While Christians in North America debate theology and church rules, those in Nigeria face far greater challenges. The threat of death, fleeing one’s home or seeing one’s place of worship attacked and destroyed will put other problems in perspective.
Victims of persecution include members of the Church of the Brethren, whose Anabaptist peace beliefs are being tested.
How can Brethren leaders tell their members not to defend their homes and families? asks Samuel Dante Dali, president of the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, in the Brethren Messenger magazine. Dali describes a “struggle to face a virtually impossible situation and yet maintain a voice for peace.”
(With 150,000 members, Dali’s church outnumbers the U.S. Church of the Brethren.)
For five years, bombs and bullets from the militant Islamist group Boko Haram have ripped through churches and their members. Attacks escalated after 17 of the group — whose name means “Western education is sinful” — were killed in a clash with police in 2009. More than 400 churches have been destroyed, reports Religion News Service. The death toll exceeds 10,000, and Church of the Brethren members have been among those killed. Violence has escalated this year, with 1,500 deaths between January and March.
And now Nigeria has the world’s attention: The kidnapping of more than 200 girls by Boko Haram has sparked international outrage. Most of the affected families are part of the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, according to the Church of the Brethren website.
Though supposedly motivated by hatred of Christianity, the violence has descended into “wanton massacre and murder of innocent people, Christians and Muslims alike,” a Roman Catholic leader has said.
How would we respond if tested in this way? In Nigeria, some Christians have retaliated, but church leaders insist on a path of nonviolence, RNS reports. “We will preach and advocate peace, as violence only leads to destruction,” says Lutheran Archbishop Nemuel Baba.
As the leader of a historic peace church, Dali says he must protect himself from being overtaken by hatred. He views the militants as victims of demonic possession. “A true Muslim would never kill anybody,” he says. His greatest fear is that he and his people will succumb to a spirit of enmity and allow the demon to possess them as well.
Whether persecuted or comfortable, Christians everywhere must battle the evil spirit of hatred — and its companions, prejudice and suspicion. Dali can see clearly the demon that stalks him. He knows whom he might hate, and he would recognize the emotion if he allowed it to overtake his soul. Do we who face more subtle influences recognize the evil spirits that lure us away from peace in our attitudes and actions?
Violence is testing the faith of Nigerian Christians. It is challenging the pacifism of Nigerian Brethren. The demon of hatred is telling them that violence is redemptive, that retaliation is justice. Nigerian Christian leaders — Lutheran, Catholic, Brethren — are preaching the opposite message: Nonviolence is redemptive. Working for reconciliation is justice.
The demon of hatred — or suspicion or prejudice — whispers to all and shouts to some. It has warped the faith of Islamist militants. It poses the same threat to Christians. By resisting its power, Nigerians are upholding the core of the gospel.