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Only the virtuous can be free

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In his Facebook post of November 22, 2016, Dr. Eddie Iroh put a brilliant spin on the dark spots of our society. According to him, “Nigeria is an intrinsically violent society. We are getting to know a bit more of it because of social media. In the dark recesses of urban homes and in villages, seven-year-olds and younger died in their dozens through deliberate maltreatment as house-helps or even through physical abuse by their own families. Spousal physical abuse is rampant. Ask any wife who is tired of suffering in silence. And you only need to watch a Nigerian movie – art imitating life – to see for yourself that domestic slavery is alive and thriving in Nigeria with its attendant brutality and inhumanity. Even among families, children are subjected to physical abuse and violence unacceptable in many civilised societies. Even in public and inside the church houses Nigerian parents correct the misbehaviour of their kids invariably with physical abuse – a slap, a ‘conk’ on the bare skull, etc. Never a word of admonition! The kids grow up knowing no better and accustomed to physical violence.”

He concluded that Nigeria is “a broken society that refuses to recognise that it is broken; that it is littered with petals of blood. It also signals the breakdown of the social contract between the state and the citizen. When society cannot expect protection from law enforcement and justice from the courts; when people believe the police can be owned for a pittance and justice can be bought by the highest bidder, the rich and powerful, then the mob takes over the dispensation of justice; in the jungle fashion that often happens in Nigeria.”

The saddest part of the bargain is that our leaders do not seem to care. Like them, we the citizens are also losing our humanity to the daily occurrences of violence and bloodshed. We have reached that point of un-shockability where people become less likely to feel disturbed or outraged at scenes of cruelty or suffering by overexposure to such images. We unlock our phones, watch “the show” on social media gleefully, and move on. It doesn’t occur to us that each time we do that we lose a part of our humanity, a part of ourselves. We participate in the dinner of a vampire society that feeds on the blood of its innocent children. We are thereby traumatised, even if we don’t realise it. And for as long as we are desensitised we are a dead society.

How can we salvage the situation? In every age, good politics and good religion offer the best possible hope for human social redemption. Politics, as a tool for the organisation of society, is concerned with the promotion of peace and justice. In The City of God, one of the seminal works of Western political philosophy, St. Augustine defined peace as tranquillitas ordinis – “the tranquillity of order.” This was not just any “order.” Rather, what Augustine sought was an “order” rooted in justice: an “order” in which men and women could live out their responsibility to promote the common good; an “order” that made possible virtue in public life. Today, we might translate Augustine’s definition of peace by thinking of tranquillitas ordinis as dynamic, rightly ordered political community, within and among states.

The “tranquillity of order” has taken different forms in the 1600 years since Augustine wrote The City of God. In this century, dynamic, rightly ordered political community means an “order” in which human rights and freedoms are respected and upheld, and individuals have the opportunity to enjoy the full range of human and civil liberties afforded by natural law and the just legislations of civil authority. Such an “order,” which is the basis of governance and social cohesion, does not just happen. It is an ongoing work of moral responsibility. It is a journey. And the journey toward the peace of a just public order requires a proper orientation, a sense of direction, if we are not to go round in circles or get lost along the way. Thus the task of building such an “order” can be sustained over time only if the work of peace-making is conducted against a horizon of moral truths that provides orientation for the journey, truths that shape civic culture and guide the judgments of men and women as they wrestle with the question, “How ought we live together?”

In practical terms, however, Augustine’s tranquillitas ordinis is found today in democracies. And that leads us to the question of the relationship between moral truth and the democratic project. Despite the claims of some, democracy is not a machine that can run by itself. It takes a certain kind of people, living certain habits of the heart and mind, to sustain the machinery of democratic self-governance so that there is genuine human flourishing. Absent those habits of heart and mind, those virtues, democracy can decay into anarchy. In other words, democracy is never something “given.” It is something that must be constantly worked upon with vigilance and careful attention.

The work of justice and peace-building in this sense of democratic governance requires clarity on two key concepts: pluralism and tolerance. Pluralism is not mere difference, the fact that men and women have different opinions. Genuine pluralism means an orderly public conversation about those differences, conducted against that horizon of moral truths. Such a conversation, in turn, requires tolerance. And tolerance does not mean avoiding differences or denying differences, but engaging and exploring differences within a bond of civility and respect. That bond can only be built on the foundation of the conviction about the dignity of every human being.

Augustine wrote about peace as the tranquillity of order at a moment when the civilisation he knew and cherished was crumbling around him. We face similar challenges today in Nigeria with the various barbarisms that now threaten to consume us. The solution lies in the will to reclaim and then live out the truth of the inalienable dignity and value of every human life; the truth that the state exists to serve the people in justice, equity and truth; and that only a virtuous people can be free.

Ojeifo is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Abuja.


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