- Rhetoric of God’s Empowerment in Nigerian Christianity: Its Import for Christian Identity and Social Responsibility
The belief that God empowers Christ’s followers, enabling them to confront religious, socio–economic, and political problems, reverberates in contemporary Nigerian Christianity. Sermons, healing and deliverance services, and gospel songs are the primary vehicles for conveying this belief both within and beyond Christian communities. Nigerian Christians’ talk about God’s empowerment, with particular reference to how they imagine the ways Christians can embody and utilize God’s empowerment, raises important social questions. How should Christians negotiate their Christian identity and social responsibility within the context of the complex relations of religious and socio–economic currents of contemporary Nigeria? It is argued that while the rhetoric of God’s empowerment encourages most Nigerian Christians to confront social problems it has equally contributed to the persistence of some social problems in Nigeria, particularly dehumanization. Four interrelated tasks will govern this article. First, the article will describe the understanding of God’s empowerment in Nigerian Christianity. Second, it will further discuss the religious and socio–economic factors that condition the rhetoric of God’s empowerment in Nigerian Christianity. Third, it will explore how the rhetoric of God’s empowerment is employed by Christians as a social tool to articulate their Christian identity. Fourth, it will draw out some of the implications of Nigerian Christians’ understanding of God’s empowerment for imagining social responsibility and also for engaging social issues in Nigeria. [End Page 199]
IMAGINING GOD’S EMPOWERMENT: ITS MEANING AND SIGNIFICANCE IN NIGERIAN CHRISTIANITY
Although the expression “God’s empowerment” can be understood in various ways, it is used it in this article to describe the belief in God’s act of working cooperatively with followers of Christ to bring healing, protection, and prosperity to their society. This is the predominant way the expression “God’s empowerment” is construed in contemporary Nigerian Christianity. When called upon, many Nigerian Christians can recite Jesus’ words recorded in Mark’s gospel: “And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” (Mark 16:17–18, NIV)1 This passage indicates that Christianity attends to both spiritual and social matters. While most Nigerian Christians do not take the words of this text literally, they believe that it teaches God’s empowerment of Christ’s followers to counter and destroy diabolic forces and other evil structures that inhibit human wellbeing. For them, the Bible teaches God’s willingness to demonstrate God’s own existence by empowering Christ’s followers to liberate human communities from socio–economic, political, and spiritual oppressions.2
Talk about God’s empowerment in Nigerian Christianity normally occurs in the context of negotiating one’s existence and survival in a world in which many believe to be impacted by the action of spirit beings and forces.3 The belief in the ability of malevolent spirits and people to bring misfortunes propels many Christians to perform religious rites (e.g., libation and prayers) to the Christian triune God.4 Some Christians also secretly perform religious rites and rituals to appease local deities and ancestors for protections from misfortunes.5 In Nigerian Christianity (and in many Christian communities in sub–Saharan Africa), the desire to ward off malevolent spirits and people has sometimes reduced prayer to a combative tool and a show of force. “We bind them [malevolent spirits and people] in Jesus’ name,” “Holy Ghost’s fire consume them,” “I release the power of the Most High to destroy them” are samples of the signature expressions that saturate prayer meetings. Christians who are unable to prayer authoritatively with these or similar expressions are seen by many as lukewarm or backsliding Christians.
No discussions on the concept of Christian social responsibility that hopes to be relevant to contemporary Nigerian Christianity can afford to ignore the impact of the desire of many Christians to control, confuse, and defeat evil...