Christmas and the challenges of nation building
Christmas is a Christian celebration, which has a specific meaning for those who believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God-Made-Man, an unimaginable doctrine that is tenable only to those who have received the gift of the Christian faith. The Christian, therefore, celebrates not only the gift of a wonderful child but also the enactment of God’s greatest plan for humanity, His becoming man and living among us (cf. John 1:14). St Paul made this clear when he said: “When the appointed time, God sent His Son, born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4). That woman is the Virgin Mary, the young girl of Nazareth. Already in the Old Testament, the Prophet Isaiah foresaw that “The Virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel” (Is. 7:14). Matthew quoted this text in his story of the annunciation of the birth of Jesus, adding that Emmanuel is “a name which means ‘God is with us’” (Matt. 1:24). Christians therefore have a profound spiritual motivation for celebrating Christmas.
Christmas, however, is a celebration for the whole world because it is an essential part of the Christian faith that God’s love embraces every human being. That is perhaps why the Christmas mood spread all over the world in these weeks, as we see decorations and shopping sprees in all the great capitals of the world. We should not forget that it was not so at the beginning. When Jesus was born over 2000 years ago, it was an obscure event. Only Mary, Joseph and a few shepherds were aware that a great thing had happened to our universe. But today there is a general mood of joy, of peace and of sharing. Even if for many people, the reason for this season may be forgotten or entirely unknown, our faith in the Lord Jesus is that the Lord of history is in charge of His creation in us and despite us.
In Nigeria, we thank God that Christmas has become a popular celebration, involving all our fellow citizens. The government grants a two-day public holiday to enable everyone celebrate, both Christians and non-Christians. It is a good thing that Christians celebrate with their neighbours who are not of the same faith. Everyone must share in this mood of joy, peace and hope. It is a mood of God being with us. It is joy in the midst of challenges and economic recession, hope against every despair. It is a season for sharing, for expressing solidarity and for reaching out to others especially to the poor and needy. Perhaps we must seriously consider this year those with whom we exchange gifts. For the very fact that there are so many of our countrymen who are in situations of distress and poverty, this is all the more reason therefore why all of us, especially we who are Christians, must reach out to them, wherever we can.
The nation not only celebrates the Christian festival of Christmas but also the Muslim religious feasts. It shows the importance of religion in our land. This is a spiritual asset that should make a positive impact in our land. True religion must be for peace, for justice, for honesty and harmony. Christmas is a time for us to take up anew the challenges of fashioning good relations among our differing religious communities. And this is not only between Christians and Muslims but also within our various religions. It is becoming more and more clear now that if we do not arrive at harmony within our faiths, it will be difficult to achieve peace between our faiths. This is a task that we must all put our heads to.
To do this we must recognise certain realities which are there, not without the permission and the plan of God himself. We must admit that we live in a country where there is a pluralism of religions. It is a fact that we cannot change. The wise attitude, therefore, is to cultivate as much as we can respect for our differences and be fair to everyone. Here the golden rule is always valid – “Do to no one what you would not want done to you.” Our differences, however, are not the end of story because we do have a lot of things in common. We, therefore, must try to seek those common grounds in terms of those shared spiritual and religious values which then help us to be able to join hands to face the challenges that afflict all of us, without discrimination or distinction.
For all this to happen, we need to agree on the place of religion in our nation. The age-old debate of the relationship between politics and religion cannot be avoided. This is particularly crucial in the area of the law of the land. Can we distinguish between the legal civil code that binds each one of us as citizens of the same nation and the religious moral norms which each of us have embraced in freedom as part of his or her own religion? If we sincerely want a nation that is united and integrated, we must work seriously towards one law for every citizen. If we must tell the truth, it must be said that the Sharia issue is still burning. Recent moves in the National Assembly for a drastic review of our constitution to make room for ecclesiastical laws side by side with Sharia is perhaps only the first salvo in a looming religious war that I believe is not too late to avoid.
It is, therefore, indeed about time we begin to think seriously about thoroughly reviewing our constitution in the line of working towards one nation, one law. Despite our pluralism of religions, and maybe even because of this, one law ought to be enough for the entire nation, provided the freedom of everyone is guaranteed. This can be achieved with the following two simple conditions: that the law of the land must not command what religious laws forbid, and that it must not forbid what religious laws command. This leaves everyone to freely follow the injunctions of his or her own religion, without dragging in the state. This is what obtains in many countries that have one law for all citizens of diverse religions. With patience and a modicum of goodwill, this can be done also in our country, so that we can say goodbye to fruitless conflicts over religious laws.
We need, therefore, to promote and strengthen interreligious structures and initiatives. We should be building bridges rather than erecting more walls. Already we have a lot of informal bridges all around us, as most Nigerians relate quite well with their neighbours of other faiths. But formal structures have to be consciously promoted. Here the role of the Nigeria Interreligious Council (NIREC) cannot be overemphasised. Nor can we delay indefinitely its resuscitation, so that it can once again be a forum for our efforts at promoting national religious harmony.
John Cardinal Onaiyekan is the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Abuja. He delivered this Christmas Message at the 2016 National Christmas Carols in Abuja.
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