Government officials are also servants of God aren’t they? Well, they should be. Because in this modern world, they hold the key to making life a bit more enjoyable for God’s people. They share budgets, they are the ones who have seized the public space.
So begins Tope Fasau’s plea for state solutions to the ongoing religious strife in Nigeria. As the title of his article, not to mention his opening salvo, suggests, Fasau’s solutions revolve around the need for the government to more fully regulate the religious experience in Nigeria. He calls for all religious groups to be forcibly registered with the state. He suggests that they should be understood, for political purposes, as charities and evaluated on the basis of how charitable their distribution of funds is. He wants all ministers to be on set salaries, subject to audit by the national government. He believes the government should outlaw the use of incendiary rhetoric in the public sphere, removing posters that show ministers in camo or using “crusade” language. He even wants to eliminate certain forms of public preaching in an effort to reduce “the angst in people.”
For Americans, most if not all of this suggestions will seem repugnant. As we continue to be embroiled by our own apparently critical religious “conflicts,” the possibility that the state might force all religious societies to register, might abridge their ability to express their beliefs when, how, and where they want, and might take a very direct and invasive interest in how their money is spent is unthinkable. It would be shocking if Fasau’s suggestions carried much more currency with the native populations he is hoping to sway. Certainly, one cannot expect Boko Haram or its substantial constituency to submit to these kinds of measures, not in the midst of their own very violent, very public crusade. Nigerian Christians, in all likelihood, will be equally unwilling to throw open their doors for a government to “regulate” them who has thus far proved incapable even of protecting them. To all of these objections, I add my own negative evaluation of Fasau’s logic.
Most people see their government officials – president, governors, local government chairmens, councilors – more than they see their pastors or Imams. So, we ought to redefine the linkage between God and man, and that linkage should necessarily include our government officials. Perhaps that will scare them into doing the right thing. For as it is, many of them profess God, but act as if they think God is dead.
It is hard to be too dismissive of this reasoning if only because it has dominated Christian thinking in the post-Constantinian West and Islam throughout it history. At the same time, it is impossible not to highlight the total and incontrovertible failure of this kind of thinking. In both Islam and Christianity, the more definitively the government has functioned as a “linkage” between God and humanity, the more we all have cause to make apologies for the excesses of our faithful leaders. A beloved history professor from my undergraduate days imparted to me this wisdom, shared here before, “When the church and the state get into bed together, it is the church who plays the whore.” The force of this aphorism lies in its simplicity and obvious truth, a truth which has played out at every level of history to the great detriment of human society everywhere.
For Fasau’s argument, the same logic might be expressed differently: when the church and state are merged, it is the church who has cause to fear. Fasau wants religious believers to apply pressure on their leaders to “do the right thing” by appeals to their place as a link between God and man. Yet, this very linkage has been the means through which the state has oppressed people throughout history. The analogy between “pastors or imams” and “presidents and governors” ought to frighten more than it inspires, as it extends the reach of the state beyond merely the body into the very soul of the believer.
What’s more, far from being a perversion of what he wants, such an extension and potential oppression accord exactly with what Fasau is proposing. The pressure to “do the right thing” has as its ideal result a crackdown on the uninhibited expression of religion. “Extreme” manifestations of religion, to be sure, but a crackdown nonetheless. It is precisely so that religious groups will begin to fear the state that Fasau wants Christians and Muslims to join together to invest sacred significance in the work of government officials. I believe that Christians everywhere and faithful Muslims with them want to see an end to Boko Haram. It is equally clear, and forcefully stated, that faithful Christians and Muslims everywhere want no more retaliatory violence from Christians. But even Fasau cannot leave the implications of his argument implicit, looking forward to a time when the government will “curb the noise pollution caused by Mosques and Churches” by doing away with the public morning call to prayer and Christian midnight vigils.
Boko Haram is extreme. Christian retaliation is extreme. Inconveniently timed prayers are extreme? Christians and Muslims should be careful to remember that, in the ideal world of theory, states exist for their citizens. In the gritty world of reality, they exist for self-propagation. In either case, their quest is for stability not truth, their defense is of borders not of “rights,” and they are guardians of wealth not of faith. Fasau may be right, and they may “hold the key to making life a bit more enjoyable for God’s people.” But I suspect even Nigerian Muslims and Christians can come together and agree that, for God’s people, there are higher priorities at stake.