The good that religion can do
The story that Alhajis Mohammed Tunga and Garba Kamba of Kebbi state conspired to divert N664 million from ‘Imam training’ to their own pockets caused me to ponder anew on Nigeria. The money was to be given to Imams to enable them ‘spread the message of peace’ in the run up to the 2015 elections. It is tough, very tough, to decide which is the worst part of this story. What will Imams preach in the place of peace if they are not mobilized with N664 million, I wonder? Augustus Aikhomu, in his famous definition of the fungibility of money, said public funds cannot be stolen or misappropriated; they can only be misapplied. So where did the misapplication happen in this case?
More to the point, the story made me think of the abusive relationship Nigerians have developed with religion. Given the country’s many troubles, it is not immediately obvious that Nigeria is a place that has benefitted from the goo d that religion can do in a society. When one sees all this, it is tempting to say the solution is to do away with religion completely in Nigeria. But will this solve any problems? I don’t think so. My personal relationship with religion has been evolving so this is not about evangelizing like those guys who stand up to preach in public transport (another terrible manifestation of religion). Can religion be any good to a society? My answer is a resounding yes. I’m a Christian and I like economics so the examples I will share are about the links between the two.
Of all the things that Christianity teaches, one of the most useful (if not the most) to a society’s economic development is prudence. Adam Smith said that ‘what is prudence in the conduct of every private family can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom [country]’. Given that the Bible talks so much about prudence and the preponderance of Christianity in Nigeria, the country ought to have turned to Singapore, or better, by now. The woman in Luke 13:21 demonstrated prudence by hiding the leaven in the flour until all of it was leavened. Even the seemingly unjust manager who was about to be rendered unemployed in Luke 16 was commended for his prudence. Note that his imminent retirement did not cause him to steal his master’s money – instead he invested in kindness in the hope that he would reap more kindness in future when he needed it. If people who are called by God’s name in a country behave in this manner, such a country will not lack for infrastructure. After all, what is infrastructure if not denying yourself some gratification today to have roads that will be enjoyed in the future. Something is not quite right when 80% or more of a country’s resources are dedicated to the payment of salaries and other recurrent expenses today and then acting surprised when there is no electricity tomorrow.
How about the payment of taxes? The fact that the Nigerian government is borrowing huge sums of money just to pay salaries tells a story of a government that is unable to collect taxes in the territory it supposedly presides over. And there are Christians in the country? There is no version of the Bible that does not have Mark 12:17 where Jesus said to ‘pay to Ceasar, the things that are Caesar’s’. But in fairness, there was a catch in the previous verse – you should only pay the money to Caesar if it really belongs to Caesar. Where the state is weak and notorious for theft, people will rationalize that it has no legitimate claim over their taxes – no taxation without representation as the 18th Century Americans famously cried. But there is no escaping the consequences of such illegitimate government whether you’re a Christian or not. There are no nice Christian-only roads or Christian-only towns – everyone suffers the problems together.
Proverbs 22:2 says that God is the maker of both the rich and poor. That is, all are all equal before God. And Romans 2:11 says that God does not show partiality. These seemingly obvious verses inspired something that we have all come to take for granted today – fixed prices. Back in the day, the Quakers got really upset with a lot of practices in the marketplace especially around price fixing and preferential pricing for people of the same group. They also felt it was dishonest to name a price and then accept a lower one later after haggling. In response to these they came up with fixed prices. Naturally, once prices were fixed, you could then publish them for everyone to see. It wasn’t easy initially – customers avoided them as they found it suspicious that merchants would not haggle. But eventually they came to be known for honesty in business. Is it a surprise that famous business names like Cadbury’s, Barclays, Rowntree’s, Price, Waterhouse, Clark’s and Reckitt were all Quakers? Here we can clearly see the economic benefit of James 5:12 which says that your yes should be your yes. It promotes innovation that allows business to be done quicker and better leading to faster GDP growth.
Finally, there is no obvious conflict between Christians and the market system. What did Jesus say to the rich young ruler who wanted to be saved in Matthew 19? He told him to go and sell all his stuff and then give the money to the poor. This is another version of prudence. As much as Jesus wanted him to be rid of his riches, He also wanted him to obtain the highest possible value for them so that the poor would benefit even more. That Jesus did not tell him to go and give away his stuff to the poor is telling. Maybe if there was no market economy in place or the markets were completely rigged by various associations and cabals, Jesus would have told him to just give the stuff to the poor as he would not have obtained good value for them in such markets. Rigged markets help no one and Christians ought to be at the forefront of promoting them. Alas, there are Christians in Nigeria and there are plenty of rigged markets. Sad!
My sermon to you today is that if you are called a Christian, the responsibility for economic development is not one you can run away from. Go out and be a good Christian today, tomorrow and the day after.
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