+John Cardinal Onaiyekan
NTA, VON, RADIO NIGERIA CHRISTMAS 2016
CAROLS AND NINE READINGS
NATIONAL CHRISTIAN CENTRE, ABUJA, Sunday 12th 2016
Message by +John Cardinal ONAIYEKAN, Archbishop of Abuja
- We thank God for bringing us together once again this year for the usual annual celebration of the Christmas season. This celebration of Carol and Readings has become a yearly custom of the NTA and Radio Nigeria and I congratulate them for keeping faith no matter the circumstances around us. Despite the economic down turn and recession, we must celebrate and rejoice at Christmas time, because the core of the Christian message recalls the abiding love of God for humanity. This is brought out very clearly in the gospel of St John – “Yes, God loved the world so much that He gave His Only son.” John 3:16.
- First of all, Christmas is a Christian celebration which has a specific meaning for those who believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God made man, an unimaginable doctrine that is tenable only to those who have received the gift of the Christian faith. The Christian therefore celebrates not only the gift of a wonderful child but also the enactment of God’s greatest plan for humanity, His becoming man and living among us. “The word was made flesh, he lived among us.” John 1:13. St Paul made this clear when he said: “When the appointed time, God sent His Son, born of a woman.” Gal. 4:4. That woman is the Virgin Mary, the young girl of Nazareth. Already in the Old Testament, the Prophet Isaias foresaw that a “The Virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel.” Is. 7:14 Matthew quoted this text in his story of the annunciation of the birth of Jesus in Mat. 1:23, adding that Emmanuel is “a name which means ‘God is with us’”. Mat. 1:24. Christians therefore have a profound spiritual motivation for celebrating Christmas.
Christmas however, is a celebration for the whole world because it is an essential part of the Christian faith that God’s love embraces every human being. That is perhaps why the Christmas mood spread all over the world in these weeks, as we see decorations and shopping sprees in all the great capitals of the world.
- We should not forget that it was not so at the beginning. When Jesus was born over 2000 years ago, it was an obscure event. Only Mary, Joseph and a few shepherds were aware that a great thing had happened to our universe. But today there is a general mood of joy, of peace and of sharing. Even if for many people, the reason for this season may be forgotten or entirely unknown, our faith in the Lord Jesus is that the Lord of history is in charge of his creation in us and despite us.
- In Nigeria, we thank God that Christmas has become a popular celebration, involving all our fellow citizens. The government grants a two-day public holiday to enable everyone celebrate, both Christians and non-Christians. It is a good thing that Christians celebrate with their neighbours who are not of the same faith.
Everyone must share in this mood of joy, peace and hope. It is a mood of God being with us. It is joy in the midst of challenges and economic recession, hope against every despair and faith to be able to see light at the end of the tunnel of a rather somber environment. It is a season for sharing, for expressing solidarity and for reaching out to others especially to the poor and needy. Perhaps there will be less heavily loaded hampers flying around this year. But there must not be less generosity among us all. Perhaps we must seriously consider this year those with whom we exchange gifts. Jesus said: “If you do good to those who do good to you, what thanks can you expect? Lk. 6:33. For the very fact that there are so many of our countrymen who are in situations of distress and poverty, this is all the more reason therefore why all of us, especially we who are Christians, must reach out to them, wherever we can, at our own levels.
- The nation not only celebrates the Christian festival of Christmas but also the Muslim religious feasts. It shows the importance of religion in our land. This is a spiritual asset which should make a positive impact in our land. True religion must be for peace, for justice, for honesty and harmony. Christmas is a time for us to take up anew the challenges of fashioning good relations among our differing religious communities. And this is not only between Christians and Muslims but also within our various religious faiths. It is becoming more and more clear now that if we do not arrive at harmony within our faiths, it will be difficult to achieve peace between our faiths.
- This is a task that we must all put our heads to. To do this we must recognize certain realities which are there, not without the permission and the plan of God himself. We must admit that we live in a country where there is a pluralism of religions. It is a fact that we cannot change. The wise attitude therefore, is to cultivate as much as we can respect for our differences and be fair to everyone. Here the golden rule is always valid – “Do to no one what you would not want done to you”.
Our differences however are not the end of story because we do have a lot of things in common. We therefore must try to seek those common grounds in terms of those shared spiritual and religious values which then help us to be able to join hands to face the challenges that afflict all of us, without discrimination or distinction. Whether it is Ebola or Malaria, HIV/AIDS or even corruption, every religious community is challenged to take action with the spiritual resources at its disposal, for the common good of all.
For all this to happen, we need to agree on the place of religion in our nation. The age-old debate of the relationship between politics and religion cannot be avoided. Nor can we make any serious progress as a nation with serious disagreement on this matter. This is particularly crucial in the area of the law of the land. Can we distinguish between the legal civil code that binds each one of us as citizens of the same nation and the religious moral norms which each of us have embraced in freedom as part of his or her own religion? If we sincerely want a nation that is united and integrated, we must work seriously towards one law for every citizen. If we must tell the truth, it must be said that the Sharia issue is still burning. Recent moves in the National Assembly for a drastic review of our constitution to make room for ecclesiastical laws side by side with Sharia is perhaps only the first salvo in a looming religious war that I believe is not too late to avoid. It is therefore indeed about time we begin to think seriously about thoroughly reviewing our constitution in the line of working towards one nation, one law. Despite our pluralism of religions, and maybe even because of this, one law ought to be enough for the entire nation, provided the freedom of everyone is guaranteed. This can be achieved with the following two simple conditions: that the law of the land must not command what religious laws forbid, and that it must not forbid what religious laws command. This leaves everyone to freely follow the injunctions of his or her own religion, without dragging in the state. This is what obtains in many countries which have one law for all citizens of diverse religions. With patience and a modicum of good will, this can be done also in our country, so that we can say good bye to fruitless conflicts over religious laws.
- We need therefore to promote and strengthen interreligious structures and initiatives. We should be building bridges rather than erecting more walls. Already we have a lot of informal bridges all around us, as most Nigerians relate quite well with their neighbours of other faiths. But formal structures have to be consciously promoted. Here the role of the Nigeria Interreligious Council, (NIREC) cannot be overemphasized. Nor can we delay indefinitely its resuscitation, so that it can once again be a forum for our efforts at promoting national religious harmony.
Interreligious dialogue is very important but not enough. We must also promote intra-religious harmony. Intra-religious dialogue demands that we acknowledge pluralism and differences even within our faiths. The Christian community must accept the challenge of working towards ever greater unity, as much as we can, rather than acquiescing, or even encouraging and maybe celebrating our present state of scandalous dividedness. We ask God to show us the way to sort out the problems that have been bedeviling the Christian Association of Nigeria, (CAN) in the past few years. For this crisis to end, all hands must be on deck, and every stake holder must take up its own responsibility.
Within the Islamic community, I beg to be allowed to strongly encourage that differences should also be recognized and taken on board, within the greater Islamic community. The recent crisis with the Shiite group is a cause for concern, not only for Muslims but for the entire nation. If there are other Muslim groups, they too must have a right to free expression and an opportunity for them to play their own role for the building up of our nation. Every religious group must be seen as seeking ways to serve God and through God serving our neighbor, within the ambit of the law of the land. It is the duty of the state to protect all genuine religions, and be very slow to ban any, no matter how inconvenient.
- Our country is in serious political, economic and social difficulties. We seem to have remained largely in the mood of political polarization typical of election campaign period. After the election which took place almost two years ago, campaigns are now over and we should by now be fully in governance mode. All hands must be on deck to face the many great challenges that are weighing heavily on our nation. We must forever ban the attitude of “winner take all”, which also tends to provoke in the losers the counter mood of “pulling them down”. The winners cannot rule alone and the losers must be prepared to cooperate with those who now have the duty to lead the nation in the way forward. Our geographical, religious and ethnic identities, all crisscross. This in itself is the gift of God for us to be able to bring down walls of division. The scandalous social disparity between the rich and the poor in our country has led to an intolerable yawning gap crying to be filled. Poverty and unemployment has been growing, leading to despair and frustration in many quarters, especially among the youth. Dishonesty and corruption have hardly visibly reduced. Our overwhelming problems require our common action from the different agents and stakeholders in the society.
- At this Christmas, we must accept the message of peace, peace by all means, including by the route of love, of humility and simplicity. It is of course the duty of government to make and enforce laws. But the endemic corruption in our land may be calling for some amount of negotiation towards repentance, refunds and possible amnesty. The limits of the route of tribunals are getting more and more obvious. The war against corruption must be waged with all possible weapons.
- It is the duty of the government to secure the land against armed insurrection. We congratulate our government for major progress made in dealing with Boko Haram crisis in the North East. Mr. President has reason to boast that Boko Haram, from the Military point of view has been “technically defeated”. But it is not yet all over. This is because there is a limit to how much arms and guns can do in this matter. We need to put more efforts in dialogue and political discussions leading to reconciliation. Here the role of religion for positive action must be more consciously exploited. Religious communities and leaders must come out to play their role, which is often very efficient and very cost effective, in comparison with budgets for military action.
We pray that soon, the millions of our country men, women and children still living in camps as Internally Displaced Persons, (IDPs) will be able to return home, a home that will be secure and ready to receive them. At the same time however, more should be done to give them a viable option of settling elsewhere in the country. For example there are many IDP camps all around Abuja. Those who have been languishing in these camps for more than two years have every right to ask for resettlement within the Federal Capital Territory. It is affront to human dignity to leave people to rot away in such camps. After all, almost all of us here have come to settle here from different parts of the nation. Why not them the IDPs? There is certainly enough space for them within the FCT, and the funding can be sourced if government would only muster the political will to embrace them, as fellow Nigerians.
- In the meantime, however, while we thank God that the Boko Haram in the North East has been “technically defeated”, another almost equally serious security challenge has been building up all over the nation. I am referring to the bands of heavily armed bandits who have gone on rampage for the last few years. They are often called “Fulani Herdsmen”. At times, we are told that they are foreign bandits who have invaded our nation. Whoever they are and wherever they are coming from, they have now constituted themselves into a major national security menace, which requires an effective action from our armed forces. They have been destroying farmlands, attacking villages and settlements, occupying captured ancestral lands and they have killed thousands of Nigerians. For example, only recently, my Episcopal colleague, Most Rev. Dr. Joseph Bagobiri, Catholic Bishop of Kafanchan, in the South of Kaduna State, issued a very moving press statement with the following gruesome statistics, for only within his ecclesiastical jurisdiction of Catholic Diocese of Kafanchan: 53 villages torched, 808 lives lost, 57people injured, 1422 houses destroyed, 16 churches demolished, 1 primary school knocked down, and property “conservatively” valued at 5.5 billion Naira destroyed or looted! This is horrendous. No wonder that my friend and brother, the Sultan of Sokoto, Mohamed Sa’ad Abubakar, has been quoted to have compared them to terrorists.
Reports from kidnapping victims have also confirmed the rumours that they have been responsible for much of the kidnappings going on in many parts of the country. This must stop. The authorities must take effective action, so as to defuse the rising tide of resentment and hatred in many communities against the Fulani herdsmen and all who are considered related to them. More ominously, some communities are already thinking and talking of arming themselves for self-defense. This is very bad news. May God show us the way forward.
- My dear listeners and viewers, fellow Nigerians, we all come from families. In our families, which are the most important social unit, we accept one another; our parents as well as our siblings, as gifts of God. We have not chosen them. God has given them to us. The same family attitude ought to be extended to our national belonging. Despite all debates about whether or not it was a mistake to have put us together in one country in 1914, the fact is that we are already together. To separate ourselves now would be indeed a herculean task. It would be wiser, and far less cumbersome and problematic to put all our efforts together to accepting one another as God’s gift, in the same nation given to us by God. We must do our best to live in peace and harmony, not only despite our differences but also because of our common values and common challenges.
- Let me conclude with the wise words from a great politician, diplomat and intellectual of our neighbouring nation of Benin Republic. His name is Professor Albert Tevoedjre. He says:
“Faced with the impossibility of placing a soldier behind each citizen to guarantee his or her safety, the only credible sustainable option is to strengthen all the mechanisms that enable us to LIVE TOGETHER, despite all our differences.”
Happy Christmas to everybody.
And may the Lord God bless our nation, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.