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Religion for Peace II: Reflections of Cardinal Onaiyekan

Cardinal Onaiyekan is insistent in the book that although we Nigerians pride ourselves as being very religious and we claim that our religion is for…

Cardinal Onaiyekan is insistent in the book that although we Nigerians pride ourselves as being very religious and we claim that our religion is for peace, our nation is full of violent conflicts, sometimes said to be due to, or related to, religion.

It is a tragic contradiction we must resolve How can we make sure that we retain our religious convictions and at the same time ensure that religion plays its true role as an asset for peace, not a liability? Is it true that religion brings peace, or is it a myth? We often say that religion, in itself, is all about peace and goodness, while the evil actions giving it a bad name come from other factors that have nothing to do with religion. Two such suggested factors are ignorance and greed.

If humanity is to survive, we need to look more deeply into the relationship between God, religion and humanity. We can learn a lot from the record of history he argues. Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from the past is how not to repeat the errors that have brought so much calamity to the human race. We must now have the courage to look towards a future where religion facilitates good relations not only between God and humanity, but also among human beings living in fraternity and reconciled diversities, in peace and harmony.

For this to happen, we need to revive and stress some eternal truths that we often prefer to ignore or neglect. Here are a few of them:

We must distinguish between God and religion, no matter how lofty we think our religion is. Only God is eternal, absolute and unchangeable.

While there is only One God, there are many religions, none of which can or has totally captured the nature of God. We can grasp only what he has revealed to us. But he will always remain a mystery beyond our full understanding.

Religion is important as a structure available for man to regulate his relationship with God, individually and in community.

God the Almighty does not need to be defended by us. It is we who need his protection and provident care. Those who go to war and kill in religious wars do so in the human interest.

 Cardinal Onaiyekan is one of the rare members of the clergy that respects African Tradition Religions. He argues that: “We should not forget that in Nigeria the African Traditional Religion is a foundation of all our religious identities. It is the foundation for every one of us before we became one thing or the other.

Every tribe and ethnic group in Nigeria had its own traditional religion before they got converted to the two major new religions. The conversion may be long ago or maybe recent but the fact is that there is a foundation of African traditional religion, which we must recognise.” There are some basic religious values in our African traditional religion, which we share, which are the same as what we meet in both Islam and in Christianity. For example, the idea that there is one God, the creator of heaven and earth; a God who is good, a God who is father, a God who will judge whatever you do; that this world is not our home, that we are only passing through. We believe in prayer; we believe in sacrifice and we believe in certain basic moral norms, including truth, goodness, kindness, and forgiveness. In one way or the other, these are all found in our African Traditional Religions, which we have taken up into our various new faiths.

The first article of faith of the Christian creed is “I believe in One God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.”  We hear the same from our Muslim neighbours, for whom the oneness of God is the most important truth of their faith. If this is so, we wonder why our people at times behave and speak as if there is more than one God. How else do we explain it when a Christian says with conviction that the God of the Muslims is different from the God of the Christian? We hear the same thing from some Muslims. If we cannot sincerely affirm our faith in One God, on what basis can we ever start talking to and relating with each other?

In the final chapter of the book, the Cardinal says that in the land of the bible, horrible belligerent activities are going on, claiming the lives of thousands of innocent men, women and children. The mass and social media are full of vivid images in real time of the tragedy on course, with no sign of stopping any time soon.

The famous “International community” looks on in self-imposed impotence as the disproportionately militarily superior Israeli Defense Force, the IDF, keeps pounding the thickly populated Gaza open prison with tons of bombs everywhere, not sparing mosques or churches, hospitals or refugee camps.

The Cardinal is clear that the terrorist surprise attack of Hamas on Israeli settlements and people on October 7, killing over 1000 innocent persons and abducting over 200 for ransom, is utterly condemnable. It was obvious that it could not have gone without a response from Israel. But, in the context of the realities of the Holy Land over the past 70 years, the attack was not without provocation, considering the long years of occupation and oppression of Palestinian Arabs. The hostilities did not start on October 7. He adds that although the Bible says “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” what is happening has gone beyond that and all limits have been crossed. There has to be limits to vengeance. He adds that in the midst of the tragedy, some religious leaders are turning what is a sad human tragedy into a religious game.

We see this in our country. Some Muslim leaders claim that what is happening is an attack against Muslims, forgetting that there are Palestinian Christians in Gaza who are being bombed and whose ancestral homes and churches have been turned to rubble. Then on the other hand are some misguided Christian fanatics who see biblical justification from the Old Testament prophets, for example Amos 6:1-8, for crimes against humanity that cannot but be also crimes against God. Incidentally, they do not know, or they forget, that the same Amos has worse things to say about Israel itself in Amos 2:6-16.

They further presume that in the Israeli-Arab standoff, the Christian has to be on the side of the state of Israel against the Arabs, not knowing that the few but significant, often neglected and ancient indigenous Christians in this crisis situation are to be found mainly among the Palestinian Arabs of Gaza and the West Bank, not among the Jews of Israel.

Cardinal condemns the position of the United States government which continues to block every attempt to impose a ceasefire through a Security Council resolution. He asks: “If Christian values no longer mean much, what about our common humanity? Is it that the world has not moved beyond the logic of <might is right> even in the 21st century?

Cardinal Onaiyekan is bold enough to say the book of Genesis claims to tell the story of the very beginning of creation and of the entire human race (Genesis 1-3). We know today from science that the origin of our universe runs into millions of years. So also, is the origin of our humanity.

The history of Israel therefore came rather late in the day with Abraham featuring at about the year 2000BC. That is only about 4000 years ago.1I say, think about this. The book ends with a very insightful reflection on the Gaza war, history of Palestine in their Jewish, Arab, Christian and Muslim versions, theology and human rights that is compulsory reading for all humans seeking understanding. I wish John Cardinal Onaiyekan happy 80th birthday. May God give him many healthier and intellectually active years for the benefit of humanity.


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