The Learning Curve

The day after Christmas Ruth and I were in England when we had a call from one of the team leaders in Jos. He said our suburb in Jos had erupted into violence. In the next few days he drove around taking photos and sending them to us. About a hundred houses had been burnt down and many people had lost their lives. These houses were situated all around the site we were renting for our bible college and children’s school. This went on into the new year. Three times Christian youth came to our site to burn it down, because it was owned by a Muslim man. Our staff pleaded that they should not burn it. The team was on watch, patrolling all night every night because of the terror that was all around, watching for the safety of the students and their families: their wives and children.

I returned to Jos in the new year as the violence continued. It had spread to other parts of the city. Pastors came to visit me to describe events that were taking place. Christians and Muslims stood on opposite hills, proclaiming their faith, and then rushing upon each other, like the Philistines and Israelites in Old Testament scenes. Pastors and church elders were involved, not only “nominal Christians.” It was terrible from both sides. Appalling crimes were committed by Muslims and Christians, atrocities that cannot be recorded here that resulted in the deaths of many innocent people. Just to mention one: a large group of unarmed Muslim men were praying in an open field when a group of armed Christian men attacked without warning and massacred them.

The church I preached in just before Christmas was burnt to the ground, destroyed. The Muslim house next door to the church also was destroyed. The old Muslim man who lived there sat on the steps of the church as the angry Muslim youth approached. He told them they must not touch the church. They ordered him to leave because they would kill him to destroy the church, but he refused. They killed him. His widow still lives in the ruins of their house, burnt by Christians. Another Muslim man took his children for protection to a Christian neighbourhood, to Christian relatives but Christian youth broke into the house and dragged the children out to kill them. An old Christian woman grabbed the children and said they must kill her first. The youth were afraid and left her alone. She refused to leave the Muslim children, whom she had never met before, for days, protecting them with her life.

Many died. Many more lost their homes and businesses. One night, Christians came to our site to kill a Muslim man, an elder, who lived in the apartment next door to one of our team leaders. We might say real Christians wouldn’t do such a thing. Then why don’t we say the same about real Muslims, laying aside our propaganda? Our team leader hid the Muslim man in his house and told the murderers that he had fled the area. The killers left. Our leader risked his life saving the life of a Muslim friend. This was one of the acts that would open doors and relationships to rebuild from the ashes in the years ahead.

One morning we woke to the news that overnight about 500 Christian villagers had been massacred, not far from our site. At this time, our bible college students were on the site with classes going on. The students were kept away from the trouble outside, most of them living on our campus. We heard rumours that truckloads of Muslims were being driven in from another city to target us and others around us. This showed us first-hand how this kind of violence often escalates. The terrifying rumours create fear and the fear instigates pre-emptive acts of violence in “self-defence.” The cycle of retaliation just continues. We have all heard about terrorism on the news media. These situations happen around the world, but we had never passed through one on this scale before. It was when this rumour struck that we realised the first thing about this kind of situation: we did not know anyone we could call to confirm or deny the rumour. We had no way of ascertaining the truth. We didn’t have relationships with our Muslim neighbours. And this was our own fault. We realised these relationships with “the other side” were the most important asset in this kind of situation: and we lacked this asset completely.

In the weeks that followed we continued our classes each day. Families of our team from other parts of the nation called their relations working with us telling them to flee the area. They offered plane fares, bus fares, begging them to leave. We told our staff that each one should do what they believed was the will of God and we would honour it completely as God’s will for them and pay for costs to travel. But not one staff member left. They all said this is where the Lord wants then to shine, and they stayed with their families. So, when others ask Ruth and me why we keep going, we say we are inspired by our team, who lay even more on the line than we do. And as we stay, we find that our team are inspired also. A cycle of inspiration builds that overcomes the cycle of fear.

At night attacks came around the house where I stayed with a staff member and his family. The house next door was burnt down. One man in another house used a gun to defend himself. The attackers waited until his bullets were finished, then moved in and killed him. They didn’t touch us. We decided not to bear weapons. You cannot predict how things will go. The best policy is to defuse violence. People have asked, what would you do if attackers came to kill your family? Would you be armed to kill them first? Guns are heralded by many people and many nations as their hope of freedom, but as we experienced it, they provide no guarantee of safety. The best answer is that we would pray. God is far more able to keep us safe, and we decided we would accept God’s reply. We are people of resurrection to eternal life. This might seem strange in the modern world. For missionaries of older times it was commonly accepted: they prayed for God’s grace to have the honour to serve with their whole lives and with their deaths if necessary. Without this grace we cannot build true self-giving communities, the way of the cross of Christ, as was built by the early church.

Each day in class our students and staff asked what the early church did during days of violence and persecution. So we searched the Gospels, Acts, and early church history together. The clear answer from scripture and from history was that they loved their enemies. They never rose in retaliation against anyone. Nowhere in Acts, or in any of Paul’s letters, did the church or Paul say, “Enough is enough, next time we will be ready to deal with them.” Paul’s writings were pacific. They were completely empty of violent self-defensive language. Same with all the apostles. “Follow Jesus,” Peter said, “He did not retaliate, and he answered not a word.” All the early apostles died this way (I believe this included John.) This pacifism was the tradition of the entire church for the first 200 years at least. It was the apostles’ doctrine: God came in human form and suffered for his enemies. Likewise we are to humble ourselves in serving our enemies. (Philippians 2:5-11) This is essentially the gospel, as least how the early church lived it out in their love for one another. “Pacific” doesn’t mean passive. It means actively and earnestly striving to “overcome evil with good.”

When the violence died down, the team leader who saved the life of his Muslim neighbour visited the family and ate a meal with them as they celebrated Salah. This was deep in the “forbidden zone,” the Muslim neighbourhood where a Christian risked his life just to go there. Joining in the Salah meal is a neighbourly act. It in no way gives the message that we are attempting to merge faiths. These family occasions are morally upright and not offensive. They are not offensive as are many of the secular entertainments Christians often participate in. There is no greed, no violence, no immodesty, but humility. So our leader visited, right inside the Muslim district, where no Christian would go, and ate a meal with his host, just to say we are neighbours. In the years that followed, the situation around holy days in our city completely transformed from this beginning. From these days being occasions of tension, fighting and bombings, they became occasions of sharing and expressions of kindness towards the others. Now holy days are occasions where you see families walking the streets in joy, visiting households, and sharing their food with others, the way it had been in the childhood memories of many of CFM’s team.

After that first visit into the Muslim community, we invited the Muslim elders of a large Muslim community to come and visit us in my office. About 15 came, mosque leaders, other Islamic group leaders and professionals in their community. After the introduction we all sat down. As I looked around, the scene was so far removed from anything Ruth and I had grown up with. We grew up in monocultural societies. They were safe and nurturing for a child, but we had no idea about other cultures or peoples. I looked around at the beards, the fez caps and long Muslim robes, listened again to the names, and the names of organisations they led, organisations you hear about on the world news in our home culture. I was out of my depth. I knew nothing about my neighbours. My book knowledge about Islam from a “Christian perspective” didn’t help here.

So we began to talk with them and said we at CFM wanted to apologize to them. We had not visited them in their joys or sorrows: we had not mourned their losses with them or celebrated their joys. We had not treated them as neighbours. We hadn’t obeyed Jesus, our Lord, who told us to love our neighbours. For the first time, we could see that we had been doing what the Jews and Samaritans had done, and more than ever before we understood the message of Jesus. The Armageddon the New Testament said was coming, that Jesus warned about, was the consequence of the way they lived separatist lives, caring only about their own group, and not about the others, the sick, poor, and “unclean,” from whatever tribe or affiliation.  We were facing an “Armageddon” in this nation and we could now see what our true role was as followers of Jesus. We could see the Sermon on the Mount, the taking the log out of our own eye first, as an act of atonement, dispelling the evil in a community. Soon, self-correction was to become the new culture of our wider community, instead of finger pointing.

If our lack of relationship was our first lesson during this crisis the state of the youth in our nation was the second lesson. More than 50% of the nation’s population are youth. They have borne the brunt of global corruption. This is by no means simply local corruption. The youth lose out in education, in health and job opportunities. They simply have no future. They grow angry at the injustice and the injustice is real. So, instead of blaming them, we tried to become better fathers and mothers to them. It was our fault, as the elder ones. We hadn’t built the community. We hadn’t healed relationships, so that the economy would heal. We could see that the violence was very largely youth driven, and we could see the reasons for this. Those who have no future don’t mind losing everything in war, because they don’t have a future to lose. This must genuinely change.

The Muslim elders and CFM talked about initiating a computer training centre for Muslim and Christian youth to come together and learn for free. While they learnt skills, they would build their relationships. Before this time, there were no relationships between Christians and Muslims. We didn’t greet on the streets. We didn’t even walk on the same streets! We didn’t care for the other, no matter the other’s loss or pain. We didn’t buy or sell in the same marketplaces. We were totally separated, just like the people in the Gospels whom Jesus addressed. This is a recipe for disaster. It’s hard to know how we can read the Gospels and not see this as central to the message of Jesus: the necessity to pull down walls and build bridges, locally and globally. The way we build up national boundaries to secure our own safety, no matter the suffering of others, calling them bad people, is exactly what Jesus was addressing. And we will bear our own Armageddon as a result, unless we “repent,” as Jesus put it. That is, our faith is not just a private, spiritual matter, but also a social building and healing matter. This is the love God brings to our new heart, to be practiced in genuine daily deeds towards others. We were Christ’s enemies when he died for us, so are we following this Christlikeness towards our enemies?

So CFM agreed with the Muslim elders to work together, for the good of our youth and our social healing and cohesion. We rented a building in the Muslim neighbourhood of Bukuru, not far from the big mosque, and provided computers and staff. At first only Muslim youth came. Slowly Christian youth joined. The commitment, authenticity, and honesty of the Muslim community in this venture has not lacked on even one occasion. Our relationships in our wider communities have totally changed as a result. This new relationship opened the door for many acts of care between our communities. These new relationships would be seriously tested in the years ahead, in all that would transpire in our nation. But so far, we have come through the greatest tests, the most violent international terrorism, as one cohesive community each day fighting the evil with the weapons of unity. This is for the next chapter, but these kinds of relationships that began to build in the nation were a large reason for the failure of the terrorist organisation, Boko Haram, that followed.

Members of our staff came during this period to our office with an Imam. He stood there with his long black beard. We said to him, “We heard that your car spare parts shop was burnt down in the 2009 – 2010 violence.” Christians had burnt his shop down and since then Muslim youth had mocked him as not being able to provide for himself. Treating ourselves as one community means we feel for this Imam as we would for ourselves. I wouldn’t want this done to my father. We said to him, “Here is a little money. Buy some spare parts and restock and open your shop again. The Imam immediately began to cry. I have never seen such tears flow down the face of a grown man. They filled his beard. He said, “No one has ever loved me like this before.” His heart was so soft. And this is how the Muslim community also treat us. Today, our biggest advocate trying to raise support in Nigeria’s capital city to build and run CFM’s proposed permanent centre for women victims of violence is a Muslim elder from this community.