Cultural Mythologies And Violence: Beyond Nigeria’s Founding Concepts Of ‘Unity And Faith’

Cultural Mythologies And Violence: Beyond Nigeria’s Founding Concepts Of ‘Unity And Faith’ [READ]

Nigeria Cheta Nwanze Democracy
Clockwise: Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Ahmadu Bello, Samuel Akintola, Yakubu Gowon, Kaduna Nzeogwu, Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, Abubakar Tafewa-Balewa, Festus Okotie Eboh

The theme of our reflection this time around is Cultural Mythologies and Violence: Beyond the nation’s coat-of-arms concepts of unity and faith.

We are still in the euphoria of the New Year 2017, and also the celebration of the feast of Epiphany, the manifestation of the Infant Jesus born at Bethlehem on the Christmas day – the visit of the Magi, three wise men from the East (cf. Matthew 2:1-12, Luke 2:1-7).

So, we renew our New Year good wishes to everyone as we did in our previous article and reflection for the Christmas, published in this forum as well. It is our prayer that the New Year be that of hope and abundant blessings for all God’s children and lovers of peace. As God has let us see His love for us through the birth of His Son and our Lord Jesus Christ this Christmas, may we show to other people His loving care. May He, the Son of God who came among us, make us worthy to be his friends and friends of all God’s creatures, Amen!

The theme of our reflection this time around is ‘cultural mythologies and violence: Beyond the nation’s coat-of-arms concepts of unity and faith.’ By that, we wish to reflect and analyze critically, the interface of some cultural tendencies that foster societal violence with the nation’s leadership style and methodology of governance since independence over fifty years ago. The great writer and world-renowned author, Professor Chinua Achebe in a small book he published in 1983 called our attention to the glaring fact that:

“The trouble with Nigeria is simply a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically, wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land, or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are hallmarks of true leadership” (The Trouble with Nigeria (1983), p.1).

What is really interesting, to phrase Achebe again, is that, we as a nation, have not been asking the question: How did we as a nation come to be drawn in the first place to concepts like unity and faith in our coat-of-arms with their potentialities for looseness? Why did we not think, for example, of such concepts as Justice and Honesty, which cannot be so easily directed to undesirable ends? Justice never prompts the question: Justice for what? Neither does Honesty and Truth or Freedom. ‘Is it possible that as a nation we instinctively chose to extol easy virtues which are amenable to the manipulation of hypocrites, rather than difficult ones which would have imposed the strain of seriousness upon us.’ Is this one of the founding legacies and hidden mythologies of our fragile nation?

In this our first reflection at the beginning of the New Year 2017, we prioritize the challenge of leadership, founded on fairness, justice, equity and freedom – that is all-embracing and responsibility driven. The overriding question is: why has the dreamed leadership been eluding us? Could it be that digging into our cultural mythologies and founding national concepts and symbols could help in providing us some answers to the question? However, without attempting to offer exhaustive answer to this question, permit me to explore the dimension of cultural elements – primitive religious bigotry and exaggerated ethnocentrism as some of the reasons the desired leadership is still hard to come by in our land. In fact, recently, experts and commentators on the present-day tensions, conflicts, wars, social-inequality, etc., are beginning to explore the role of cultural elements and its manipulation by human beings in all these! Thus, today, more than ever before, emphasis is laid on ‘change of heart’ on the part of human person, who, in final analysis, is the architect of these evil acts and manipulation of cultural elements that have continued to derail committed leadership and people-oriented development. Our modern society has been witnessing leadership crisis as it is infested, with a kind of deceptive and corrupt leadership that prioritizes evil against a perceived enemy or the hated group, thus creating conflicts in the social order for no just reason. In theological terms, a situation of this kind, calls for the conversion of the human heart for reconciliation with God, with oneself, with the neighbor, and with the created world. St. Paul explains it better in his ‘Hymn of Creation’ in honor of the Prince of Peace born at Christmas, Jesus Christ:

“God has taken us out of the power of darkness and created a place for us in the kingdom of the Son that he loves, and in him we gain our freedom, the forgiveness of our sins. He is the image of the unseen God and the first-born of all creation” (Colossians 1:13-15).

This implies also that the human person is at the center of the causes of tensions, conflicts and violence both in one’s own life and the society. However, the human being also thirsts for reconciliation. The thirst of reconciliation includes surfacing and engaging in dialogue all the sources of conflicts and violence in the society. Apart from the direct act of the individual, there are some notable sources of violence and conflicts in the present social context. Again, in what follows we shall indicate some of the sources imbedded in a society that often encourage or promote violence, even on the part of those entrusted with the mantle of leadership of their society. Our interest will be on those cultural factors and their exaggerated forms by the ethno-group concerned that have tendencies of fostering violence and conflicts. On their own, some of the cultural elements referred to here are good in themselves, but as often happens, human beings have the tendency of turning good things into something undesirable. Thus, it is still the human person that is responsible for acts of violence, since only him, and him only has the capacity and liberty to manipulate those elements in culture or religion that foster and legitimize violence. In other words, cultures could also be sources of violence because they facilitate and legitimize individuals, groups, and institutions to demean and subjugate people. The nature of culture and its potential for negative and unilateral power resides in a people’s capacity and freedom to manipulate symbols, myths, and rituals. To appreciate this hypothesis, our reflection will be developed in three segments as follows: a) what is violence and its sources, b) cultural tendencies that foster and legitimize violence, c) Cultural mythologies and the concepts of ‘unity and faith’.

  1. What is Violence and Its Sources?

Let us begin with the question: What is violence? Here again, the term violence does not have a standard or set definition. Ideas of what constitutes violence can vary not only between different societies, but also between different groups within the same society at different times and in different situations. However, for some authors, violence means every action of the human person (including the use of words in speech or writing), or lack of action of persons or cultures (including customs, institutions, structures) that are insensitive to and oppressive of human persons who have been created according to the divine image and likeness.

In the first place, violence involves force or violation. It may be physical, emotional, verbal, theological, cognitive, sexual, visual, institutional, structural, economic, political, social, ecological. It can be sensational or hidden, intermittent or ongoing, intentional or unconscious, but there is still the violation of the victim. Violence is not about damaging or destroying things. It is about abusing people. The tragedy is that it lowers their self-esteem, self-confidence; they experience a sense of powerlessness and subjugation. Violence crushes the spirit of people and makes them submissive to violators for their purpose. For instance, Jesus Christ describes the effects of violence in poignant terms: “Fear him not who kills the body but he who kills the spirit as well” (Matthew 10:28). In the words of the psalmist: “An enemy is in deadly pursuit, crushing me into the ground … My spirit is faint, and within me my heart is numb with fear” (Psalms 143:3-4).

What are the causes of violence?

Psychologists have different views about the origins of violence. Some attribute violence to innate human predisposition. Some assume culture is its root. Yet for some, violence is instinctual and inborn; violators project their own inner fears and inadequacies on to other people and society. Some authors would opt for a Freudian frustration hypothesis by claiming that violence is due to the constrictions of civilized society.

However, in his work on this topic, the renowned Australian socio-cultural anthropologist and theologian Gerald Arbuckle, emphasizes the interplay of culture and power as the cause of violence. For him and some other social anthropologists, violence is pre-eminently collective rather than individual, usually culturally structured and always culturally interpreted. This cultural anthropological approach focuses not on individual violent behavior, but on identifying entrenched processes in cultures that foster or allow violence to occur. In this context, the word power means the capacity of an individual or a culture to influence others. It is both positive and negative. It is positive when it directs people and institutions to act in favor of human dignity and justice. It is negative or abusive when it dominates, manipulates, or unduly coerces others. Arbuckle uses the metaphor of unilateral and reciprocal power to explain the distinction between the positive and negative influence of culture and power on the people. Power is unilateral when, for example, a person (e.g., a freedom fighter or a terrorist), group (e.g., in the face of domineering power) or culture refuses to receive the influence of others (and the domineering group or culture being insensitive to the other party) rendering dialogue impossible. In the case of reciprocal power, there is openness to receive the influence of others and, a feeling of sensitivity to the dignity and culture of the other party by the domineering party. Nonviolent movements and resistance groups exercise both positive and reciprocal power.

All this shows that culture contains an inner power to facilitate and legitimate people to be violent, and so there is need to identify and uncover cultural mythologies that have this destructive power. 

  1. b) Cultural tendencies that foster and legitimize violence

Once more, on the question of the nature of relationship between culture and violence, the emphasis is laid on the capacity of culture to encourage violence. There are three constituent elements of culture which could sanction people to act violently. According to cultural anthropologists, these are symbols, myths, and rituals. How do these three models of culture relate to violence? How do they foster violence in people? As said before, these cultural elements are good in themselves, but could also foster and legitimize violence in people. In each of these contexts, culture means the ways in which a people is empowered to feel, think, and act in particular ways, as expressed in its symbols, myths, and rituals. These simple examples describe most of the important elements of our definition of culture: symbols, myth, ritual, and the inherent power in them, which can legitimize violence in people:

  1. Symbols:

Symbols are at the heart of all cultures. Cultures are web of meaning or significance; they establish symbolic templates or blueprints that define the limits of behavior and guide it along predictable routes. A symbol, for example, the olive leaf for a Canadian, the White House for Americans, is any object that by its very dynamism or power makes one think about, imagine, get into contact with, or reach out to a deeper reality, through the dynamism of the symbol itself, and without additional explanations. This may apply as well to religious symbols that even evoke more sentiments than mere national symbols most of the time. One need only think of the symbol of the Crucifix for Christians, the Moon for Moslems, or the Star for the Jews. The uneasy feelings that often end up in violent reactions of the followers of these religions whenever any of the symbols or objects they reverent comes to be caricatured or desecrated, indicate the power of symbols in determining the behavior of people.

            A symbol is more than a sign. Signs only point to the object signified, but symbols by their very dynamism re-present the object. They carry the meaning and values in themselves that permit them to articulate the signified rather than merely announce it. The colors in a nation’s flag do not point to that nation or country; they bring the nation alive in the imagination of its people in a way that restores their sense of belonging.

Thus, there are three aspects to any symbol: the meaning, the emotive and the directive levels. The meaning aspect allows a symbol to make a statement about something, e.g., the colors of a nation’s flag make the people to affirm themselves thus: “We are citizens of this nation.” A symbol has emotive power because it speaks primarily to the hearts or the imagination of people, giving rise to positive or negative feelings of power. We can never be neutral in the presence of symbols. A symbol directs us to do something as a result of its meaning and its emotional impact.

A symbol has also the capacity to absorb meanings around two semantic poles, one effective or emotional value, the other cognitive or moral. An interchange between the two poles occurs and in the interaction they strengthen and enhance each other. The social norms and values gain greater force through saturation with emotion, and the basic emotions are ennobled through contact with social values or norms. For example, the Pentagon building in Washington, D.C., symbolizes the military strength and commitment of the government to defend the nation. But the building, following the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, now evokes strong feelings and outrage that reinforce in Americans their support of the military’s role to defend the nation’s integrity and value systems. Because of their effective dimension, symbols have the power to grip the allegiance of people over a long period of time.

Thus, we have “dominative” and “pivotal” symbols. Dominative symbols are those that evoke in people undue fear of being intimidated. For example, just the presence of a bully or some reminder of him or her can cause fear in a victim and the feeling of being terrorized. Pivotal symbols contribute to the uniqueness of a culture, e.g., a flag, language. Again, since symbols relate primarily to people’s hearts, logical or rational attacks do not necessarily destroy them. No amount of protestations will impress upon a people in whose territory, under foreign occupation, still remind them of the brutal experience of their ancestors at the hands of the colonial overlords or the domineering ethnic-group or neighbor.

  1. Myths:

Myths wield almost the same power and sentiment as symbols. Like symbols, myths are value-impregnated beliefs or stories which bind people together at the deepest level of group life, and which they live by and for. According to some cultural anthropologists, without myths people have no reason to be or act. Contrary to popular belief, myths are not fairy tales or fallacies. A myth is a story or tradition that claims to reveal in an imaginative or symbolic way a fundamental truth about the world and human life. This truth is regarded as authoritative by those who accept it.

Negative and positive power in a culture primarily reside in its mythologies (e.g., an interconnected set of myths) and through them in individuals, structures, and institutions). Myths are a type of narrative that seeks to express in an imaginative form a belief about the person or group, the world or deity, which simply cannot adequately be expressed in ordinary language. They are like innate structures of a house, unseen from the outside, but they hold the building together. According to Robert M. Maclver, myths are the value impregnated beliefs that people hold, that they live by or live for. Every society is held together by a myth system, a complex of dominating forms that determines and sustains all its activities. Through myths people are “lifted above their captivity in the ordinary, attain visions of the future, and become capable of collective actions to realize such visions.” For instance, there are cases where a charismatic political leader has demonstrated the ability to inspire people with the national myth, with its roots as far back as fifteen centuries ago of their history and origins as a people. In some cases, it has led to contemporary disasters in the countries concerned. The resurgence of ‘Caliphate’ mythology in the Gulf region of Middle East, North and Central Africa, recently championed by the ISIS and other Islamist extremists, is another classical example. Thus, mythology as something that has power for good and evil is not only a story told but also a reality lived. It is not an idle tale, but a hardworking active force. For Mircea Eliade, myth is “saturated with being … power.

On positive note, however, according to Joseph Campbell, mythologies respond to four basic needs:

  1. A reason for existence, that is, a need to find some satisfying reason for why things exist.
  2. A coherent cosmology, that is, an explanation of where we fit in a comprehensive and safe world.
  3. A social organization, that is, a framework which allows us to work together in some degree of harmony and thus avoid chaos.
  4. An inspirational vision, that is, an overall view that inculcates a sense of pride and belonging. For example, myths inspire people to acts of patriotism.

Like all symbols, myths can evoke deep emotional responses and a sense of mystery in those who accept them, simply because they develop out of the very depths of human experience of birth, life, death. No matter how hard we seek to deepen our grasp of the meaning of myths, they still remain somewhat ambiguous and mysterious, because they attempt to articulate what cannot be fully articulated. Myths are symbols in narrative form. Myths restore to the mind of people who accept them, their feelings of belonging and bring to consciousness the founding story of their nation – the incredible skills and courageous acts of their ancestors’ centuries ago. In the mythologies of every group there will be founding myths that are the ultimate binding forces of identity and hope in the future. All other myths will be linked to these founding myths, e.g., the founding myth of the United States is that it is the new Israel, the new Promised Land where democracy will protect its citizens. In South Africa, a similar myth developed that gave birth to the infamous Apartheid system.

A culture will continue only if the founding myths are able to be repeatedly retold. Oppressors will prohibit people retelling their myths and passing them on to their descendants because as long as this is done the oppressor can never succeed. Such was the case, for example, in Ireland under the British government and in Africa under colonial regimes. Every effort was made to destroy African languages and culture, and therefore African mythology and identity but without success. This is a reality also in post-independent Africa. In some of those nations that had experienced brutal civil wars and continued conflicts immediately after political independence in 1960s, the central governments and domineering ruling ethnic-groups in those countries did all humanly possible to suppress and prohibit the defeated seceding region or ethnic-group from retelling their myths and story to avoid passing them on to their children. But have they succeeded? I don’t think so!

There is link between myths and history. Myths can contain or have solid foundations in historical reality. But the purposes of myth and history differ; myth is concerned not so much with a succession of events as with the moral significance of these happenings. A myth is a “religious” commentary on the beliefs and values of a culture. Thus, Americans can view Abraham Lincoln historically or mythologically. As seen from the historical perspective, he is depicted as fitting into a definite time period, influencing and being influenced by events around him. If, however, he is evaluated as a person who exemplifies the virtues of zeal for the rights of the individual, honesty, inventiveness in the face of difficulties, and hard work, then we are measuring him by founding mythology of the American nation.

Myths can be a mixture of remembering, forgetting, interpreting, and inventing historical happenings. For instance, people in Sudan or in Northern Nigeria may recall that they were ethnic Africans in former times, prior to the Arab Muslim invasion in the early nineteenth century that altered both the religion and demography of the original inhabitants of that part of Africa, but overlook or deny that the ethnic (indigenous) Africans conversion into Islam was deeply serious. Jews may recall that they had a state in Palestine over two thousand years ago but forget or deny that their sovereignty was lost and that the country had become subsequently settled by other peoples. What is remembered or reinterpreted in myths is impregnated with powerful meaning that deeply affects people’s feelings about themselves and others. Myths become charters legitimizing for themselves a people’s identity and actions.

iii) Ritual:

Ritual, the third constituent element of culture, is the repeated symbolic behavior of people belonging to a particular culture. It is the external expression of myths and symbols. It is the capacity of rituals to transform people and their social environment that gives them their positive or negative power. A ritual may create a well-behaved school pupil or brutal terrorist, a devoted employee or a dictator. Some rituals are particularly relevant in this issue of violence and reconciliation: “models for” and “models of” behavior.

According to some social anthropologists, the function of “models for” rituals is to impose, reaffirm, and strengthen value consensus or conformity to the status quo, as desired by leaders of a particular society. For example, Hitler, supported by his ritual experts, ruthlessly created and manipulated public rituals to express his distorted mythology of Germanic racial superiority. In the former Soviet Union the great civic rituals such as the “May Day” parades in Moscow’s Red Square, aimed to reinforce the power of the Marxist leaders to dominate the people, the message being “dissenters will not be tolerated.”

On the other hand, “models of” rituals exist where there is already a strong value consensus in a culture; the consensus does not have to be imposed, but is reaffirmed or strengthened and expressed through rituals. For example, for Americans the flag is such a powerful symbol of national identity that its raising carries considerable ritual importance, especially in times of national tragedy, such as when it is draped on the confines of soldiers killed in the line of duty. In some cases, flag display is made a ritual of defiance and reaffirmation of identity signifying that the nation concerned will not be coerced into submission.

Rituals, therefore, are the means by which we seek, establish, and preserve or celebrate order and unity for ourselves and for society. Rituals make the mythic values of a culture concrete and experiential; they act out these values in social relations. While rituals can have beneficial effects, they can be used to unjustly coerce people into conformity.

Thus, we have rituals of violence. Rituals can be a powerful way to degrade people. For example: the burning of a flag of an enemy country, or the humiliation or torture of war hostages by the other country. Rituals can also prompt violence. During the Catholic-Protestant tensions in France in the sixteenth century, Protestants were commonly so enraged by the music, dancing, and costumes of the Catholics rites that they would attack the celebrants. Such is the case in Northern Ireland today. The annual summer parades of the Protestant Orange Order through Catholic suburbs in Northern Ireland are ritual acts of symbolic warfare to Catholics reminding them that their minority status will continue to be enforced.

  1. Cultural mythologies and the concepts of ‘unity and faith’.

Before we draw the social implications of this article to our reality today, let us begin with a brief summary of all we have discussed so far:

Culture shapes people’s emotional reactions to the world around them, events, and things. It permeates the deepest recesses of the human group, and individuals, in particular their feelings. This is the reason why some define culture not as “what people do,” but rather as “what people feel about what they do.” When one is re-identified with the founding story of his ethnic-group or nation, he becomes immediately and spontaneously re-energized and determined not to be intimidated into inaction. Culture helps people to survive in the midst of a hostile environment. For instance, during the transatlantic slave trade of fifteenth century, the African victims of the human merchants were able to survive the trauma of that inhuman trade and colonialism when they began to identify with their African ancestral culture; when they began to realize the strength they could draw from their ancestral history and culture. Again, people may be re-energized by visiting war cemetery of their fallen heroes or brave family members. In such a situation, people’s self-pity and sense of being lost in an unfamiliar world would disappear. They would argue that if the heroes of their nation, including the deceased brave members of their families, had faced and endured incredible difficulties, so could they. With such determination, they could stand up to respond with courage, self-reliance, and resourcefulness to the demands of the strange and fear-evoking culture around them. Their self-esteem would not be crushed. They will not fall victim to the deadly chaos of self-pity.

The bottom-line of these, is that symbols, myths, and rituals generate cultural feeling in the people and when such feeling is not well channeled to foster co-existence among people of diverse cultural backgrounds and other ethnic-groups, it could lead to some uncontrollable consequences of which conflict or violence is one of them. This is why in civilized countries today, people with history of religious bigotry, entrenched ethnic-hatred, or racism, are not elected nor allowed to govern, no matter how populist and democratically appealing the person may present himself during electioneering campaign. The behavior of former President Mosi of Egypt of the Islamic Brotherhood after his election, taught Egypt this bitter lesson. Because, whatever happens, once these religious bigots and extremists get hold of power and government machinery, heavens are let lose towards pursuing their narrow interests guided by the archaic mythological ideals, whatever that may be. They will begin by marginalizing all others, ethnic and religious groups that do not share their founding mythology and history. They will make sure that the sensitive ministerial slots and key governmental positions are distributed only among their own people of the same religion, language, culture and mentality. They will begin to re-connect and reestablish contacts with radical groups and extremist states, nations and organizations that share the same mythology as theirs and have been showing some interest in controlling the leadership of the country.

More significantly, a leadership driven by these negative tendencies of cultural mythologies wears a face of masculinity. Its work begins with the military. Once this type of persons take over the leadership of the country, the first victims will be the military personnel from other ethnic-groups, especially, those from the perceived non-conformist ethnic-entity. The military membership of people from other ethnic groups are reduced to zero while that of people from the ruling group is multiplied. Inexperienced and unqualified individuals are promoted to high ranks without due process or respect to the standing rule of law and order in the military. Ironically, however, it is our new “intellectual” elite, who today debunk merit for immediate sectional advantage, just as some “nationalist” leaders in the 1950s forsook nationalism in favor of quick returns to tribalism. To paraphrase Chinua Achebe once more, whereas tribalism and might win enough votes to install a reactionary jingoist in a tribal ghetto, the cult of mediocrity will bring the wheels of modernization grinding to a halt throughout the land. All you need is your religious and ethnic identity, and a recommendation letter from a religious or traditional leader of your town or just a big-man out there from the powerful ruling ethno-religious group, to be enlisted into the army or offered employment in government institutions and parastatals. All key-positions, Service-Chiefs, General Officers and regional commanders are filled by personnel from the same domineering ethnic-group and people of questionable religious and ethnic bias. This is felt in all sections of the military: army, navy, air force, police, customs, immigrations, prisons, etc. It applies to all government ministries, boards of parastatals and other institutions. People will begin to experience a new form of reign of terror even in a supposedly democratically elected leadership. Dissenting voices, media, churches, human rights groups, etc. are suppressed and intimidated while, heinous extra-judicial killings and torture of innocent citizens will continue to grow.

The second step, which is also a consequent of the first, is the militarization of the region or area inhabited by the hated ethnic-group. Once the military is under their grip of the new regime, they mobilized to go and subdue the people from the tagged “trouble-maker” region. In this case, extra-judicial killings, human rights abuse, degradation, man’s inhumanity to man become the order of the day under the watch of a supposedly constituted authority and government. As all these will be going on nobody will be brought to justice. The mainline media of the so-called international community and the foreign nations themselves, since they sponsored the regime into power, will all remain silent (unless the regime makes the mistake of attacking any of their interests in the country). Next, the regime will go after the means of economic survival of the subjugated ethnic-group to strangle it and impoverish them, all the more. With state of insecurity of life and property created in their zone and visited with economic hardship, the victims of exaggerated cultural mythologies regime, will manifest as a people who have been pushed to the wall where they have no other alternative but to self-defense and seek for self-determination for their survival as a people. This is the long-term result of having this type of heartless individuals at the helm of nation’s affairs. They create and nurture hatred and disorder with reckless abandon in a society they are elected and being paid to govern.

Again, in most cases, the media is an accomplice. The mainline media would shift to deceptive narrative in favor of the wrongdoer and his junta. The media will be feeding the public with false news against the victims of maladministration, and would revert to praise-singing the virtues of the government in power while the victims are twice victimized. There will be no condemnation too. Everybody seems to have been intimidated. Everything is presented as being in order since it serves “to keep the country one is a task that must be kept”, so says a Nigerian slogan during the brutal Civil War (1967-1970).

Even though, from the happenings of things in that country since the end of the brutal war, the unity they claimed they fought for is still a nightmare. Sometimes we forget that we cannot have unity without justice. The same applies to peace! There will be no peace without justice. A nation is better founded on sublime virtues such as justice, truth, freedom, and honesty other than ill-motivated unity and faith.

This brings us to the principal aim of our reflection as indicated in the opening paragraph of the article. Back to Chinua Achebe’s critical book, The Trouble with Nigeria. Again, the most commonly enunciated of our nation’s understanding of her mythology and symbol is found in the Coat-of-Arms’ concepts, ‘unity and faith’. Achebe asked the question: “How valid is this notion of unity as an absolute good? … so important is it to us that it stands on our coat-of-arms and so sacred that the blood of millions of our countrymen, women and children was shed between 1967 and 1970 to uphold it against secessionist forces.”

Achebe answers himself as follows: “Quite clearly it is nonsense. Unity can be as good as the purpose for which it is desired. Obviously, it is good for good people to unite to build a school or a hospital or a nation. But supposing a group of other people get together in order to rob a bank. Their unity is deemed undesirable. That is a kind of unity lawyers would call by the unflattering name of conspiracy.”

According to Achebe, we cannot extol the virtues of unity without first satisfying ourselves that the end to which the unity is directed, is unimpeachable. The same applies to our celebration of faith.

Again, faith is as good as the object on which it reposes. For religious people faith in God is a desirable way of life; for humanists, it is acceptable to believe in the intrinsic worth of man. But what about faith in money, or faith in talismans and fetish? What of the type of faith professed by the extremist religious bigots that have no respect for human life of those that don’t share the same faith with them? So again, faith is all right provided it is to be placed on something acceptable. It cannot be good in itself.

Before we are persuaded to have faith we must first ascertain the nature and worth of the receiver of our faith. We must ask the crucial question: Faith in what? Just as in the matter of unity, we must ask: Unity to want end? In other words, virtues like unity and faith are not absolute but conditional on their satisfaction of other purposes. Their social validity depends on the willingness or ability of citizens to ask the searching question. ‘This calls for a habit of mental rigor, for which, unfortunately most of us today, are not famous.’

That is the implications for our leadership today of the cultural mythologies and the search for world peace, which we have explored in this reflection. Some authors have warned that, as long as the domineering groups continue to contribute to the volatile atmosphere, and unless the injustices are addressed, the world can expect more violence and protests, not only from the aggrieved indigenous ethnic-nationalities but also from other aggrieved groups and peoples.

The rage of “these protesters and agitators” often has its roots in past and present injustices. Until the injustices are openly acknowledged and addressed, it is impossible to begin dialogue and reconciliation. The desire to suppress the past can be motivated not only by the desire to avoid pain or to achieve reconciliation among the different peoples but also by a desire to avoid responsibility.

Defending mistakes is not a reliable strategy, because, in the long run a failure to attend to these issues in the present may store up problems for the future. The most reliable strategy is sincere dialogue with a view to healing and reconciliation. There should be courage to address sincerely and objectively the past wrongs for peace to reign today. Otherwise, the negative aspects of cultural mythologies will continue to haunt us until thy kingdom come!

May Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, adorned with the eternal gifts of the Magi from the East at the Epiphany, give us the spirit and courage to do the right thing and serve the people with fairness and truth. Amen!

Francis Anekwe Oborji is a Roman Catholic priest. He lives in Rome where he is a professor of missiology (mission theology) in a Pontifical University. He can be reached by email HERE

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. 


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