'Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult.' 1 Peter 3:9
Nigeria has a recent history of violent tensions between its Muslim and Christian populations – made worse by the brutal persecution of Boko Haram. Tearfund’s CEO Nigel Harris visited some remarkable projects there, offering non-violent responses to the terrible destruction.
The Biblical injunctions to ‘bless those who curse you’ is a challenging teaching for all of us. For many of Nigeria’s 90 million Christians it’s an injunction they have had to wrestle with in their everyday lives. Northern Nigeria especially has been the scene of terrible inter-religious violence between Muslim and Christian communities.
Is it really practical to ‘turn the other cheek’ when Boko Haram are laying waste to whole villages and kidnapping women and children?
I have come to Nigeria to see the wide range of Tearfund’s work in Nigeria – a nation of contrasts.
We start in Jos, in Plateau state, scene of horrendous interreligious violence in 2001, 2008 and 2011. One of Tearfund’s partner groups has been leading peacebuilding work in response to the riots. Believing that ‘if we speak of peace, we need to put it into practice’, they reached out to the Muslim leaders, visiting the mosque and finding other ways to build bridges between faith communities.
They simply asked them the question ‘what would Jesus do?’ – a phrase well loved by makers of Christian merchandise in the West. For these young people it is potentially a life or death question. The same week as that meeting with the young men, a church was bombed. This time there was no violent response.
Things have moved on in Jos. There are now multi-faith football matches. ‘Not Christian vs Muslim matches,’ they informed me with a smile, ‘but mixed teams – Christians and Muslim youth on both sides’.
Razed to the Ground
The journey to Yola is a gruelling eight hour road trip. Yola is in the north-east of the country and this is Boko Haram’s area of operations. We’re here to visit communities just outside the town of Gombi. Chibok, infamous for the kidnapping of 200 girls, is a bit further north.
I meet Matthew, a young man with a wife and four children. He tells me how Boko Haram would normally pass his village without attacking them. Then in February 2015, the insurgents entered the village and burnt it to the ground. Everything was destroyed or taken, including crops and food. He and his fellow villagers only escaped with the clothes on their backs.
The villagers escaped to a local town and somehow survived for a couple of months there, living as IDPs – internally displaced people. When they finally returned they had nothing. Boko Haram even burned their health clinic to the ground – why would you burn a health clinic? I got to see the burned-out motorcycle that belonged to the local pastor – it’s a heartbreaking sight.
They simply asked them the question ‘what would Jesus do?’ This time there was no violent response.
In response, Tearfund’s partner CRUDAN came to Yola. They provided Matthew and the other villagers with roofing to rebuild their homes, with food and, crucially with cash. Tearfund, along with our partners are pioneering what is known as ‘cash transfers’ in this part of Nigeria. It is an effective response to desperate need allowing villagers to meet their most pressing needs themselves. Matthew explains to me that the money he received helped him to buy food for his family, but also seed, tools and a goat to restart his farm. It gave him a fresh start, but also dignity as he was in charge of the choices he made to restart his life.
Hope and Fear
I asked how he sees the future and you can see he is torn. Yes, he is optimistic that he can now feed and nurture his family, though this year’s crop was not a great one. His young daughter wanders by eating groundnut paste from the farm.
However the fear of more violence remains, despite the actions of the Nigerian army to push Boko Haram far back from their community. Matthew’s life as a smallholder farmer in a dry, dusty and remote part of the world is tough enough anyway, but the wanton violence and cruelty of Boko Haram have brought a different dimension of fear. And so we pray together for his family and his village, for peace and safety.
It’s hard to fathom the nihilism and despair that must fuel the sort of violence I have heard about here. The best that Tearfund and our partners can offer is not to curse the darkness of the situation but offer the blessing of lives and communities and even hearts rebuilt.
Nigel is the CEO of Tearfund.
Pray for Nigeria:
- Pray for peacemaking initiatives between Christians and Muslims throughout Nigeria, that they can raise a generation that doesn’t view their neighbours with suspicion.
- Pray for the work of CRUDAN as they offer hope to communities devastated by violence and destruction.
- And pray for the work of Tearfund’s partners in Nigeria as they help find non-violent solutions to the terrible violence and conflict faced by communities.