BISHOP MATTHEW HASSAN KUKAH heads the Diocese of Sokoto, in northwestern Nigeria. He is the founder of the Kukah Center, a policy-research institute that engages distinguished thought leaders from around the world and provides a Judeo-Christian perspective on all the issues of the day. He recently spoke with Adie Vanessa Offiong, who reports for Aid to the Church in Need-USA.
You have encouraged Nigerian Catholics to be more proud of their faith and more dynamic in living it out. What has been lacking?
I feel very sad that Catholic identity has become subordinated to other primal identities such as ethnicity, class and other temporal forms of identity. Perhaps some 40 or so years ago, being Catholic was something we were all proud of because of the status it conferred on us—from education to the powerful paraphernalia of the Church structures and offices.
Leaders are to blame. We have not done much to raise the consciousness of our people—a consciousness that comes from the adequate preparation and training of Catholics for future roles in their societies. For example, after confirmation, our children graduate from Catholic secondary schools but there are no Catholic universities. It is from these universities that we should have produced a more confident elite, some of whom would have become lay theologians, confident and determined to pass on the faith. The Pentecostals have done far better in training their people than we have. We have been running a very clerical Church in which the people only look up to their bishops and priests for answers to all the problems of life. We have the Knights, Catholic Women Organization and youth groups, but these groups have no serious training beyond merely showing up at ceremonies and so on. So, we have serious challenges in pushing our laity to higher roles in the Church.
How well would you say Christians in Nigeria are making their voices heard and asserting themselves, especially in the public sphere?
We have not done well. We have been long on speeches and wails, but have not done much practically. One of the major drawbacks for Christians in public life is that they are often having to battle with dual or multiple identities of ethnicity, regionalism and denominationalism. So, often, their priorities are often based on these factors—not on their Christianity. Again, we have to blame ourselves as a Church because we are fathers and we have not done much to train people for public life. I speak here specifically of the Catholic Church.
We could have done and can do much more but we are still shy of the public space. That derives largely from our experience of missionary Christianity where the white missionaries could not participate in the politics of their host societies. As a Catholic priest, I cannot join a political party of stand for office, but I have to encourage my people to get involved in politics and help them understand the nature of the choices they have to make. We have a long way to go. St. John Paul is my model in this regard. He turned the world upside down, ended Communism, literally installed a president in his own country and provided the moral foundation for a political party called, Solidarity.
You have spoken of persecution as part of Christian life; given the ongoing persecution that Christians experience in Nigeria, how you encourage them find solace in this fact of Christian life?
As I have said often, persecution is in the DNA of Christianity and we do not have to look any further than the cross of Jesus. We are not of this world. I do not mean that we should go around with hands folded and waiting for pain to be inflicted on us. Persecution is not only physical and in our society— where my Diocese is for example, in northern Nigeria—Christians are persecuted by being denied positions, appointments and promotions in the civil service in the predominantly Muslim areas.
However, the problem is not the persecution but how we bear it that matters. Again, Jesus has left us a legacy and the teachings He left behind are humanly unattainable. For example, when you are slapped on one cheek, turn the other (Lk. 6:29), or the idea that to be poor in spirit and to be persecuted are all signs of being blessed (Lk. 5), all these are humanly unattainable. We must continue to turn the world upside down with our teaching (Acts 7:16), because that is the only way to create a new society in the image and likeness of the Gospel. We do not seek for consolation because Jesus is the eternal consolation.
Yet, Christians are called to show solidarity with the suffering of others
For example, in my diocese, we have often responded to killings or disasters by locally raising money and taking foodstuffs, clothing and medicines to the various communities. This is a strategy for showing concern out of our common humanity and it has always been interesting to see the response of the local Muslim leadership as these are communities that are 100 percent Muslim. They often say to us, “why are you doing this after all there are no Christians among us and you do not know us.” But our answer is: “this is what we believe in—the fact that we are all God’s children.”
What’s been the most difficult situation you have had to contend with as a bishop?
There have been many. I have participated in many federal and state government initiatives to end injustice, to investigate what is wrong with the society. The greatest frustration is the very clear lack of commitment and good will on the part of the federal or state governments. You work so hard, provide all that is needed to turn things around, but you hand in a report and the government just looks the other way. There is nothing left in this country that has not been diagnosed. The sheer absence of political will and commitment to pursuing the common good, the persistence of poverty in a country so richly endowed, these are causes for sleepless nights—because, clearly, they can be avoided.
Vanessa Offiong writes for Aid to the Church in Need, an international papal charity providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS);www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN)