Unity or hell? Choices for the new year

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By CARMEN McCAIN
ON September 15, 1963, during the American civil rights  movement, the American terrorist group Ku Klux Klan, which uses twisted Christian language to support its racist ideology, set off a bomb in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where civil rights activists often congregated. The bomb killed four little girls coming out of their Sunday school class and wounded 22 other people.

In 1997, People Magazine wrote an article about the bombing in which they quote Chris Hamlin, then pastor of the church, saying “The bombing was a pivotal turning point’ […] Birmingham- so rocked by violence in the years leading up to the blast that it became known as Bombingham – ‘Finally,’ adds Hamlin, ‘began to say to itself, “This is enough!’”

Nearly 50 years later, in a very different context, another bomb has gone off in a church, this one St Theresa’s Catholic Church in Madalla, Niger State, Nigeria, this time on Christmas Day 2011, a holiday celebrating joy and peace.

The latest in a series of bomb attacks around the country, it killed about 35 people including children and a pregnant woman and wiped out whole families. Boko Haram, a terrorist entity which asserts it is fighting for Islam, claims responsibility for the bombings.

But just as the Ku Klux Klan violated Christian principles of love and non-violence, so also does Boko Haram violate Islamic principles of non-violence against non-combatants.

Bombing a  place of worship, especially on a holy day with families of worshippers inside, is such a sacrilege that I wonder if this time, remembering  the 2010 Christmas Eve bombings and this year’s attacks on Muslims during Eid-el-Fitr in Jos, we too, both Christians and Muslims, will finally say, “This is enough!”

When I first heard, on Christmas morning, of the bombs in Madalla, Jos and Yobe, I thought of my column published the day before. I had written about the December 10 football viewing centre bombings  in Jos in the context of Jesus’s teachings on peace.

As I tried to process the shattering news of dozens of innocent people killed after attending Christmas mass, I thought of a verse I had edited out of the conclusion of my last article to save space. It was Matthew 10: 28-31, where Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.

Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

Several thoughts on Jesus’s words about fear:

First: the body. After I mentioned Boko Haram briefly in one of my other articles, a reader wrote me, warning that it was dangerous to talk about Boko Haram-”I think it is safer to avoid even mentioning the name of these mad creatures. They are everywhere: they watch & listen.”

My response was to  re-tell the story of returning to Jos from New York in September 2001. “I realised that if I changed my plans [to return] either because of the attacks on New York or the crisis in Jos, I would be doing what the terrorists wanted, which is to make everyone change their lives and tiptoe around in fear.

And if you do that, you are letting a minority of violent people rule your life, rather than God. I refuse to live in fear. My life is in God’s hands. If it is my  time to die, it is  my time to die. I will not refuse to speak out about truth or justice or peace out of fear.”  The deaths of those people on Christmas morning were tragic, but while terrorists could maim their bodies, they could not touch their souls.

Second: on hell. Whoever is behind the Christmas bombings and other “Boko Haram” violence wants to tear the country apart. They want Christians to curse Muslims and the South to declare war against the North. They want to deny complexity, deny love, drag the rest of us with them to a hell of hatred and violence.

They want us to ignore the teachings of Jesus, beloved of both Christians and Muslims, who said “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” If we fall into the trap the terrorists have set and begin to behave irrationally, hating those who had nothing to do with the terror and lashing out in violence against them, then we lose our souls and those who are trying to destroy Nigeria will succeed in their plan.

During Christmas, most of the Christmas greeting texts and phone calls I received were from Muslims. These sorts of friendships are what the attackers mean to destroy. I was encouraged, therefore, when I saw so many Muslim leaders  unified in their condemnation of the attacks.

Daily Trust and This Day reported condemnation from Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI), Muslim Public Affairs Center (MPAC), Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC), Izalat Bida’a Waikamtul Sunnah (JIBWIS), Muslim Congress, and the Malta Ahmadiyya Group, among others.

Chairman of the Sokoto State chapter of Izalat Bida’a Waikamtul Sunnah (JIBWIS), Sheikh Abubakar Usman Mabera said “Almighty Allah forbids the killing of a fellow human being. Whoever thinks that he is carrying out Jihad by destroying places of worship and killing innocent citizens is ignorant of Islam because the religion forbids that.”

Vanguard reports that the Sultan of Sokoto Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar III declared:  “There is no conflict between Christians and Muslims, between Islam and Christianity. It is a conflict between evil people and good people and the good people are more than the evil doers.

The good people must come together to defeat the evil ones.” And, despite rabble-rousing statements by some understandably distressed Christian leaders, Pope Benedict XVI responded in the pattern Jesus set, saying, “In this moment, I want to repeat once again with force: violence is a path that leads only to pain, destruction and death. Respect, reconciliation and love are the only path to peace.

Back in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who would himself be assassinated five years later, preached the funeral for the four little girls  killed in the Birmingham church, saying: “my friends, they did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil.

And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. The holy Scripture says, ‘A little child shall lead them.’

The death of these little children may lead our whole Southland from the low road of man’s inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood […from] the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future.”

On this last day of 2011, as we mourn those innocents killed on Christmas morning, we can let this tragedy lead us on to a more unified voice against evil, both Christians and Muslims speaking out against terrorism and corruption, working actively together for peace against those who would divide at all costs. Or we can let our hatred lead us straight to hell. It is our choice. Happy New Year.

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