church from the world. Prosperity is not a sin and poverty is not synonymous with virtue. But the prosperity gospel can easily become a snare to the church if the emphasis is on the acquisition of wealth, the competition among church leaders to ride the best posh vehicles, fly in their personal private jets or live in the most majestic houses as well as build the most magnificent, sprawling houses of worship. I can recall the man of God who famously declared that he wished the COVID-19 pandemic could continue to rage because it was during the lock-down that he bought another private jet. Statements like this, breed distrust and discontent against Christianity and the gospel by many who believe that the Christian Ministry has become nothing but a money-spinning enterprise by men of God who have become desensitized to the poverty of many of even their members many of who, ironically, pay their tithes and offerings faithfully. But I digress.
It is the pervasive and blatant political partisanship of many church leaders, particularly those of the Pentecostal persuasion, that is the potential greatest danger to the credibility of Christ’s gospel and the integrity of the church today. The presidential candidate of the Labour Party (LP), Mr. Peter Obi, has strived more than any other candidate in the run-up to the 2023 election, to play on the Christian religious card just as former President Goodluck Jonathan did during the campaigns for the 2015 elections, which he nevertheless lost. Earlier this month, Obi was at the annual Convention of the Winners Chapel, Ota, popularly tagged ‘Shiloh’, where, just like in the many other churches whose events and gatherings he has attended in what can only be described as politically opportunistic church tourism, he was introduced by colluding clergy in a way as to elicit excitable applause for him.
Speaking on the occasion, the founder and spiritual leader of the church, Bishop David Oyedepo, claimed that what Nigeria needs now is not a leader but a deliverer. Unfortunately, hecdid not expatiate sufficiently on exactly what he meant by that distinction. Was he referring to Obi as his envisaged deliverer of Nigeria? If so, he did not state what the characteristics of a deliverer are and how Obi fits the bill. Was Obi’s performance as two-term governor of Anambra State so stellar that we can credibly rely on his record to conclude that he is Nigeria’s long-desired deliverer? It is not enough for a man of God, no matter how revered, to magisterially declare one candidate as the deliverer Nigeria needs without offering compelling logical and empirical reasons for his arriving at that conclusion.
Or, could it have been a revelation from God? If so, will church leaders who take blatantly partisan positions and speak ex-cathedra from their altars in the name of God not risk bringing God to disrepute if such political projections turn out to be wrong and misguided as has happened a number of times in the past? Bishop Oyedepo told his congregation that he warned Nigerians in 2015 that the nation was headed for a disastrous crisis if his voice was not heeded on the election. At that time he was one of those Christian leaders rooting for Jonathan and the PDP. He gave the impression in his sermon that the challenges the country faces today started with the APC assuming power in 2015. The truth is that the problems of today have their roots in the venality, incompetence and lack of vision of the PDP’s 16 years in power although the APC ought to have done much better in confronting these challenges including insecurity and the management of the economy. Unfortunately, the Christian leadership was implicated in the massive corruption of the Jonathan years.
It is difficult to understand how some Pentecostal pastors in particular are doing everything to influence their congregations to vote for a supposedly Christian candidate in the person of Peter Obi. This divisive campaign and its undisguised Christian religious undertone may swing a good number of votes in certain quarters to Obi but it may at the same time not sway an also not inconsiderable number of Christians from voting for other candidates. On the other hand, Obi’s openly divisive campaign will definitely hurt the (LP) candidate grievously in huge Muslim voting blocs across the country.
In any case, what has been Obi’s track record in terms of his relationship with Christian leaders and the Christian church before now that he is seeking to ride on the back of Christians to occupy the country’s apex position of authority as President? Did he attend these church gatherings before now that he religiously does now? Is it true that he marginalized Anglicans and favoured Catholics as governor of Anambra State? Obi’s supporters claim that he returned Christian schools taken over by government to their owners as governor. But there is nothing spectacular about that. Asiwaju Bola Tinubu returned mission schools to their original owners as governor of Lagos State. In fact, though a Muslim, Tinubu returned more schools to their original Christian mission owners than to the Muslim missions. Again, Tinubu built a chapel at the Lagos State House at Marina to enable Christian members of staff have a convenient place to observe their religious obligations.
Before Tinubu, there was only a Mosque at the State House. His wife is not just a Christian; she is a senior pastor of the Redeemed Christian Church of God. Throughout his eight-year tenure as governor of Lagos State, the annual New Year thanksgiving service always held with the revered General Overseer of the RCCG, Pastor Enoch Adeboye, ministering. There is no evidence of Tinubu compelling members of his family to convert to his religion, which makes nonsense of the argument that a Muslim-Muslim ticket will lead to the Islamization of the country. In any case, how is that even constitutionally possible?
True, the church cannot be indifferent to the social, political and economic milieu within which it operates. But on no account must she descend into the partisan arena as a participant. Nigerian Pentecostals in particular must learn the appropriate lessons from the experience of the Evangelicals in America who had passionately backed former President Donald Trump without restraint only for the latter to lose the election to Joe Biden this year. Some Christian leaders cite the Biblical aphorism in the book of Proverbs that when the righteous rule, a nation prospers to justify their political partisanship. But who constitute the righteous? Does bearing a Christian name, attending church or even having lofty Christian titles necessarily indicative of righteousness? It is dangerous for man to seek to usurp God’s sovereignty in determining who the leader of a country or entity will be at any time even though Christians have a responsibility of using their votes wisely and prayerfully.
It is necessary to repeat that the primary and most critical mission of the church is to help save the souls of men through the preaching of the good news. In doing so, the church does not need to have men in high positions of authority such as President or Vice President etc. to achieve its goals. In his scintillating book, ‘Jesus: The Man Who lives’, the British journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge (1903- 1990), writes, “When he was approached by someone important like Nicodemus, it never seems to have occurred to him, as it surely would to any ordinary evangelist or promoter of good causes, that, such a man, with valuable contacts and influence, would be of service to his ministry. What he had to say to Nicodemus was precisely the same as what he had to say to the meanest beggar or the most disreputable tax collector – the equivalent, then, of today’s property-developer – that he must be reborn, and become a new man”.
The Lord Jesus avoided the palaces and mansions of the rich and powerful while on earth. Anytime he accepted an invitation to the habitations of the rich and influential such as Mathew the tax collector, it was to speak words of truth to them thus leading to their salvation. He was completely aloof to the politics of the Roman Empire and the desire of the Jews for liberation from the bondage of Rome. Stressing that his kingdom was not of this world, He rejected any attempt to be crowned King of the Jews by those desirous of a secular Messiah. Yet, a small band of his disciples, empowered by the Holy Spirit, turned the Roman Empire upside down and caused the behemoth to succumb to the message of a gospel spread by the most humble and lowliest of men.
In his tome, ‘The Penguin History of the World’, Professor J.M. Roberts states that “Emphatically, Jesus rejected the role of political leader and a political quietism was one of the meanings later discerned in a dictum which was to prove to be of terrible ambiguity: ‘My kingdom is not of this world”. And Malcolm Muggeridge reiterates this point in his submission that “In his teachings, too, Jesus continually stressed the fallacy of looking to this world and its rulers for help and guidance in fulfilling God’s purposes…the profound distrust of power which Jesus inculcated has lived on in the hearts of those who have lost him most and served him best”.