BY MATTHEW HASSAN KUKAH
It is vitally important for the Church today to go forth and preach the Gospel to all: to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance or fear……Pope Francis.
In this era of Epistolatocracy (government by letter writing), it is tempting to feel despondent. But no, please, do not let anyone take our joy away from us, no matter their power or lack of. Pope Francis’ new Apostolic Exaltation, The Joy of the Gospel, is a timely and prophetic reminder of our mission as believers in our Lord Jesus Christ. Around the world, there are gathering clouds of sorrow which threaten the message of the Prince of Peace. When will the world collectively smile again? When shall we claim and celebrate our God-given Joy?
In South Africa, Mandela has walked into the sunset forever, leaving behind a country whose rainbow seems threatened by clouds of uncertainty. In South Sudan, the new state founded on the fear of Islam, people are realizing that justice and the politics of building an egalitarian society are beyond the exploitation of mere religious differences. From Congo to Somalia and Syria, the smoldering embers of war continue to consume human lives. The murderous typhoon in the Philippines shows that nature is still violently at war with humanity. The clouds of uncertainty hang around fledgling democracies around the world. While the savagery of war continues to engender fear, inducing poverty and destitution, around Africa, sorrow remains a ubiquitous currency.
For a country like Nigeria where the lives of citizens hang precariously on a balance between physical insecurity and socio-economic misery, joy sounds a distant echo. Within Nigeria, the tears continue to pour from the endless and needless violence of Boko Haram and other criminal elements. A political class, steeped in corruption and mismanagement of resources is unable and unwilling to improve the quality of lives of citizens under their control. In the process, they continue to stoke the embers of anxiety and fear among our people. Today, Nigerians are frustrated by the gangsters that masquerade as politics and the perennial theft and waste of state resource, and the glue of shared values is increasingly melting as citizens lose a sense of their collective citizenship and humanity.
A culture of moral relativism hangs in the air and many questions of public morality remain unresolved or subjected to individual caprice. If you ask Nigerians, Where is the next meal going to come from? When will the unemployed youth find a job? What does it take to get admission into a good University? When will the next strike by the University Lecturer’s Union be? Which Union will go on the next strike? Who will the next President, Governor or Senator be? Which politician will decamp to which Party tomorrow? There are no answers. The only answer may simply be, it depends. Thus, were we to ask what it takes to find Joy in our society, the answer might almost naturally be, it depends. Exactly what or who all this depends on, no one knows. It is this vacuum that lures and feeds the culture of criminality and violence produced by frustration, sorrow and hopelessness.
In his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, the Holy Father captures this dilemma by stating that: Today, in many places, we hear a call for greater security. But until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples is reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence.
The coldness in our society is the product of the misuse of God’s gifts and graciousness to us. Beneath the surface of the earth lies a trove of resources which God has placed in our care. This care was the command at the beginning of creation (Gen 1). But greed has led us into becoming poor custodians of God’s gifts. Access to these resources, rather than bettering our lives, has unleashed a destructive volcano of hate and greed. Inequalities and despair continue to grow among us. More and more toys are being produced to meet the appetite of the tiny elite pyramid with questionable means of wealth. They have developed what the Pope has referred to as a throw away culture. How did we come to this sorry state in which joy seems to be slipping away from society?
In my first year in the Junior Seminary, we had a class prefect called James whose motto was simply: Obey and be happy. James, the oldest student in the school, was of a very intimidating and imposing size, being over a foot taller than the next student. Everyone in the class got his message and we lived in fear of breaking the law. Looking at society today, it seems that James was right.
Today, our society has sunk into decay because we have refused to obey both divine and human laws. The lack of respect for law has fed into every sphere of our society. In public life, those at the top believe that they are above the laws of the land. A culture of lawlessness has created a society with a distorted sense of public service, being today a service without any sense of virtue. This lawlessness accounts for our inability to become a society that knows joy.
We must never confuse our short-term exuberance and joviality as evidence of a society that knows joy. This joviality, often displayed by the obscene assault on our psyche by so-called celebrations, is usually evidence of no more than a material superficiality.
Pope Francis reminds us that the Risen Christ who reveals God’s boundless and faithful love and forgiveness, is the greatest assurance and basis of our hope and, as such, we must never give up the quest for joy. The Joy that comes from God is within our reach. Despite tragedies and misfortunes, despite our sinfulness, God does not ever close the doors of repentance. Thus, the doors of this joy remain open to us. Christmas offers us a great opportunity to reflect on that reality with gratitude and assurance.
To secure lasting joy beyond the throw away culture, we have to return to the divine Commandments and learn to live by the values of love, respect, honor, integrity, and so on, values which are found also in many of our traditional and cultural norms. Christmas is here and in spite of our situation, we must all do our part to make joy, the reason for the incarnation, a reality in our lives. Joy is not some suspended ideal that hangs in the sky beyond our reach. Joy is deep happiness, a sense of peace, of calm, of serenity, of delight, of honest desire fulfilled. Joy was given to us by the Lord who came among us as a human being, witnessed to the values of God’s Kingdom of justice and peace which he preached, died on the cross for love of us and rose to new life, giving us the Holy Spirit and the Eucharist as assurances of His continuous and constant presence among us (Luke 22:19).
It is the duty of the Nigerian state to provide the right conditions to enable Nigerians claim this Joy. I therefore want to call on those who govern us to become more honest in their administration of the resources they hold on our behalf. There is an urgent need for our government to show greater commitment to ending inequality, injustice and misery in the land. This is the message of Christmas which Pope Francis has resonated.
To engender Joy, the state must deliberately create social spaces where citizens can metaphorically and physically breathe clean and fresh air of joy, where we can laugh again and reclaim our humanity. To all of us, let us remember again the message of the Angels to the Shepherds, a message marked by Peace to men and women of good will. Let all of us commit ourselves to being true messengers of this Peace.
Kukah, Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, delivered this message to Nigerians on December 24, 2020