By Emefiena Ezeani
LET us reason together: Because our African cultures (names, languages, beliefs and practices) are different from European cultures, the Europeans tagged most of our cultural practices, beliefs, and elements ‘pagan’ and devilish. Since this erroneous knowledge has been transmitted from generation to generation, today in Igbo land things are falling apart with brothers fighting against brothers in the name of God and religion. In this discourse, we shall look at the Igbo Christians and the idol-war currently going on in various parts of the Igbo land. We shall take idol to mean anything that is capable of menacing a people, that is, something that can endanger the welfare of a people or community. Idol can also mean a sculpture or moulded object of a spirit (Chi) which we can call a religious idol.
In contemporary Igbo society, there are a number of things which threaten the welfare and life of many people in society. These include corruption, deception and selfishness of the political class, daily intimidation and extortion of the already impoverished bus-drivers and Banye-transport riders (Keke) by different Nigerian law-enforcement agents, deception and robbery in God’s name by different ‘Men of God’, embezzlement of the Church’s money by various ministers of religion, establishment of fake Miracle Churches where gullible people are hoodwinked and robbed of their money by ‘Men of God’ (some even have private helicopters), cheating, calumny, lying, envy, wickedness and glaring acts of injustice by different ranks of Christians and their religious ministers. All the above come under what I call social destructive idols.
Under religious idols, we have spirits with various names according to geography, such as Udo, Ọgba, Ikenga, Idemmili, Amadiọgha, Ogwugwu etc. Contrary to the views of most Christians, for the Igbo native religion theologians, these (small) spirits are spirit-servants of Chi-ukwu (Chukwu), the Great Spirit. For Igbo ancestors, they are simply spirits and God’s agents and not gods Only Chukwu is both Spirit and God (Onye-okike). The ‘idols’ (images) which represent these spirits are mere representations or symbols of them and nothing more, as a picture of one’s mother is simply a picture/representation of her and not one’s mother. Why are Christians from various parts of Igbo society investing so much time, human and material resources waging war against religious idols? There seems to be two explanations for this.
First, man tends to fear what he does not know. The second explanation is anchored on a profound philosophical insight of a young seminarian from the diocese of Abakaliki who has noted that the problem of man is not what he knows or what he does not know, but what he thinks he knows which leads to error. Yes, most misunderstandings on earth – between husbands and wives, friends, priests and bishops, lecturers, politicians, ethnic groups, nations, etc. are rooted on what we think we know which often leads to error, misunderstanding, conflicts and wars. These small spirits (Alụsị) are not, contrary to what many Christians know, devil’s agents but messengers of the High God, according to the Igbo native religion theology. Many Igbo Christians, including their priests, pastors, bishops and theologians think they know much about the Igbo natural religion and its theology, but their knowledge of these is mainly from what they were taught by the European missionaries, and colonisers who were totally ignorant of the people’s religion and theology. In this case, it was like the blind leading a one-eyed man. Oftentimes, no serious attempts are made by Christian religious ministers and other Christians to update their knowledge of the Igbo native religion and theology.
Some of them who, through studies and research, are better informed about this religion and, as a result, see things differently and the way they are, are sometimes misunderstood by, and are at loggerheads with, the less-informed who are convinced they know much about this religion. A lot of havoc has been caused in different societies as a result of ignorance buttressed by emotional religious zeal. Yet, this ignorance could be eradicated or substantially diminished by a study and research on Igbo or African natural religion and theology which would help to reveal the richness and profundity of the Igbo natural religion (INR) and its resemblance to Christianity. For instance, one Onyema Anozie has, in 2004, written a book titled, The Moral Significance of African Traditional Religion for Christian Conscience. A true practitioner of INR is a practical Christian. Why is it, that someone from far away Poland has a better and correct knowledge of this African religious practice than Africans themselves, including their intellectuals and clergymen? Francis Arinze in his work, Sacrifice in Igbo Traditional Religion, notes three of what he believes to be the objects of Igbo religious belief or worship which are God, non-human spirits and the Ancestors. It has to be pointed out that though the above three are all objects of Igbo religious belief, only God is the ‘object’ of worship for practitioners of Igbo native religion.
The other two are objects of veneration or superior respect due only to spiritual beings. Any observer of the Igbo society would not fail to notice that the Igbo natural religion, with its so-called idols, is not a threat to society, Christianity or morality. Yet, there has been an intensification of efforts by Christians in different parts of the Igbo land in their crusades against this religion, its practices and symbols. When considered from a number of perspectives, including logical, moral, ecclesiastical and doctrinal, these crusades or wars are unnecessary and they are directed against the wrong idols. From the logical point of view is the traditional Igbo wisdom of Onye uno ya na-agba oku, adi achu oke (One whose house is on fire does not pursue rats).
The presence of rats in the house can be very irritating, but one whose house is ablaze should concentrate all his energy on dealing with the bigger menace (fire) to his house, and not with the naughty rats. Social destructive idols, as we have noted above, are the major problems facing our society and they are the primary reason why things go badly in society and they are also the major causes of human sufferings.
. Fr. Ezeani is of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Federal University, Ebonyi State
By Emefiena Ezeani