By Ogaga Ifowodo
IF I were a praying man, I would be on my knees every minute of the day for the next three months. And if I could be sure not to expire from the inhuman sacrifice, I would seek to better God-the-Son by fasting for 90 days and nights, hoping that the 492 wise men and women selected to rescue Nigeria from the precipice of self-annihilation would not need a day beyond June 15, 2014 to complete their task.
I would fast, pray and cast out the demon of corrupt and visionless leadership of our luckless country every minute, since, it appears, Jesus never really finished the job of conquering Satan, his declaration of victory over two thousand years ago notwithstanding.
I would be unmindful of the lamentation by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, in the poem “Easter 1916,” that “too long a sacrifice / can make a stone of the heart.” All because as the National Conference, stripped of the crucial element of sovereignty, begins in earnest in Abuja, the world capital of deception and corruption, I find my mind drifting unrestrainably to that Pauline definition of faith that is the pillar of Pentecostalism: faith as the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
Why, I ask my treacherous mind, do you turn to Paul, formerly known as Saul, one whose piety and perversity were in near-equal measure and too often deceived by a zealousness borne of the insatiable need of atonement for his past of persecuting Christ? Because, the answer came, you are surrounded by citizens praying night and day, who have all become the Aladuras of Gabriel Okara’s unforgettable poem “One Night at Victoria Beach”; because we are a nation of prayer warriors “fixed hard / on what only hearts can see // “pray[ing] to what only hearts can see.”
Which means that you must interrogate Paul’s definition of faith. I did and came to a secular understanding. Faith, it seems safe to say, is a primary condition of humanity. Believing things hoped for as if they already existed or would be substantiated in due course has to be the only other ingredient besides air, water and food that helps to sustain life.
There is something evolutionary, something inextricably tied to self-preservation and the perpetuation of the species, in the abstract quality called faith, the basis of religion. After all, the great hope of all organised religions is that of immortality; a reality-defying conviction that even after death, we shall live, in a new place by whatever name called — ancestordom or heaven, it doesn’t matter.
Faith, then, is another name for hope and optimism. Early homo sapiens, confronted by threats to life from every direction every minute, fortified themselves with the belief that somehow they would survive. That belief in turn inspired the ingenuity that would not only make puny humans the greatest predators in the jungle but also lead them out of the jungle and into society.
The survivalist trait borne of that experience had to be passed on and retained even when the conditions for it had substantially changed. Threats to life still abound, anyway, and in that sense massive and systemic corruption which denies such life-perpetuating measures as jobs, good roads, well-equipped hospitals and expertly trained doctors, etc., is the same as the wild beasts and malevolent forces of our primitive history.
Thus, if Nigeria’s problems appear to be beyond human solution, causing countless respectable citizens from the President to the poorest peasant to call for prayers, there must be a point to Pauline faith, founded as it is on a fundamental human attribute.
The secular basis of religious faith is evinced by Paul and Apostle James, both of whom agree that “faith without works is dead.” Works in this case is good deeds, the things that we do in the full consciousness of our shared humanity, of the needs of our “brethrens” and “sistrens”; in short, actions conducive to society as a whole.
Those things are captured by a word bandied about by pastor and pop star alike to the point of meaninglessness: love, also known as charity. As in the commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself — masochists and psychopaths excluded, of course!
This utmost priority of love constitutes a
categorical imperative, without which there can be no ethical philosophy centred on the common good. It is elaborated by Paul in the thirteenth chapter of his first epistle to the Corinthians.
So to all the pious citizens who exhort us every minute to pray for Nigeria, I say remember: even if you speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, you are nothing but a “sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal”; if you prophesy, claiming to have mastered all mysteries and all knowledge, have faith enough to remove mountains, but no acts of charity, you are “nothing.”
Even if you were to give your body to be burnt on the altar or blown up by a bomb strapped to your chest or kept in the booth of your car, as a sacrifice to God, but lack love, you would die in vain. Like James, I would ask the advocates of prayer as the divine panacea to Nigeria’s human-made problems, What does it profit us if we exhibit faith that moves mountains and have no works to back it up?
Can faith save Nigeria? I would prefer that whoever would save Nigeria show me faith by their works, rather than their faith without works.
From the need to radically redesign and rebuild the tottering colonial edifice called Nigeria through the enthronement of fiscal federalism, secularism and social justice, to the fashioning of an ethical philosophy that would inspire loyalty and patriotism, among other necessities, the “works” expected of us are very clear. And they seem very different from raucous prayers to banish demons that only hearts can see.