Article
Comment
Freedom of Belief
4 min read

We’re ignoring Nigeria's hellish underbelly

Why the West averts its gaze from anti-Christian violence there.

Chris Wadibia is a Junior Research Fellow at Pembroke College, Oxford. His research interests include political Pentecostalism, global Christianity, and faith-based investment in global development. 

A burnt out motor cycle and car stand amid charred debris in a dusty compound.
Burned vehicles after Good Friday raid on April 7, 2023, in Ngban, Benue state, Nigeria.
Justice, Development, and Peace Commission.

Moments ago a Christian was killed in Nigeria—again. For the 100 million Christians living in Nigeria, news of brutal murders of their fellow worshippers has become commonplace. Every day 14 Christians in Nigeria die because of their faith. Nigeria is a land of extreme paradoxes known for many things. It’s one of the world’s leading oil producers. It’s home to the globally popular Afrobeats music scene. Its distinguished citizens include director-general of the World Trade Organisation Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, president of the African Development Bank Akinwumi Adesina, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations Amina Mohammed, and former president of the International Criminal Court Chile Eboe-Osuji, just to name a few. Its global diaspora of 17 million consists of Nigerians working in positions of power in virtually every industry imaginable. From banking, finance, and tech to professional sports, higher education, healthcare, culinary arts, and consulting, there is not a single major industry in the world whose list of leaders does not include a Nigerian name.  

But just as every coin has two sides, so does Nigeria. Nigeria's story is incomplete without explaining its hellish underbelly. Well over 60 per cent of Nigeria's population, or at least 133 million of its citizens, live in a state of multidimensional poverty. The vast oil wealth generated by its oil industry only benefits a minuscule sliver of its elephantine population.  

Nigeria is the global leader in anti-Christian violence. Since 2009, over 52,000 Christians have been killed in Nigeria by Islamist extremists. In the last 15 years, over 18,000 churches and 2,200 schools in Nigeria have been set on fire. Open Doors, a charity whose mission focuses on providing support to persecuted Christians globally, estimates that 90 per cent of murders targeting Christians across the world in 2022 took place in Nigeria. Islamist extremists killed at least 145 Nigerian Catholic priests in 2022 alone.    

Anti-Christian violence is evil just like antisemitic and Islamophobic violence are both evil.  

For people enjoying religious freedom in Europe and the United States, violence against Christians feels like a thing of the past. The concept of anti-Christian violence in the West triggers thoughts of Europe's religious wars in the 16th, 17th, and early 18th centuries, or The Troubles between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland in the 20th century.  

However, the scale of anti-Christian violence in Nigeria puts it in a league of its own. In the West we take for granted the freedom of religion because we have had it for so long. It is human nature to take for granted the aspects of life we have grown most accustomed to. Ongoing war between Israel and Hamas has reignited in Western public debate the pervasive, threatening existence of antisemitism and Islamophobia in Western societies.  

But why has the consistent, monstrously murderous Christophobia in Nigeria that has unfolded in the last two decades not cemented its place within Western public discourse? Do Christians in the West only demand action when White Christians get murdered? Are 52,000 brutal, gory killings of Black Christian bodies in Sub-Saharan Africa not sufficient reason for the powers that be in global Christian society to mobilise their vast political, military, and economic resources to intervene, protect, and bring peace?  

Christians running for their lives in Nigeria are as much part of the bride of Christ as Southern Baptists sipping sweet tea in Alabama on a Sunday afternoon. 

Violence against Christians is not a thing of the past. It is as real a phenomenon today as it has ever been. Few states in the Majority World have developed for themselves a reputation for institutional ineptitude and malfeasance more so than Nigeria. Solutions for ending Nigeria's anti-Christian violence will not come from the Nigerian state. Instead, they must come from the religious sector, civil society, foreign governments, and private actors. Anti-Christian violence in Nigeria is not motivated solely by extremist Islamist zealotry, albeit the influence of this element certainly plays a part. Poverty, competition for scarce resources, and relative deprivation along with educational underdevelopment and political profiteering on the heel of Christophobia are collectively responsible for these violent acts.  

In Christian theology, Jesus Christ has a bride; this bride is the church, or all who believe in Christ and follow his teachings. Christians running for their lives in Nigeria are as much part of the bride of Christ as Southern Baptists sipping sweet tea in Alabama on a Sunday afternoon, Anglicans enjoying a Sunday roast, or Pentecostals in São Paolo playing football on the beach after a midweek worship service. The killing of one Christian in Nigeria is an assault on the 2.4 billion Christians living across the world. Christ has only one bride, and He lovingly cares for each member of His bride equally, overwhelmingly, and powerfully.  

Anti-Christian violence is evil just like anti-semitic and Islamophobic violence are both evil. Western media’s reluctance to report about these murders and offer platforms to activists, clerics, and stakeholders whose voices can help galvanise support for ending this violence cannot be separated from irreducibly influential Western religious gazes that dehumanise and deprioritise the lives, experiences, and sufferings of non-White Christians globally. Until anti-Christian violence in Nigeria comes to an end, the collective dignity of Christians worldwide will remain tainted by a scourge those with power are too apathetic to eradicate. 

Article
Comment
Politics
10 min read

‘Let your yeah be yeah’: when style supplants substance

The frustrating language of politics.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

Rishi Sunak
Campaign slogans.
Newzeepk, X.

You know what it’s like. A catchy piece of music is going round and round in your head. You can’t stop it. You don’t know where it came from. And, if you did originally like it, you find yourself quickly going off it.  

Some call it ‘sticky music’, while others have labelled the phenomenon as ‘stuck song syndrome’. I prefer the more evocative ‘earworm’ as it ably expresses the experience of something both invasive and undesirable. 

On this occasion the tune was accompanied by its refrain, ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. Round and round and round it went. It’s not a song I know well, and I couldn’t even remember who sang it.  

Thankfully a quick google identified it as a top 10 single from 1971 by the Jamaican reggae trio, The Pioneers. Unfortunately, discovering that did not make it go away. 

It was not rocket science to understand what was going on inside my head. It was the first week after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had called the election and the campaigning had begun in earnest.  

Now it’s not that my instant reaction was to do a ‘Brenda from Bristol’. Brenda, you will remember, became an internet sensation in 2017 for her memorable outburst when Teresa May called a snap election. She exclaimed, ‘You must be joking, not another one!’ No, I’m to be found more at the aficionado end of the political spectrum. 

Still, I have been finding myself increasingly exasperated over recent years. I don’t think my irritation is just about getting older and becoming more grumpy. But I do find myself frustrated by what politicians do with language and the words they choose to use. I’m annoyed by the strategies they adopt as they justify themselves and the rhetorical devices they surreptitiously employ to bolster an argument. 

Inside I find a deep longing for people to say what they mean and mean what they say. Is it too much to ask? Of course, there’s the root in my psyche, ‘let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. 

It’s not that this is some kind of naïve desire for politics to become what it never can be - some kind of genteel, educated, middle-class debating society.  

The very nature of democracy has passionate argument at its very heart. We don’t wrangle over what we agree on and hold in common. Democracy obliges our leaders to be in a mindset of perpetual persuasion towards us. 

No, for me, the nub of the problem is when emotive words are chosen to make a point that the substance of an argument can’t. Or, when rhetorical sleight of hand is deployed on an unsuspecting audience, much like the misdirection of a magician in creating the illusion of magic. 

Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

This is nothing new. It has been a part of our public life in the West since the classical era of Aristotle, Plato and Cicero. It was the English rhetorician Ralph Lever who, in the sixteenth century, attempted to translate the key concepts of Aristotelian logic into English in his The Arte of Reason, rightly termed, Witcraft. That is, ‘witcraft’ – the art, skill or craft of the mind, NOT ‘witchcraft’: though some might see that as an apt descriptor of the dark arts that classical rhetoric can enable. 

Aristotle, however, was clear in his understanding that the function of rhetorical skills was not to persuade in and of themselves, but rather to make available the means of persuasion. The substance of an argument was always to be more important than the manner in which it was communicated. 

It is hardly a revelation that the world of contemporary comms has been birthed in a brave new world of technology. As the American media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman pointed out, the advent of TV introduced entertainment as the defining principle of communication and what it takes to hold our attention. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business was Postman’s 1985 era-defining commentary of how things have changed. Gone are the 2-hour long political ‘stump’ speeches and hour-long church sermons. Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

The speed of the internet, the ubiquity of social media and the omniscience of the algorithms have only served to distil and intensify the phenomena that Postman was concerned about. That recent history has witnessed the success that has accompanied the media experience and understanding of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, only serves to underline the prescience of Postman’s observations.  

The ability to cut through the surrounding cacophony, engage an audience and then hold their attention long enough to communicate something of value is challenging to the nth degree. This has merely served to ramp up the intensity, exaggeration and immediacy of political speech. To impact us it must evoke an emotional response. In this anxiety and fear are the most effective drivers. 

Former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was quite clear in his assessment that ‘a week is a long time in politics’. We might now consider a day, or even an hour, to be the operative chronological measure. The news cycle can turn very quickly indeed. 

Yet the underlying dynamics of communication remain. Rhetoric remains supreme. Political machines have become the masters of ‘spin’ and of the art of gaming the opportunities, language and positioning presented by contemporary media. 

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’.

All this is in a context in which it is estimated that those in middle age have consumed an average of 30-40,000 hours of TV and some 250,000 advertisements. Britain is a media savvy society. Yet for all of this sophistication in media consumption, I remain fearful of how aware my fellow citizens are of the techniques that inform contemporary political messaging. 

The former Speaker of the House of Representatives in the United States, Newt Gingrich, provides a helpful case study. Back in 1994 he produced a notorious memo to Republican candidates for Congress entitled ‘Language: A Key Mechanism of Control’.  

Following extensive testing in focus groups and scrutiny by PR specialists he highlighted around 200 words for Republicans to memorise and use. There were positive words to associate with their own programme and negative ones to use against their opponents.  

The positive words he advocated included: 

opportunity… control… truth… moral… courage… reform… prosperity… children… family… we/us/our… liberty… principle(d)… success… empower(ment)… peace… rights… choice/choose… fair…  

By contrast, when addressing their opponents: 

decay… failure … collapse(ing)… crisis… urgent(cy)… destructive… sick… pathetic… lie… they/them… betray… consequences… hypocrisy… threaten… waste… corruption… incompetent… taxes… disgrace… cynicism… machine… 

Careful choice of words can then be layered with other strategies to construct a highly sophisticated political message.  

At a most basic level come the ever popular ‘guilt by association’ and its twin sibling ‘virtue by connexion’. Are migrants portrayed as ‘sponging off the benefits system’ or ‘filling recruitment shortfalls in the NHS, social care and industry’? Is British culture under threat of being overwhelmed or enriched by cultural diversity? 

Integral to this use of language are the various methods of ‘virtue signalling’ to a particular audience and the infamous ‘dog-whistle’ subjects and phrases to call them to heel. Tropes and labelling also play their part. On labelling, the nineteenth century statesman John Morley powerfully denigrated the practice by suggesting that it saved ‘talkative people the trouble of thinking’.   

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’. By implication who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’? We should be aware too when more general arguments are made that leave us, as listeners, to fill in the blanks. This hidden rhetorical manoeuvre gets us ‘onside’ by leading us to intuitively believe that the speaker agrees with us. Along the way they haven’t defined what ‘responsible government’, or ‘critical priorities’ or ‘British values’ actually are. Instead, they have left for us to supply our own definition, ensuring our agreement and support. 

To these can be added the ever more common practice of ‘gaslighting’, where information or events are manipulated to get people to doubt their own judgment, perception and sense of reality. And then there’s my favourite that the Urban Dictionary defines as a ‘Schrodinger’s douchebag’. Especially popular among populist politicians, this is where an outrageous statement is made and the speaker waits for the audience to respond. Only retrospectively do they declare whether they meant what they said or were only ‘just joking’. 

It's perhaps no surprise that Rhetorical Political Analysis is actually a thing. Academics study it and political journalists use it to sniff out any hint of obfuscation. Depressingly, in the media, this frequently descends into an unholy game of ‘bait and trap’. Politicians, for their part, then become much more guarded as they seek to side-step a ‘gotcha’ move, whether merited or not. 

… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications.

So where does that leave the aspiration of ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’? It may be surprising to some that The Pioneers’ song about a troubled love affair is directly quoting Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. But Jesus’ focus is not about romance here. 

What he is talking about is truthfulness, authenticity and integrity. Say what you mean and mean what you say. For Jesus, truth and truthfulness was at the very centre of his own identity. Indeed, in Christian theology Jesus is the ‘word made flesh’, the ‘exact representation’ of who God is and what he is like. Jesus then advocates what he embodies: an alignment and integration of who we are, with what we say and what we do. 

This has to be the foundation for authenticity and integrity. These are the very principles that are so highly prized in the political arena, and yet so quickly abandoned in the maelstrom of the conflicting demands of public life.  

Jesus advocated living a truthful life, not least because of its liberating outcomes, ‘… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications. Free from the fear of being found out or the implications of the ever-deepening holes to be dug. Free to be ourselves and have all the bits of our lives fit together as one. 

This has to be the principle to live by, the standard to benchmark, the way of life to aspire to. It’s no coincidence that integrity and honesty are two of the seven Nolan principles that inform the UK government’s Committee on Standards in Public Life

But the fact is we know the world to be a complicated place. We are not always the people we long to be. In the church’s liturgy the prayer of confession calls out our challenges. We miss the mark ‘through negligence, through weakness, [and] through our own deliberate fault.’ 

The reality is that, while we aspire to be the best that we can be, we also need to be alive to alternative realities. Our political processes can throw up flawed actors, bad actors and nefarious actors. They present very differently, yet we must always read through what is being communicated to access what is being said. 

Life is complicated. There are many different ways to legitimately tackle the issues that we face as a country. Always there are trade-offs. Frequently the future turns out to be different to what has been predicted. Ultimately there are too many variables. 

The 2024 General Election has proven to be refreshingly different. Neither Rishi Sunak nor Keir Starmer are as natural or charismatic in front of a camera as some of their predecessors.  

It rained on the Prime Minister when he announced the election without an umbrella and the day after took him to the Belfast shipyard where the Titanic was built. Such gaffes are reassuringly human. Labour’s tragically cack-handed approach to Diane Abbott and whether she could stand for election as MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington where she faithfully served for 37 years is in a similar vein. 

Yet, through it all it is worth noting Laura Kuenssberg’s comments for the BBC. 

Both leaders inspire unusual loyalty among their teams. They are often praised by those who work with them as being warmer than they appear on camera: staffers describe them as decent family men, who take their jobs incredibly seriously and work incredibly hard. 

I find this remarkably encouraging. In the meantime, that song keeps going round in my head. 

‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’.  

Please make it stop.