WITNESSING TO THE FAITH IN PERILOUS TIMES: THE EXAMPLE OF LEAH SHARIBU
Being a keynote address delivered on the occasion of an interdenominational concert organized in solidarity with Leah Sharibu at St. Mathew’s Catholic Church, Television, Kaduna on 29th April 2018
Fr Williams Kaura Abba
1. GRATITUDE – I am delighted to be asked by the convener of this event to deliver the sermon at this unique event. It is unique in the sense that in this solemn assembly are people from different denominations and I hope different faith backgrounds too. I was enveloped with joy the very moment the notification for this event was made public via social media. I immediately placed a call to Fr. Michael Omachi to congratulate him for birthing the idea and to encourage him to make sure this concert not only sees the light of day but is used to galvanise massive moral support for our courageous daughter and to assure her parents in far away Dapchi, that from Kaduna we are in union of prayers with them and offer our solidarity to all those who are deeply troubled and saddened by the abduction of Leah. I had hardly said ‘hello’ when Fr Omachi said ‘Yes, it has got to be you’. I was confused and asked what that was all about. He said, his spirit has asked him to invite me to deliver the sermon at the 1000 choristers concert organized in solidarity with Leah Sharibu. I was mesmerized but I felt deeply honored to be considered worthy to give the reflection. When a former student, turned friend gives one such responsibility, you know that it is not to be debated. So all I could do was to give him my word given the significance of the event and the practical lessons we, as Christians can draw from the courage of this teenager who has now become an ambassador of the Church, the body of Christ.
2. WHY WE GATHER – We do not have blood relationship with the hitherto unknown little girl of Dapchi. Our common humanity has made it possible for all of us to be ontologically related to her. Beside the ontological relationship, as Christians, we know that “Baptismal water that unites us is thicker than blood relationship”. By this assertion, every Christian is intricately and intimatelyrelated to the other. This is the bond between us and Leah and it is why a Fr Omachi, a Priest of Kaduna can bring together 1000 choristers from different denominations and a host of other men and women of goodwill to sing praises unto the Lord so that through our voices, God will send his Guardian Angels to protect and minister to Leah who is still in the hands of her abductors. Itwas St Augustine of Hippo who once remarked that he who sings, prays twice.
It is important I reiterate ab initio – that we are not here in Kaduna for a carnival. We are here to lift up our voices in praise and through the melody of our voices, we raise our supplications to the Lord to ask for divine cover upon Leah and that God will touch the hearts of her abductors to have a rethink, release our daughter and bring them to conversion.
3. MAN, THOUGH GIFTED, IS PRONE TO EVIL: Man is the high point of God’s creation. At creation, he was endowed with special faculties that give him dominion over all creatures. With a heart to love; mind to think and senses to feel. While the lesser animals respond to stimulus and are controlled by instincts, man has brain which makes him reason and rationalize. But alas, of all animals created by God, man is the only one that kills its kind for sport. He takes delight in inflicting pain on its kind for fun. He is born free but creates chains to shackle himself.
4. DO NOT SHY AWAY NOR RENEGE: The battle to save our country andworld is a race that we must enter into doggedly. And we are here to hold the fort, for it is morally reprehensible to remain silent in the face of evil. Dante Alighieri beautifully puts it: “The darkest part of hell is reserved for those who maintain neutrality in times of moral crisis”.
5. LEAH SHARIBU: The selective immurement of Leah Sharibu is so extreme that it now makes renowned extremists wear a moderate outlook. For very many of us, Leah Sharibu represents many things. But for me, as Sam Omatseye of the Nation Newspapers nicely captured it in his weekly column of Monday 9/4/2018, Leah is the rebirth of the Apostolic era. She manifests the purity of faith. She also telegraphs a message to our politics and politicians where we twist betrayal as nuance and celebrate harlotry. Leah is more Apostolic than most of the Ministers of God today. Omatseye rhetorically asks: “How many of the showy clerics will risk their lives of luxury today under gun-handed duress and insist on Christ? Will they not remember their soaring ecstasies in private jets, luxurious apartments, the dreamy languor of their palaces, the doting worshipers, their wives and children’s wardrobe obsessions in the tony districts of our cities? They could easily abandon the austere examples of Paul, Peter, Mathew et al, and embrace Peter the betrayer rather than Peter the Rock. Leah is the true believer. She may not hold that sort of belief when she is 30, or even 70, but she has given Christians and the country an example in principle. A principle executed in innocence. She decided to deny herself, take her cross and follow her convictions. She is not the sort of suicide bombers hoodwinked into suicidal bloodbath. She did not ask for the temptation. She did not ask to be kidnapped. She was an unknown little girl masking her convictions in her anonymous life, when she walked to school, listened to teachers, obeyed her parents, visited the market, worshipped in Church and played with friends.
6. THE EXEMPLARY FORTITUDE OF A TEENAGER – PRACTICAL LESSONS: The Christian faith is a gift from God. As it is with most things, it comes with certain responsibilities. Like the Apostles in the early Church, Leah has proven again that faith is not just an empty hollow thing. It is something real and precious. In Acts of the Apostles Chapter 5, Peter stood before the Sanhendrin and declared to them that obedience to God is more rewarding than yielding to men. In the Old Testament, Daniel proved this point when he opted to be cast into the lion’s den rather than acquiesce to the demands of the tyrannical Nebuchadnezzar. This is exactly what Leah did. Rather than renounce her faith by professing Islam and be freed, she chose to renounce her freedom to uphold fact in her God. What extraordinary courage. When the other Muslim girls were released they got back home to tell why Leah didn’t return with them. The Christian world felt betrayed and we wondered why such unconscionable thing should be allowed to happen. If a deal was struck with the terrorists to release all the girls, why did the negotiator on behalf of government not insist on the terms of the deal? Release all of them or nothing! This would have been the most patriotic thing to do and we would have been taught a vital lesson that in this country, government cares for all, Muslims and Christians alike. We would later learn that when the Jihadists returned the 104, they offered profuse apologies to their parents that they didn’t know the girls were Muslims! What other evidence do we need to prove our point and what further proof do we need that in Nigeria, religious discrimination is deeply rooted? Down through the ages, in the history of Christendom, we have had instances of heroic Christian witnessing. Many have willingly embraced Martyrdom on account of their faith in God. In his writings on the cardinal virtues, Thomas Aquinas sees fortitude as the virtue which prevents us from doing unreasonable or sinful things through fear of bodily injury and death. Fortitude is the Hero’s virtue; the Martyrs virtue. It is the virtue that helps man to practice religion in the face of scorn, derision and persecution. It springs from the will. It is not about physical strength, hence we wouldn’t ascribe it to Leah Sharibu who is a teenage girl. The supreme act of fortitude is Martyrdom whereby a person suffers death in order to cling to truth and justice. By her refusal to denounce her faith and her God, even in the face of imminent and real threat of death, Leah Sharibu can be classically classified as a LIVING MARTYR. A French proverb captures this aptly: “You cannot answer for your courage if you have never been in danger.” Thomas Aquinas teaches also that the main vice opposed to fortitude is fear. Confucius the Chinese Philosopher aptly captured this well when he said “To see what is right and not do it is want of courage”.
7. A WORD TO THE GOVERNMENT: The Dapchi school girls’ abduction will continue to leave a sour taste in the mouth of this government, as indeed the abduction of the over 270 school girls from Chibok in 2014. A good number of the Chibok girls who happened to be mostly Christians are still being detained against their wish. Some of them by now may have been radicalized and may have either renounced their faith to survive or remained faithful to their faith and faced the sword of the evil gang. Taking a cue from the writing of Omatseye again, I say to the government, we are still waiting for Leah. Those who brokered the freedom of the other Dapchi girls and left out the narrative of Leah Sharibu should know that we want her back in one piece. She is the story of her generation. We want her alive and not a Martyr. We want her back in the embrace of her family, who gave her a great name and she has lived up to its billing. Leah of the Bible was not beautiful but her soul was.That is what we seek when she comes back. We want her to live like the Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan who survived the furnace of her captors. We want to see her grow, show examples for her generation, show her human flaws and strength and become a living evolution of moral growth in a flawed society. Martyrs enrich societies but save us the true nature of their humanity. Mandela grew up to an old age, a symbol of strength, principle, character and self-control. So was Mother Theresa, whose serenity of vision and activities etched in us the possibility of human tenderness. That is why we want her here, to breath on us the spirit in her soul.
Sadly, close to 60 years after independence, Nigeria still finds herself struggling with petty issues of religious discrimination and forceful conversion. Some of these are perpetrated subtly while very many Christians are brutally confronted with the sad reality that they are being discriminated upon on account of their faith. We still have stories of Christians being denied employment because they are Christians. If they are lucky to be employed, they do not enjoy promotion commensurate to their experience and level as their contemporaries who profess Islam do. We have stories of our children being denied admissions to study courses of their choice in their preferred institutions; reason? They are Christians. These are sad realities we still see stirring us in the face in the 21st century. While Muslims enjoy and profess their faith freely and build places of worship in the West, South and East without let or hindrance, Christians in some Northern states are not accorded this basic fundamental human right to worship and profess their faith.
Should we not turn our hearts to Benue state where daily, Christians are being massacred? Of course the usual lame explanation is that criminal gangs are responsible for the killings. But the assault of Tuesday morning the 24th April 2018 that resulted in the gruesome murder of 2 Priests, a catechist and 17 parishioners at the St Ignatius Catholic Church Mbalom is a further confirmation of persecution targeted at Christians. Why on earth would a human being take delight in such open brigandage and all they seek to do is to kill and destroy? Why would the Fulani herdsmen who claim they are fighting for grazing rights take the battle to the Church? Is the Church a grazing field? Which government in the world will look the other way while its citizens are daily butchered? The primary responsibility of government is securing lives and propertyof its citizens. And so far this government has fared below average. At no time did we feel so unsafe in our nation as we now feel. If it is not Boko Haram killing people in the North East, it is Fulani Herdsmen Terrorists wielding AK 47 and sniffing with impunity the lives of farmers in the middle belt and elsewhere. If it is not bandits holding their victims hostage for a ransom, then it is government using state might to kill and clamp down on adherents of a religious sect. These attacks must be brought to an end and government must spare no effort to ensuring that this happens real quick.
Dotted in our checkered history also is the ugly trend of girl-child theft. We have lost count of how many of our innocent little Christian girls have been forcefully abducted across the federation and forced to profess Islam and married off to Muslims. The last crisis in Kasuwan Magani in February this year is still fresh in our minds. And usually those who carry out these dastardly acts say to ‘hell withher parents’. How can we enjoy peaceful coexistence with these glaring discrimination and preference of one religion over the other? This impunity has to stop. Freedom of religion is enshrined and guaranteed in our ground norm, which is the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
We are happy with the ultimatum the Sultan of Sokoto gave to Miyetti Allah that in 2 months, they must identify the bad eggs from amongst their ranks and turn them in for prosecution. This must be taken seriously as the peace of the country is contingent on the sincere efforts made by those responsible in order to restore peace and engender confidence in the citizenry. Government must rise to its responsibility and deliberately work towards bridging the gap between adherents of Christianity and Islam. Government must use the instrument of office to seek to protect all, regardless of what religion people profess.
8. A WORD TO CHRISTIAN LEADERS: Our silence is deafening! and because we have always operated from the position of weakness, it is easy to trample on our rights and take us for granted. Time and again, we have been oppressed and made to feel like we are second class citizens in our own country. Imaging for a moment that Leah was to be a Muslim who was being held by Christian terrorists/Jihadists (thank God no such thing exists in Christendom). Doyou know how they would have threatened fire and brimstone? There would have been threats to make this country ungovernable if she was not freed or released.The Muslim Ummah would have been at the forefront taking the battle to government and doing everything possible to free one of their own. For us Christians, we do not have this sense of urgency and cohesion to the extent that we can fight our causes and protect the vulnerable amongst us. At best, all we hear are some weak, politically correct statements from leadership of the Christian Association of Nigeria either at Local government, State or Federal levels. And usually this goes on for some days after which it fizzles out and the victims are left to embrace their fate. To think that we have Christians who at various times occupied positions where they could either reverse or fight this open betrayal of Christians and their faith but they chose to be indifferent just to protect their jobs is heart breaking. Today, there is no area of our national life where this lopsidedness is not felt. Is it education? Is it security? Is it appointments? Just name it. We can only push the gospel of Christ and promote the Gospel values when we stand together, fight our battles together and remain of one mind and heart. This is the lesson, Leah from her captivity wants every believer to internalise.
Leah speaks also to our young girls who have succumbed or are being tempted to succumb to the temptation of jumping ship. They will use money and mouth-watering promises to get you to denounce your faith. That should never be the case with you. They are not to deflate our numbers through these so called marriages in order to inflate their own numbers. Leah’s example should serve as a moral compass for the young girls and women. Rather than tilt towards material things of the world that do not satisfy the inner longing of the soul, strive to uphold the light of Christ that Leah didn’t want extinguished in her soul.
9. IN CONCLUSION: Our gathering here is a timely testament that Leah Sharibu is a victor and not a victim. Where our heroine-captive sends a captivating message of hope and healing to a broken, bloodied, and battered world. Where a budding adolescent has prescribed a portent remedy for a jagged, jaded, jaundiced and jolted world. She has wielded a weapon that is wielding our wobbling world. And in solidarity with our courageous young daughter and sister, God’s General, our songs are oblations that rise as vapor that bring down the blessed rains that flushes out the reign of terror and bloodbath. The bright rising rays that raise hope of better days and a better Nigeria.
10. O ye men and women of faith. God’s singers on earth,
Sound the trumpet
Blow the horn
Chime the bells
Clash the cymbals
Jink the Tambourines
Beat the drums
Percuss the xylophone
Let the banging boom from the gong resound as our symphonic orchestra echoes and reverberate in concordant accord with the heavenly Choirs of Angels.
Alleluia, Leah Sharibu is free because she has chosen Christ.
Thank you for your time!