On the Easter period just ended, I reflected on the mindless quest for materialism by Nigerian Christians, especially our pastors and priests. It is worrisome what this tendency is doing to our collective sense of values.
Christians are united in the person of Jesus Christ. The Christian faithful is called upon to model their lives after the life and example of Christ, and thereby act in accordance with the greatest of the commandments – to love God, and to love our neighbour.
Christians are divided on the third dimension – the self: If we are told to love God and to love our neighbor, what about ourselves? The traditional church provides a clear, unequivocal answer: we are to deny ourselves, because there is nothing in this world that follows us to the grave; the things of the world are ephemeral, transient, and vainglorious. Although the new movement understands this truism about the transience of possessions, it is often noted that the Almighty carried our cross and the same Almighty gave man the earth and all of its fullness for his possession; so what can be wrong with a man attempting to possess his possessions and live a better life?
Both explanations may be right, but there is more to this, in my view. The Christian world is divided into pastors and laity, and each has been given clear instructions on how to fulfill their various mandates. Here’s how I see it:
The world that existed when Christ assumed flesh was a world of injustice. The Roman Empire had conquered and ruled Palestine; the people were subjugated and made unwilling citizens of Rome. Within the country, the people further subdivided into a class society, with influential elite groups seeking to control thought, politics, and religion. Among these elite groups were the wealthy tax collectors representing the colonisers, an educated class that represented the state and served the interests of two sets of aristocrats – the puritanical Pharisees and the aristocratic Sadducees. These elite groups used the instruments of state to deal with commoners that did not obey laws and conventions that they extracted from existing religious and secular sources and often distorted for their own ends.
This was not how it was in the beginning, when the Israelites returned from self-imposed exile in Egypt. In sharing the possessions they found in their Promised Land, one Israeli tribe was dispossessed. This priestly tribe was created and set apart, stripped of all material possessions including landed property, and made to be the responsibility of the people for their daily upkeep and other material sustenance. The people did not want this tribe to be distracted by the search for material possessions in fulfilling their pastoral mission.
Nevertheless, the Bible records how, within this class, sons of priests later sought to escape this mandate by helping themselves to the temple offerings, and how God reacted to this sacrilege. It was not as if the sons of priests did not understand the rules – they sought a different interpretation of how to possess their possessions, just as the Pharisees and Sadducees were doing at the time that Christ took human flesh and waged His Battle of Salvation.
The Battle of Salvation sought to throw away old discredited ideas propagated by the religious aristocrats, without distorting the original Laws of Moses. One of the ways that this was eventually accomplished was the installation of a new type of priesthood that fulfilled the original plan. Most of those that Christ chose for pastoral missions were commoners, and his instructions to them left no room for ambiguity: In their journeys of evangelization, they were to travel light, shun material possessions, and depend for their sustenance solely on the goodwill of the people to whom they preached this Good News. For this group, there would be nothing like material demands from parents, brothers, sisters, relations, or neighbours; all such demands would be filtered through their willingness to listen to and subscribe to the Faith.
How did Christ’s chosen ones, our founding fathers in the pastoral mandate, the apostles, discharge their mandate? Virtually all suffered their master’s fate for daring to speak truth to power and insist on justice for the poor. Peter was martyred in Rome, Andrew and Philip were crucified on a cross, King Herod put James to death by the sword, Bartholomew was whipped to death, and John the Evangelist miraculously survived after he was immersed in burning oil. And so on.
What about the followers? They were also given clear and elaborate instructions on how to ensure that, in the search to possess possessions, justice and fair-play prevailed. Christ also had words of consolation for those unable to make it, asking them not to worry because the Almighty knows and would supply their basic needs. He also warned of the injustices and evils that accompany inordinate attempts to acquire wealth.
Christ could have been speaking to our countrymen today. In our search for wealth and power, we literally sacrifice fellow mortals, shoot enemies and competitors to death, poison, disable, or tear reputations of office colleagues to shreds, and subject the poor faithful to unimaginable indignities and injustices. Are these not the lot of Nigeria’s avaricious politicians, grasping entrepreneurs, ambitious civil servants, and prosperity preachers who align with the god of wealth? In Nigeria, our latter-day apostles are divided between those consistently pleading the cause of the poor by decrying injustices in economic and social order created by mindless scramble for our national patrimony, and those who side with politicians and captains of industry to accumulate vast wealth, milk their poor congregation dry through tithing and seed sowing, and use the proceeds to live ostentatious lifestyles exemplified by opulent mansions, exotic cars, and private jets.
These latter-day apostles have transformed into a jet-setting elite with flourishing businesses, educational institutions, and other commercial ventures that put them far and above wealthy members of their congregations. Their tendencies have contributed to the devastation of our sense of values.
Will these last? I remember Gamaliel. I am also mindful of history. In the Americas, from where material Christianity originated, great congregations, often husband-wife partnerships, have collapsed from scandals bordering on infidelity, financial fraud, and fake miracles. In Europe, the Anglican Church has almost collapsed from its approval of Sodomy and the decision to allow gays as heads of congregations. It would appear that the Catholic Church, the last bastion of rigid biblical theology, is going to be caught up in this embarrassment, judging from unhappy stories of its priests exposed as pedophiles and sex maniacs.
These are unhappy reflections on Christendom for the Easter period just ended. Mind you, I have not set out to judge priests and pastors. I do know, however, that the life and example of Christ indicate that wealth is often the first temptation for pastors on the journey of evangelisation. Wealth is attractive and magnetic, for it symbolizes prestige, power, luxury and authority and, as shown in Matthew 4:9, is one of the three powerful tools that Satan uses to draw pastors away from this mission.