Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Persecution in Jos: walk the walk. 1 Peter 3:15-16

Terrible news from Jos. Jos in Nigeria is a Christian town and the capital of Nigeria's Plateau state. It is the center for the Evangelical Church of West Africa which supports a theological seminary and a major teaching hospital there. Two incidents of large-scale violence have occurred, first in the city of Jos itself on Sunday 17 January 2010, and then in three mainly Christian villages to the south of Jos on Sunday 7 March. In the latter incident men from the Muslim Fulani tribe, armed with swords and machetes, arrived at the villages in the early hours of the morning. The residents of Zot, Dogo Nahauwa and Rastat were woken by the sound of gunshots and ran terrified into the streets, where the attackers were waiting for them. A horrendous massacre followed. Local police say 109 people were killed, mainly women and children, but other sources suggest this figure could be much higher, perhaps up to 500.

Some media sources have reported that this atrocity was in retaliation for an attack by Christians on Muslims in Jos in January, where up to 300 people died. It is clear, however, that this earlier violence was started by Muslims who attacked a church. Christian leaders in Nigeria acknowledge that some Christians retaliated and do not condone their actions, but there is no evidence to suggest that their response was on the size or scale reported in the media. There are conflicting reports about how many of the dead in January were Christians and how many Muslims. Baroness Caroline Cox of Britain's House of Lords notes that “In the violent attacks, not only in Plateau state but also in neighbouring Bauchi and other northern states, a consistent pattern has emerged ... the Muslim militants take Christian corpses to mosques, where they are photographed and released to the media, creating the impression that these are Muslim victims.”

In January, a church leader in Jos expressed his belief that Muslims had carried false reports about the conflict to the international media in order to discredit the Church. Confirmation of this view may be found in a video report produced by the Aljazeera news channel in co-operation with a powerful Nigerian Muslim organisation called Jama’atu Nasril Islam and later posted on YouTube via various Muslim websites. Not only does this video erroneously suggest that the January violence was simply a massacre of Muslims by Christians; it also appears to use footage from other contexts altogether, spliced in to give bogus support to its story.

It is in this context that the violence on 7 March has been reported as “retaliation” by Muslims against Christians, but this has been denied by the governor of Plateau State, Jonah Jang, who said that it cannot plausibly be seen as a reprisal for the earlier outbreak. He has also criticised another Aljazeera report on the January violence, saying, “Some people moved Aljazeera there and then covered dead bodies and started labelling them. When you cover dead bodies and start labelling them, who knows who you are covering?”

An eyewitness account from 7 March describes how “attackers were shooting to herd fleeing villagers toward another group of attackers carrying machetes ... The attackers asked people, ‘Who are you?’ in Fulani, a language used mostly by Muslims, and killed those who did not answer back in Fulani.” By Sunday afternoon the bodies of the dead were lining the dusty streets. Many of the victims were among the most defenceless – elderly people, women and children, including a four-day-old baby. All the churches in Dogo Nahawa had been burned down, and many homes had been torched. The next day Christians wailed in the street and sang hymns to Jesus as a truck carried dozens of bodies to a mass grave. Hundreds of Christians have fled their homes, fearing further attacks. Significantly, Ben Kwashi, the Anglican Archbishop of Jos, has called the attacks “systematic and quite well organised”, indicating that they were pre-planned.

Incidents of large-scale anti-Christian violence have occurred periodically in Nigeria’s Middle Belt (where Christians and Muslims are roughly equal in number), and sometimes in the Muslim-majority North, for many years. But recently these have become more frequent and severe, with major outbreaks in Jos (November 2008), Bauchi State (February 2009), Borno State (July 2009) and Jigawa State (February 2010), in addition to those described above.

Peter wrote the third chapter of his letter in the context of suffering. He writes in verse 14 "Even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed." Then he gives this challenge:

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

Many Christians are intimidated by this challenge. I am not gifted as an Evangelist, they will say. But we are not being asked to stand in the street in a soapbox or even to preach from a pulpit, but merely to be able to answer when asked, "Why are you a Christian?"

The answer is not difficult. At the beginning of this letter, Peter tells us: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,

I don't know about you, but if Jesus was not raised from the dead, then he is just another dead philosopher like Socrates or the Buddha. But the resurrection of Jesus is a historical fact, attested to by many witnesses. In I Corinthians 15:3-8 Paul gives us a list of witnesses: For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

Dead men aren't seen walking around cooking food, eating, speaking and having their hands and feet probed. Ask this of anyone who claims to have the truth, "Get yourself killed and then rise from the dead three days later." It ain't going to happen. Jesus is unique. His crucifixion illustrates his words; his resurrection authenticates them.

But secondly, tell the truth about yourself. On Sunday we baptized four people in our church. All were able succinctly to tell how they became Christians. All were different but all were the same. I tried to be good but I failed. I realized that I would never be good enough for God. God revealed himself to me (in many and wonderful ways) and I put my trust in the risen Savior to have dealt with my shortcomings so that when God, the Father, looks at me He sees only his Son whom He loves. I know that I both died with him and was raised with him and I share with him eternal life. Even now I have His Spirit with me, a deposit of what is to come.

There are lots more arguments and I recommend that you read Michael Ots's little book What kind of God? to answer all those difficult questions that are thrown at us.

But don't be aggressive. Peter tells us to witness with gentleness and respect. We are not to harangue people. I know they are wrong, misled and perverse. I know they are vexatious, irritating and obtuse. But don't get angry. Be polite and self effacing. Remember you are witnessing for God and before God. Show respect, for you tread on Holy ground. Don't lose your temper at their waywardness. God shows patience with them and so should you.

And as we talk the talk we should walk the walk. Heaping coals on them comes not from any violent act, but from their shame when people see that any unwholesomeness that they accuse you of is a slander. Some have been saved without a word when they see how Christians behave. So I am sad for Jos. Sad for the retaliation since it gives an opportunity for the Devil to besmirch the reputation of the church. But Scripture tells us to rejoice when people insult us, persecute us and falsely say all manner of evil against us because of Jesus.

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