The latest massacre of Muslims in New Zealand demands appropriate responses from Christians. It affects us even here, in far-off Nigeria, where we found ourselves hoping that no local extremist Muslims know that we are Australians! Here, where we have experienced so much terrorism, it has two sides as well.
From time to time we receive reports or prayer letters from the West that speak about the persecution in Nigeria. Presently we are receiving reports from several different organisations, and people are asking again for our response, as we live in one of the regions in the reports. Since we first began to live through large-scale violence in our area, we have seen that while the stories related in the prayer letters are true, they are not the full picture and are typically inaccurate in several ways.
In 2009-10 youth driven violence sparked conflict in our city and its environs, where hundreds were killed. None of the prayer reports from the West mentioned the killing of Muslims. About equal numbers died on both sides, including a brutal massacre of unarmed Muslims while they prayed.
After armed Fulani terrorists attacked a vehicle I was in, and my dear friend of 25 years, Emmanuel Razack, a former Muslim, was killed, Muslim neighbours were among those who visited to share our grief. I asked if I may visit their community, one mile from my office, a place I had never been to. They took me through, and I saw maybe 800 homes that had been burned down by Christians in the 2009-10 outbreak, and I saw widows under lean-tos in the rain, cooking for their children on an open fire. All this was absent from the prayer letters I had read.
The next week one of our bible college students came to my office and told me of a small Boko Haram attack on his township of Attagara, near the Cameroon border. A few days later he returned and told me how his church and relatives had gone through neighbouring Muslim towns and randomly killed people and burned houses for three days in retaliation. We were horrified and prayed together. Next, Boko Harm returned and killed the men of Attagara in revenge. Six students from Attagara filled my office for the next couple of weeks, mourning their loss. Today they are rebuilding the area. As prayer letters about Attagara went out from the West, none of them spoke of the Muslim deaths.
Then there are prayer letters speaking of Boko Haram targeting Christians. While Christians are targeted, these reports, including recent ones, largely do not tell of the Muslims Boko Haram are also targeting. When Boko Haram was at its height, the Muslim community joined with us to build peaceful relationships that would defeat the terrorism. The Muslim community, by-and-large, rejected the terrorist organisation, so the terrorists turned against the Muslims. It is probable that twice as many Muslims have been killed by Boko Haram as Christians. Most of the recent attacks have been against mosques, but letters aren’t sent out by Christians about this.
Then we get the letters about the recent Fulani attacks. These have been going on for many years. Many Fulani are nomadic, looking for pastures for their cattle. This brings conflict between them and local farmers. Mostly, local communities settle disputes by the elders coming together and discussing compensation for loss of cattle or loss of crops, and the trouble ends. But more recently, with the influx of illegal guns from Western nations in our international weapons trade, more criminal and rash human instincts have sometimes taken over. There has been killing on both sides.
On my desk sits dozens of stories of CFI bible school students from villages where Fulani have attacked. Every report states it began with a misunderstanding resulting in the death of a Fulani boy. Fulani reprisals, normally led and armed by criminal elements among them, are brutal, bringing a lot of suffering. A Western missionary we know, living and working in a Fulani camp, says the same thing. It begins with a dispute, then a Fulani death, and rapidly spirals into appalling brutality. The families and people of some of our staff team have been greatly impacted by these events. We have also seen a growing number of Fulani among our bible college students and newly converted disciples. On the other hand, so-called Christians have reverted to appalling practices, including on rare occasions the ritual eating of Fulani victims to “gain power” over them.
In Zamfara State there were recent killings over cattle theft between rival Muslim groups, with the same extreme retaliatory cycle of death, no Christians involved. In an area of Adamawa State, the home of one of our staff team, the brutality has continued over a long period with widespread violence, murders between Christians over a breach within a Christian denomination. Our staff member has been deeply impacted by this and is working, using principles outlined below, to bring about healing. The conflicts are varied and don’t fit into simple one-sided narratives.
Prayer letters have indulged in speculative conspiracy theories over Fulani attacks, often not acknowledging that these attacks are only a part of the issue in the overall challenges the country has been facing with poverty and lawlessness.
However, the government has worked hard in building security, and has also maintained security as people have been returned to their lands of conflict. The government has worked in local regions, bringing parties together, helping local populations to settle disputes, with government guarantees to cover cattle or crop losses and ease suffering, while the criminals are brought to book. It’s not perfect. It’s also very difficult. People grow impatient with the process and often take the law into their own hands, while shielding their criminals on both sides. Government reports we have read clearly spell out the problems people are suffering and do not attempt to cover them up.
In June 2018, close to where we live, Christians (church members, at least) in response to Fulani attacks on villages went on a further cycle of revenge, randomly pulling Muslims from cars and killing them on the street. A CFM team member was nearly killed trying to intervene. 500-600 died in total, according to local police. These Muslims had nothing to do with the earlier violence. When news of this spread to our township near our bible college, where the 2009-10 attacks occurred, the Muslim elders forbad their youth from reprisal attacks against Christians. They said, “No Christian’s blood will be shed in this township.” This is a large Muslim area.
It was the same where we live, just outside Jos. Some criminals tried to spread the violence to our local communities that until a few years ago were among the major flash points of violence in the nation. But these centres refused the criminal elements and said they would not be involved in any more violence against Christians or Muslims. These regions are where CFM has been working in peacebuilding, especially with youth, widows and orphans. This is where Muslims believe in our work of training pastors and discipling Muslim converts. They even protect us and encourage us in this work. They have even stood for freedom of conversion in our locality.
This raises several concerns that we would like to share.
Firstly, imbalances like this can feed into the overall culture/ narrative that contributes to (or doesn’t correct) right-wing extremism. It can feed into a culture war that is contrary to our call as followers of Christ. Christ’s remedy to our culture wars is foot-washing service.
Secondly, such reporting doesn’t often articulate a biblical Christian response. There is a need to painstakingly build a theology and practice for a Christian/ Jesus-like response to violence, which by and large our churches aren’t undertaking. Responding to persecution without this can stoke the fires of unrest further, especially given the acute hurt that people are passing through. This is where we need to be very careful, especially when we are reporting from afar, where the consequences affect others, not us.
We need to be involved, not ignoring the suffering. We need to encourage those suffering, not just with words, but with presence, helping those wounded to recover, to forgive and to rebuild their wider community with Jesus-like self-giving.
We believe that instead of seeking people to blame, an easy, knee-jerk response, it is better to work with authorities by doing our own part. The teachings of our faith show us that our part is to build reconciling relationships at a grassroots community level, bringing the people together, something like the churches did when Apartheid collapsed in South Africa, reforming relationships. In today’s global village, walls of separation are now coming down everywhere. Applying the teachings of Jesus to building justice into our relationships with others is something we must become very serious about. To take down walls and to build bridges takes risk, but this is the cross-bearing life that Jesus modelled between the Jews and their enemies in the first century.
We have tried to live out, explain and spread the reconciling teachings of Jesus, bringing renewal to people in hurt and conflict, not only in Nigeria, but also in Australia, the UK and Belgium. We see that the fears involved are not only local to us in Nigeria but are impacting the minds of people globally today. And, like we saw in New Zealand, there is a wrong response that puts us on the road of hatred, which we must avoid at all costs: that hatred destroys our own souls. It is very difficult addressing these issues when we have our fears, our safety, our ethnic or national interest as primary, before the cross-bearing discipleship that Jesus called us to.
We believe that the long-term solutions must be worked on in the short term and build us towards our future. We must do all we can to help the ones who are suffering. We also need to acknowledge that many, if not most people on the “other side” are suffering as well. This is true not only in Africa, but in the Middle East today. It is horrendous what so many people are going through. Imagine ourselves in that situation. This calls us to compassion: “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” They have children whom they love and want a future for, just as we do.
Jesus taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan that people are people. If we are going to build a future, then we need to show restoring love wherever there is suffering and not exclude people not of our group. Showing the love of God to our enemies is our call, and this spreads the gospel, as it heals our conflict. We really pray that organisations and friends who send out prayer letters, ourselves included, will see this more and work more on this in our answers to the terrible situations we all face. It may not be the narrative we welcome, but it is what Jesus taught and is needed to bring the healing gospel to our world. We pray for a change in our heart and a change of action, to live out the discipleship of Jesus on the road to Jericho, with all our neighbours.
We take action to support suffering Christians and this is right. But what about the suffering Muslims? What about those who stood with us when Boko Haram was attacking us, at great cost to themselves? Do we forsake them in the aftermath, when they have nothing left but their wounds? If we do that, what future do we have, expect one that goes by the narrative of conquest? If we don’t show them the love of Jesus in their sorrow, will they believe us next time we want them to reject extremist groups? What about wounded Fulani in hospitals? Do we also have love for them? How can we live together unless we as Christians show what Jesus meant by, “Love your neighbour as yourself”? Isn’t this the greatest evangelical opportunity we have had for centuries?
Bringing the poorest Muslims and Christians together to form relationships, providing both with educational opportunities, vocational skills, paying school fees for destitute orphans, whose Muslim and Christian parents killed each other, helping forsaken Christian and Muslim widows… all goes a long way to breaking down enmity, atoning for community bitterness, providing hope that changes behaviour, and sharing Christ where once the door was shut. These are the kind of responses that are needed, rather than complaints about the faults of others. These are the things we and others are doing, reaching thousands, which studies and our own experiences show work. If we don’t want Christians persecuted, then this is what needs to be done.
THIS is Jesus’ response to terrorism, from any source.
A world where 1% percent of the population own 50% of the world’s wealth, wealth safely tucked away, while 10.5 million kids, just in Nigeria alone, are out of school because their damaged families can’t afford school fees, points us to the underlying issues that are at the heart of our problem. The fact that a school is cheaper to build than the cost of one bomb dropped from a drone, must say a lot about the world we live in. This must impact us.
We may say its local corruption that keeps multiplied millions of people living in under developed and vulnerable conditions. It’s also Western banks, withholding illegally deposited money from developing countries in their accounts, while the poorer nations are charged massive interest on old debts, and foreign corporations make business deals that impoverish millions in underdeveloped regions. When all this breaks down nations and contributes towards war and displacement, isn’t supporting refugees our biblical command? Doesn’t the Torah and our Christian faith speak to this? Wouldn’t taking the log out of own eye be a first response to dealing with the sin of others? Didn’t John the Baptist tell us not to desire more for ourselves, when others have nothing?
I started writing this hoping to do so dispassionately, but I am not sure that is possible, having lived through the worst of this for the last 9 years, especially under immediate terror threat every day for 5 years. We saw suicide bombings in our own neighbourhood, many resulting in large numbers killed in reprisals on both sides, turned around and defeated by non-violent, community lead cooperation between Muslims and Christians. Not inter-faith dialogue, but the neighbourly support, love and help for each other Jesus commanded.
It’s hard to keep the old views I naturally adopted growing up in the North Shore of Sydney, where I didn’t know the world. And even in coming to Nigeria, it took years for my old views to modify. It wasn’t until we were thrust into the worst of the violence that we were forced to know our neighbour.
“Know our neighbour.” That is really what Jesus asks of us in this extremist world. Christ taught us not to just support ourselves and our own programs, but to work on helping others, to redeem our wider community. Love of enemy is the principal distinction of Christ. If we won’t, then the wider community will rot and swallow us all up. If we will, we can reveal the meaning of the gospel to all around us.
Thank you for praying with us and for your supporting love to the people we serve, and for all the support we know many give through other agencies.