By Emefiena Ezeani
Human logic requires that these be tackled first and effectively too. On the moral ground, attacking the Igbo natural religion and its symbols (‘idols’) is against the Christian ethical principle which abhors the use of force or violence (physical or psychological) as a means of spreading Christianity. Neither Christ nor the early Christians used such ungentle method. From ecclesiastical angle and the UN Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the freedom of religion and this does not exclude the Igbo or African natural religionists. The Church’s injunction to Christians to respect other people’s religions, which include Igbo natural religion, also means that we should not abuse or make a mockery of their religious symbols, rituals and practices.
The Catholic Church’s official document, Dignitatis Humanae (Decree on Religious Liberty) is particular about this. Even people show respect and refrain from speaking disparagingly against the religion which they believe causes great stress and fear to people. It is dishonesty to falsely represent these spirits (Alụsị) as evil when their believers do not believe them to be such. The true meaning of any religious object or practice is in the mind of the religious adherent, and not in the symbols, objects and observable religious gestures.
The Yoruba who prostrates before an elder is not worshipping him, though prostration is a gesture of worship in some religions.
The onus of explanation, therefore, is on the religious adherents and not on the non-adherents of the religion in question. This means that it is unfair for priests, pastors and theologians of the Church to tell people what the adherents of the Igbo natural religion, who we erroneously call ‘pagans,’ believe. The ‘pagans’ should be allowed to tell us what they believe. The basic Christian virtue of fairness requires this minimum Christian charity from us. We should always look before we leap.
A priest, who also happened to be a Chaplain to a Charismatic Renewal Movement in a Diocese in eastern Nigeria, was once asked to deliver a talk to the members. At a point, during the session, someone made a case against Mmanwụ (Masquerade) institution in Igbo land and called for its eradication.
The priest asked why? (They make charms) was the reply he got. He asked them whether some Christians were also involved in charm-making. Some said ‘Yes’. The priest then said to them, the Church should also be closed. The people shouted, saying the priest was possessed by the devil and needed to be exorcised. Hearing this, the priest knelt down and invited them to come and exorcise him. Mmanwụ institution, though now abused by some irresponsible Igbo youths, is one Igbo cultural practice which survived the European cultural onslaught.
It is today being aggressively fought against by those Igbo Christians who, like the Europeans, see most of the Igbo cultural practices and symbols as things that relate to the devil. People who care to know would observe that the relationship between Igbo Christians and their non-Christian brothers and sisters, who they call ‘pagans’, is getting sour day by day. Incidents of some innocent priests and pastors being beaten and assaulted in different parts of Igbo land are manifestations of this unhealthy relationship.
Priests and pastors are seen today as enemies or symbols of opposition to Igbo culture and native religion because of what some Christians are doing. It has been noted that the Nanka ugly incident of 1993 when two Catholics were shot dead and many others wounded would not have taken place if ‘fanatical charismatic members did not whip up sentiments against’ the tradition of the people which forbade a wife to see the corpse of her husband. ‘In their case, the Word was made flesh in order to uproot us all from our culture and environment.’
As some have observed, the amount of hatred and rancour that is being generated against the Church and Christianity today by the behaviour of our new generation ‘missionaries’ could erupt any day into violence of Nanka proportion.’ All this reminds one of the wisdom Chinua Achebe expressed in Things Fall Apart and the truth embedded in it:
The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.
Yes, we have fallen apart; opposing, hating, fighting and maiming our own brothers even for things we may not claim epistemological certainty. Has the white man, for instance, not succeeded in dividing the community or Umunna into Ndi-uka (Church people) and Ndi-obodo (citizens) as Ndi-uka (Igbo Christians) no longer see themselves, or accept that they are also Ndi-obodo? Not every Christian shares this view and many are not happy with the way their fellow Christians treat with scorn the Igbo native religion and simple Igbo traditional practices that are not even religious practices. One Okwu Epuechi, himself a Catholic Christian, in a speech titled The Beginning of Liberation from Mental Slavery, lamented as follows: Some Christians and their leaders are attacking our traditional institutions from different facets; either they are fighting to stop our traditional rites of marriage or they are fighting to stop our methods of rites of passage for the deceased or even fighting to stop us using our traditional week/market days of Eke, Orie, Afọ na Nkwọ. Some are even forced or persuaded to the delusion of changing their surnames into Israeli, Latin or English names as such Igbo names, we are told by these ministers of God, connote evil. What a delusion; this is the height of mental slavery. It is not only obnoxious; it is very, very absurd and unfortunate.
•Fr. Ezeani is of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Federal University, Ebonyi State