BY TONY AFEJUKU
In this abridged discourse shared at the Emporium, JBS Estate, Benin City on the occasion of the Seminar of the Eckankar Edo Area, Tony E.Afejuku , Professor of English at the University of Benin tries to prove some of the humanistic potentials of religion as a critical ingredient to fostering national harmony and unity.
I wish to begin my delivery of this key note address with some pleasantly pertinent remarks. My association with the organizers of this seminar began in 1998 or so. I cannot remember the exact date, but I truthfully and fruitfully remember that the Eckankar Edo Area organized a similar seminar/conference which held for several days at the Main Auditorium of the University of Benin.
At that event which I attended, participated and partook in as a member of no distinction of a very enthusiastic audience who came to learn and further their knowledge on how to develop the latent powers of man, or on how to improve the individual as individual, I learnt, in a very enlightening manner, that the enlightened citizen or the totally good individual is the individual who appreciates the good of his or her neighbours and shows this appreciation by caring genuinely for his or her neighbours. There is something condemnably wrong when a man gets no enjoyment for caring for his neighbours.
Thus at this aforesaid conference of Eckankar, Religion of Light and Sound of God, I began my series of charming love poems, one of whose opening lines read as follows:
Love enters my dome
and lo, what a dove
A dove nestling in foliage
And perching on shoots
In a season of storm
In our orchard.
I don’t wish to enter the meaning of the above lines, but suffice, for now, that they are profoundly relevant to our enterprise here. More importantly, however, is the fact that, that initial experience in the said ECKANKAR event to which I was invited a long time ago, has, in diverse ways, helped to affect my thoughts and career very positively.
And since that time, I also must joyfully remark here, I have had immensely cordial and fruitful relationship with several individual members of this illustrious religious group – or should I say religious denomination? I have enjoyed every bit of their religious as well as non-religious attitudes. I say this unsentimentally.
The other preliminary remark I need to make concerns the pre-decided title: “Religion – A Vehicle for Fostering Harmony and National Unity”, which this seminar’s Planning Committee insisted I must use and abide by in my “keynote paper”.
I protested to the emissary who brought me the invitation letter that their resolutely pre-agreed title would imprison my freedom and thought as a keynote speaker whose imagination should be allowed to probe the sky, earth and rivers for the subject of the seminar’s theme. In fact, I wanted an aesthetically adventurous title, and not the one that would lead me to one and only one end and conclusion, as the pre-chosen one suggested to me.
I did not (and still do not) wish to be caught in any trap and web. Perhaps a title such as “The Issues of Religion in Nigeria” (or “The Aims of Religion in Nigeria”), which is not even as literarily seductive as I would have wanted, would be acceptable. My wish was denied me still – because I was wanted in a web? Of course, not. Perhaps nothing of controversial choice or caprice should engage the attention of the keynote presenter and his listeners in order not to fall into the temptation of starting some religious violence virtually everywhere in Edo State? Perhaps.
By now we should have got an inkling of what my idea or notion or definition or meaning of religion is. But in order not to beat about the bush, let me quickly state here that I see religion as an art that relieves us of gloom and doom. And every person – every critic, artist, parent, teacher, preacher, government official, political leader, ruler, mystic and moralist ought to see and accept it as the one needful music, light and sound of the one and only Divine in our attitudes and in our lives.
Religion is the art of the righteous and the act of righteousness. Here two questions need to be distinguished: the how and the what of religion. We tend to be more used to the second question because it carries the theme(s), attitudes, perceptions, behaviour, custom and general well-being and way of life of the man who engages in things of order and of salvation.
Such a man is in possession of ropes of love and cords of affection with which he fastens himself as he ascends the mountain of both the possible and impossible which constitute our earthly experience. And as an enduring and understanding mountaineer he also selflessly ties and fastens his ropes of love and cords of affection to less fortunate mountaineers whom he rescues from tragic falls and plunges. Such a man thus makes love of one’s neighbour and of one another his “religion”.
This “religious man” is righteously sensible, for he recognizes that his own happiness and peace depend on his goodness towards his neighbour. In other words, his gloom and doom terminate as soon as he rids himself of any tendency to hate his fellow being and neighbour. We gave this hint earlier.
But the late 17th-century and early 18th-century Anglo-Irish novelist, essayist, satirist and clergyman Jonathan Swift would disagree with me. According to Swift, “we have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one-another.”
Many happenings in our world, especially in our country, today might prove Jonathan Swift right. Religion seems to be a force tearing us apart rather than a vehicle transporting us joyfully or gleefully to a place of love, harmony and unity. But let us not out-jump ourselves. Meanwhile, let us examine some happenings in our country. Yet we need to take a cursory look at events in some places outside Nigeria first of all.
In late December of last year, precisely just before Christmas, Muslim fundamentalists were reported, in foreign and our local media, to have killed several Christians in Iraq, India and Egypt. In the Egypt killings, the gun-man was alleged, before firing at the victims, to have yelled as follows: “There is no God but God”.
I want to believe that the devil worked on him to commit the murderous havoc, and he ought instead to have yelled that “There is no devil but the devil”. I am of this opinion because several Muslims were reported to be at the Christmas funeral services in “solidarity with Copic Christians” whose members were the victims of the murderer(s). It was also reported that demonstrators (of different religions) “marched in support of [the Copic Christians] at Egypt’s prestigious Al-Azhar University” (Daily Sun, Monday, January 24, 2011, 14).
What the unexaggerated show of support for the dead and their Christian belief indicates is that political terrorism rather than religious differences could be cited as the reason for the killings. In other words, it would be wrong to put the principal blame of the dastardly act on religion in the absence of any concrete evidence. And in any case, how can we truly believe that our true and only One, the greatly RIGHTEOUS, also called Allah by Muslims, would encourage and bless the blood hounds who go about causing confusion and division everywhere about us?
As Nigerians who desire genuinely to live with one another in peace and harmony, we must be truly concerned and worried away at the absurd problem of religious intolerance and enmity tearing us apart. The disheartening disintegration of “norms regulating behaviour, thought, and social relationships” in Northern Nigeria must convince and persuade us to quote the following lines from immortal Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice:
That man that had no music in himself
Nor is not moved by concord of good sound
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils,
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus
Let no such man be trusted.
I interpret the “music” and “sound” of Shakespeare to be the “music” and “sound” of love needed for peaceful and harmonious living and existence. Any inquiry into the meaning of religion cannot meaningfully take place without recourse to Shakespeare’s lines. Any of us who desires true and righteous love needed to lift the motions of the spirit of harmonious co-existence in us ought to read Shakespeare who in works after works dwells on the necessity to make our world a better place.
In my researches and studies, I have not come across any evidence suggesting that Shakespeare was an Eckist, but his thoughts veer in the direction of the “religion of the light and sound of God” whose adherents promote the doctrine of universal love that banishes racial hatred and prejudice, ethnic division and rivalry, religious intolerance and enmity and other bogus patriotic and nationalistic tendencies disuniting mankind. Our political and religious leaders need this kind of love whose light, music and sound must ban from our
land and country all treasonable acts and stratagems causing Nigeria nightmares and nightmares.
The Koran and Bible are two wonderful books of righteousness. We should neglect Shakespeare and all our great writers, and concentrate on the Bible and Koran all our life and existence. Yet we must ask, without in any way wanting to sound controversial: how truly have faithfully holy readers of these two holy books given Nigerians exemplary conduct and influence?
This is not a controversially rhetorical and rhetorically controversial question. But the answer from me may appear frankly controversial and controversially frank. For this reason I shall skip answering it until an auspicious time which does not belong to the present act and art.