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Fanning a flicker into flame

By Muyiwa Adetiba
Long before Millie Jackson veered into those raunchy, sexual songs that made her famous—or infamous— she had sung thoughtful, social songs.

The celebrated singer of the all time ever green song: ‘if loving is you wrong, I don’t want to be right’ had earlier in her career, awakened people’s social conscience with some powerful songs. One of them, titled ‘I cried’ haunts still, some 4 years after I first heard it. The lyrics of this verse, in a way, summarises the song.

‘I saw a man lying on the street. I couldn’t figure out why people pass by without seeing that the man was about to die. When I cried out for help, no one came cos they don’t want to get involved. The problem seems that no one believed that the situation can be helped. And I cried. Oh lord, I cried.’

The song haunts when I see accident victims on the road and people speed off, not wanting to get involved. Or worse, when there is an Okada victim and we walk by, looking the other way. It haunts when a defenceless lady is attacked in broad day light and we look away. Or when a neighbour’s house is being robbed and we quickly call our children in and lock the door .

I know there are arguments to support why our hearts have become this calloused and our survival instincts this heightened. Stories of sympathetic helpers that have been made suspects by the police abound. Or good Samaritans being turned away with accident victims by hospitals, leaving the Samaritans to carry what is not really their cross. These precedents have made us to believe that the situation can not be helped.

Unfortunately, this selfish, self centred survival instinct has eaten into other social fabrics, and is often masked—to salve our conscience —as righteous indignation. We see it when we are on the line in a supermarket or a pharmacy store and the person in front of us is taking longer than usual with the cashier, forgetting that all of us have needed clarification or assistance at one time or the other. We see it even in the church when we are so much in a hurry to leave the car park that we refuse to allow a car to get in front of us. Or we hoot so self righteously, when a car in our front stops to pick up another worshipper. We forget that we have been in that position before, and will most likely be in the position again.

We see it— this lack of empathy, masked as righteous indignation — when a public official falls and the long knives come out, determined to make sure that he does not rise again. We see it when a leader suffers a moral failure. The darts we throw — in words and in deed— are fast and furious. None of us is humble enough to admit that we might fare worse in the same situation. St Paul warns us to be aware of our vulnerability when we witness the moral weakness of others by saying ‘let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he falls’.Oswald Chambers buttressed this about a century ago, when he said, ‘always remain alert to the fact that where one man falls, is exactly where many will fall.’ David Macstand offered another reproach to moral failure in others when he said ‘the head shake in response is a common response to public sin. More helpful is the head that nods ‘yes, I am capable of that’ then bows in prayer for the one who has fallen and the one who thinks he stands’.

All these came to me very forcibly a couple of weeks ago when an Indian Priest delivered a powerful homily on the life of Christ based on Isaiah 42 vs 3 which says ‘a bruised reed he will not break, a flickering flame he will not quench’. He described Christ’s mission as that of a nurturer. Ordinarily, a bruised reed is something you remove to make space for stronger plants. But Jesus did not see anybody as half empty to be drained off but as half full to be topped up. He came to give life, to build, and not to destroy.

When the Priest mentioned that it was easier to pull down than to build, I remembered my country.

The Priest described a flickering lamp as next to useless. You can not read with it neither can it light your path. Again, for many, its better to quench it than waste precious oil. But not Jesus; His purpose was to fan every flicker into a flame.

What about us? How many times have we seen a good in our society and encouraged it? How many times have we seen a flicker of hope and fanned it into a roaring fire?

We condemn, maybe rightly, our institutions of learning and their young products. But how many of us bother to look for the rough diamonds that must exist?; the unpolished gold lurking in every pile of dust?

Maybe its time to stop moaning and cursing and start building. According to Bishop Ajakaiye of Ekiti archdiocese, ’when we continue to moan, we continue to mourn.’

Nigeria needs all of us irrespective of tribe and religion, to come together to help fan every flicker of hope into a flame.




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