For many years we have been experiencing conflict between Fulani cattle herders and farmers of other ethnicities in Nigeria. A typical kneejerk response is to paint the conflict along religious lines and demonise the other party. Humanity has behaved this way for millennia and resorted to the usual solutions of violence to fix the problems. When politics gets embroiled in the situation it can become far worse. People can exasperate division further to serve their personal ambitions.
Holding to an ancient nomadic tradition in a modern economy isn’t easy. It can be done, but it takes a lot of neighbourliness, hospitality and understanding between the different populations involved. This kind of hospitality is easily discouraged by people who can profit from the turmoil. Those wanting to rebuild the traditions of hospitality need to have a loud voice to be heard.
While there might be different facets in building solutions, what I want to address here is the Christian witness towards cooperation. This witness is often lacking among us. We have often been distracted by false understandings in our own faith.
When you look into the social or environmental conditions behind this conflict you quickly find many factors. Speaking to farmers, you hear of the reduction in the fertility of the soil. Crop harvests have significantly reduced in recent years. When our lives are so dependent on the annual harvest, insecurity about our farmland becomes a very volatile issue.
One of the factors is the widespread use of chemicals in farming. This is impoverishing the soil in many ways. Sustainable, renewable methods of farming, like people used in years past, need to be rehabilitated and improved upon with modern understanding.
We have similar problems when it comes to animal grazing. Lake Chad has been drying out, the fishing industry declining, and pastures reducing. It’s a competitive market for everyone trying to make a living from shrinking resources. When this is mixed with local and global corruption, people in need of a future can easily become the prey of factional and violent groups, even becoming involved in terrorism.
Rehabilitation of the environment would seem to be one needed ingredient towards a better future and more peaceful relations. But why don’t we hear this voice from within the Christian population? One reason is that we tend to concentrate on spiritual matters, like personal sin. However, since we know so much about sin, we should understand very well how these social and environmental factors contribute towards our hostility.
As Christians, we tend to think that environmental factors are Green, meaning aligned with the political left. Unfortunately, we have become immersed with this left vs. right identity, and not sought to address matters from a truly Christian perspective.
We have also been taken up by “end-times” teaching which marginalises the importance of a future upon earth for our children and their children. Building a community of reconciliation and environmental wellbeing maybe far more important for our descendants than we are willing to recognize in our typical Sunday worship.
Another unfortunate consequence of our “end-times” theories is that they must always locate an “enemy” as the cause of our problems, and dealing with this enemy then becomes the remedy, rather than healing our relationships and restoring our environment. You could say that what made the early church different is that she didn’t follow the zealotry of the Jews, identifying this or that group as an “end-times Gog and Magog,” but instead sought to heal. She followed Christ’s vision of a renewed creation.
These “end-times” themes are far more enticing messages to gather the flock to our ministries, than trying to tackle the real underlying problems in our social world. It’s easy to claim that the latter is the “social gospel,” and yet the early church was entirely a social movement, energised by the Holy Spirit, who drew people together into forgiveness, reconciliation and healing.
Who wants to come to church on Sunday and hear messages about planting trees to restore our forests? This hardly sounds like a “revival.” However, if we want to deal with violence, then environmental restoration would seem to be necessary in addressing a growing source of conflict in today’s world. Wars have always been about land and resources and our anxiety about these.
I think part of our problem is a misreading of scripture. Isaiah is very clear about the restoration of the environment as a highly distinguishing mark of the coming of God’s kingdom to this world. This is a very spiritual matter and Isaiah claims the church is an integral player in this vision of a new world. In Isaiah, the environment blossoms with trees and natural abundance. There is a lot here to preach about on a Sunday.
In Isaiah, this environmental vision coincides with a restoration of relationships and with a reduction of war. “They shall beat their swords into farming instruments.” Here is a very clear vision of fertility and abundance for all, rather than exploitation of the environment, followed by lack and conflict.
In the theological centre of Isaiah, there is a very clear vision of how the church is to go about restoring relationships in the world: the vision of the Suffering Servant. This is Christ, who the church is to follow. In suffering and forgiving, God defeats enmity and renews his enemy’s hearts.
Here is the vision for the church in our hostile world. But it involves taking up our own cross, rather than putting our enemies on theirs.