INTERRELIGIOUS DIALOGUE: A STRONG TOOL FOR ETHNIC HARMONY IN CONTEMPORARY NIGERIA.
Charles Okeke, Ph.D
Department of Christian Religious Studies
Nwafor Orizu College of Education, Nsugbe
Religion is one of the phenomena that influences, to a larger extent, the political, economic and cultural lives of Nigerians. It also plays an essential role among the ethnic groups in Nigeria and their affairs. In Nigeria, there are more than two hundred and fifty ethnic groups. Each ethnic group has its own traditional religious beliefs and practices, though there are three major religions in the country. These are Christianity, Islam and African Traditional Religion and these religions have their roles in sustaining democratic governance in Nigeria. Often, intolerance and fanaticism among the adherents of each of these religions have become an ill-wind that blows no good to this country. Bigotry, hostility, senseless destruction of human lives and public amenities in this country today have been traced to religious fanaticism and intolerance. And these have also been a threat to peace and the unity of this country. This paper, therefore, is geared towards highlighting the importance of dialogue among various religious groups in Nigeria as a veritable tool for ethnic harmony.
What is Interreligious Dialogue?
To answer this question, we shall firstly establish what it is not. Here, Arinze’s view will suffice. According to him, interreligious dialogue is not the same as the study of various religions and a comparison of them, although such a discipline is important and useful.
Interreligious dialogue is never a debate between followers of various religions, no matter how friendly. In dialogue encounters, one is not trying to prove oneself right and the other believer wrong. Interreligious dialogue is not the same as ecumenism. Ecumenism refers to all initiatives: prayers, meetings, dialogue, common project, etc. to promote the reunion of Christians in one Church according to the will of Christ, the Founder. Ecumenism is, therefore, only among Christian religious communities or churches. Interreligious dialogue, on the other hand, refers to relations between Christians and other believers such as Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and followers of Traditional Religions, etc. It does not aim at bringing about the unity of all religions. Interreligious dialogue is not an effort to persuade the other person to embrace one’s own religion.
Arinze (1997) defines it as “a meeting of people of differing religions, in an atmosphere of freedom and openness, in order to listen to the other, to try to understand that person’s religion, and hopefully to seek possibilities of collaboration” (p. 5).
In interreligious dialogue, listening is very important. It is one of the first acts of dialogue. It is also hoped that the other partner will reciprocate, because reciprocity should be marked by a two-way and not one-way movement. Reciprocity is in the nature of dialogue. There is give and take. Dialogue implies both reciprocity and communication.
Mbuy (2007) sees dialogue from three perspectives. First, from the perspective of the human level. Here, dialogue means reciprocal communication leading to a common goal or to interpersonal communion. Second is what he calls ‘the spirit of dialogue’. At this level, dialogue is an attitude of respect and friendship. Third, from the perspective or context of religious plurality. In this context, dialogue means all positive and constructive interreligious relations with individuals and communities of other faith which are directed at mutual understanding and enrichment. Dialogue in this context includes witness and exploration of respective religious convictions.
Forms of Interreligious Dialogue
Arinze (1997) enumerated four major forms or types of religious dialogue: dialogue of life, dialogue of action, dialogue of discourse, and dialogue of religious experience.
Dialogue of Life
This form of interreligious dialogue is mostly within the reach of anyone. It is at the level of the ordinary relational situations of daily life: family, school, place of work, place of recreational or social contact, village meetings, politics, trade or commerce. When neighbours of differing religions share their projects and hopes, concerns, joys and sorrows, they are engaging in dialogue of life. They do not necessarily discuss religions.
Dialogue of Action
In this form of dialogue, Christians and followers of other religions cooperate for promoting human development and human freedom in all their forms. At this level, Christians and other believers can come together and build or have common or joint projects for human advancement. This includes establishing a camp for the refugees and migrants, promoting rights and dignity of all peoples, working together to ensure that the dignity and respect for human families are upheld, working jointly in such organizations as the Red Cross, NGOs, among others, to rescue men, women and children from famine, poverty, diseases, hunger, etc. They can equally establish joint projects like a clinic or hospital, or run a leprosy centre for the advancement and preservation of human life.
Dialogue of Discourse
This type of dialogue is for specialists. It involves the meeting of experts in Christianity and other religions to exchange information on their respective religious beliefs and heritage. They listen to one another in order to understand the religion of the other deeply. In an effort to understand the other’s religion, they try to share and articulate the areas of divergence with regard to beliefs and practices. This type of dialogue, in its nature, can be called a dialogue of theological discourse or theological exchange.
Dialogue of Religious Experience
This refers to sharing of spiritual experience between religious groups. Thus people who are deeply rooted in their own religious traditions come together to share experiences in meditation, prayer, contemplation, faith and its expression, various ways of searching for God as the Absolute or ways of living the monastic life and mystical life or experience.
This form of dialogue is not meant for those who are ordinarily committed to spiritual progress rather those who are above ordinary spiritual religious practice such as the monks and nuns. Examples of this type of dialogue are some Trappist monks and Benedictines who have carefully planned inter-monastic exchanges with Buddhist counterparts. This form of experience includes several weeks stay in the monastery of the other in silence and in sharing of what is possible and advisable.
The Importance of Interreligious Dialogue in Nigeria
Madu (2008) submitted that “the mysteries of existence as well as so many other existential unanswered problems sooner or later force man to ask questions about the unknown problems. Of course, man as a curious being cannot just stare at these so called mysteries and be content with the status quo (p. 1). People notice that the answer to the mysteries of life can be found in religion. Hence, Mbuy (2007) stated that “God has been in constant dialogue with humanity. All religions wish to lead their adherents to God. Therefore, all religions must constantly be in dialogue, for this reason, interreligious dialogue is a necessity” (p. 37). When one considers the four major forms of religious dialogue mentioned and deliberated above, one can conclude that interreligious dialogue is very important. It is not only when religious conflict occurs that people come together to dialogue. Interreligious dialogue is an on-going affair, as a result, in Nigeria, Christians, Muslims and the adherents of Traditional Religions can come together for joint theological exchange. They can discuss on the challenges of the Bible and the Qur’an, justice and peace in our society, among others (Okeke, 2012). They can equally discuss the possibility of inculturation.
Moreover, the chronicle of various religious disturbances in Nigeria as articulated in Ejim (2009) and Ewaoche, Onyekonwu and Onwosi (2012) including religious intolerance, unhealthy rivalry, religious fanaticism and extremism, hypocrisy, inter-and intra-religious crisis, religious pluralism, high illiteracy rate, verbal attack, poverty and unemployment, among other factors that cause religious violence in Nigeria is an indication that interreligious dialogue in Nigeria is a necessity. It is not a doubt that when religious violence occurs people’s properties are destroyed and people are displaced (Asalu, 2005).
Furthermore, Nigeria, since her independence in 1960, has been a nation characterized by political and religious turbulence. Christian-Muslim relationship in Nigeria has recorded a history of bitter experiences. This is evident in the instances of religious riots that have taken place across the federation. From 1980 till date, Nigeria has witnessed various religious conflicts like the Kano Maitasine group (1980); Bulunkutu-Maiduguri (1982); Jimeta-Gongola (1984); Gombe (1985); Danfodio University, Sokoto (1986); University of Zaria-Kaduna (1987); Bayero University, Kano (1989); Katsina, Bauchi and Kano riots (1991); Jalingo (1992) among others (Enemuo 2014).
These religious crises claimed many lives and properties. Since 1999, more than fourteen thousand Nigerians have been killed, hundreds of thousands displaced, and many churches and mosques destroyed. Today, many of Boko Haram’s most deadly and prominent church service attacks occur in cities with problematic Muslim-Christian relations and histories of sectarian violence: Bauchi, Jos and Kaduna (Enemuo, 2014). These religious conflicts, no doubt, disrupt the social, economic, political and religious lives of Nigerians. They also affect the academic life of students. For this, therefore, interreligious dialogue is a sine qua non.
Interreligious Dialogue as a Panacea for Ethnic Harmony in Nigeria
At this juncture, I want to affirm that the option for ethnic harmony in Nigeria is peace. It is an essential principle of common societal life. Peace is the reliable option that can save Nigeria from the shackles of injustice, marginalization, tribalism, conflicts, corruption, selfishness, poverty, among others. Peace can be achieved through dialogue.
Dialogue is very important in Nigeria, which is considered the most populous on the African continent; a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, dominated by Islam and Christianity. As far as peaceful co-existence is concerned, and as far as religious tolerance is concerned, also as far as ethnic harmony is concerned, there is no doubt that the best forum to promote relationship among religious groups in Nigeria, is through sound interreligious dialogue. Nigerian political and religious leaders should recognize the need for constant dialogue and negotiation. The target of interreligious dialogue is peaceful coexistence and universal brotherhood (Enemuo, 2014).
There is no doubt that religious crises have far reaching implications on the political, cultural, social and economic lives of Nigerians. It is high time the adherents of the three major religions in Nigeria, namely Christianity, Islam and Traditional religions emphasized their teachings on morality and good living as criteria for one to have happiness of life here-after. One cannot deny that the adherents of these three religions have made some irritating remarks against the social and cultural lives of the people of Nigeria. They have caused a series of upheavals, threat to unity of this country, destruction of lives and properties, which have not done any good to the progress of this country. The resultant effect is disharmony among ethnic groups in Nigeria.
Solidarity is a very urgent priority in Nigeria. It should be the driving force of this country. It is a virtue, which is indispensable for renewing the face of this country in order to achieve peaceful coexistence among ethnic groups. Solidarity is an ideal by which each individual is welcomed, respected, accepted and defended because he or she is created in the image of God. This virtue is very much needed in order to promote the common good of Nigeria and her citizens. That makes it imperative that we, Nigerians, must learn to grow, live and relate in solidarity.
A dialogue of theological exchange is also very necessary in that those whom we consider experts in their respective religions, and who are factual and exact in stating their beliefs, would make it clear that the other people believe in one God as they do. When the theological form of dialogue is carried out by experts in various religions, they would be in a better position to separate the essential elements from non-essentials, the values from the shadows, then tolerance would be easier, instead of suspicion of one another, violence and destruction of human lives and properties. Ethnic harmony would, therefore, be achieved.
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