The story is told of a religious leader who had an opportunity to serve in one of the previous administrations as chaplain to the chapel. He revelled in this opportunity that at the end of his time in that office decided that God had called him to go into politics. He pursued this vision and went to contest in his home state, but unfortunately he could not even get through the primary stage. However, because this ‘man of God’ had seen himself as deserving that political office anyway, he decided to live as if he had won the election anyway. In Abuja he had a ‘pilot driven car’, ordered his driver and house-helps to address him as ‘Your Excellency’, and to give him all the respect and dignity a state governor is entitled to in Nigeria.
A second scenario is what we see today in many of our senior religious leaders in our country, especially those who do not only see themselves as deserving to be state governors or senators but actually having the right to live as though they held such office. They have security guards in their homes, they have police escorts as well as security personnel when they travel within the country. They acquire expensive houses and live affluently, with luxurious furnishings, and drive in costly SUV vehicles. They use their positions to influence elections to vacant positions within their churches, just as our political leaders do (god-father-ism) and receive gratifications even before elections are held.
A third scenario is found among our political class, those not satisfied with the office to which they were elected. Our political elites in particular offices often look in the mirror and all they see is the image of the political position they believe they should have been given, not the real one for which they campaigned and were elected. A Governor for example already sees himself as the President of the FRN, an assembly member sees herself as the Senator from her zone, while another governor sees himself as either the president or a senator! The frightening aspect is that these elites do not stop at just seeing themselves in these imaginary positions but are willing to use every means to make their fantasies come true. Assassination attempts, stealing from funds meant for the development of their States or senatorial districts, going into accords that often lead to the killing of innocent people and causing riots leading to the destruction of lives and property. The worst is the negative use of religion and ethnicity to garner support from the electorate. These attitudes result in the crises that are eating up our nation today. This attitude is described as mimetic desire.
According to René Girard, mimetic desire is wanting what someone else has because they have it. It is not just wanting to have what someone else has. Ultimately it is wanting to be what someone else is. We may desire something we see in an advertisement or because others have made it look desireable. Or we wish we were that person. This is mimetic desire. According to Girard, Satan then puts what he calls stumbling-blocks in the way of some of our strongest desires, so that we cannot obtain those things. Mimetic rivalry ensues, in which we see others as a threat. As this process carries on, and frustrations intensify, whole communities can become enflamed with violence. It is a war of all against all.
From research it is confirmed that Nigerian Muslims and Christians have a fairly broad understanding of their faith traditions. However, when it comes to living out in faithful obedience what their religions demand, there is a shocking display of a lack of faithfulness to religious demands. It seems right to affirm therefore that a huge number of Nigerian elite could be described as practical atheists, by which is meant: “…those who profess belief in God, but who in actual fact deny His existence by their deeds and the testimony of their behaviour…” In other words, they intellectually affirm the existence of God, but live as if there were no God, often contrary to God’s commandments. They profess the right God with their words, yet they deny God with their lives. (Girard). It is worth mentioning here that this attitude is also condemned in both the Bible (Isa 58.3-7) and the Qur’an (Baqarah, 2:177).
As we prepare for 2019 elections, this description of the Nigerian elite, particularly the religious and political classes, is becoming more and more accurate.
In what follows, I intend to show how the Scriptures of both Muslims and Christians help us to understand what I see as a major cause of the unending feud in our country that has continued to plague and deprive us of national cohesion and any meaningful progress as found in other parts of the civilised world. It is my intention to use the story of Jacob (Yaq’ub) and Esau (al-Eis) in the Bible to help us have a particular understanding of the problem with Nigerian Muslims and Christians. It is the hope of this writer that all who read this article would have a re-think and use the opportunities God has given to them to serve as leaders. It is also hoped readers would believe that it is God who equips His people for service, and so stop seeing themselves in the light of those differently called and differently gifted to serve in other capacities by the same God Muslims and Christians call upon and worship, albeit differently. This is a way of proving clearly that Nigerian elites are not all practical atheists.
Jacob (Ya’qub) and Esau (El- ‘Eis) in our Scriptures
The Qur’an does not give details of Isaac’s life (peace be upon him), but reliable Qur’anic commentators mentioned that when Abraham felt that his life was drawing to a close, he wished to see Isaac married. He did not want Isaac to marry one of the Canaanites, who were pagans, so he sent a trustworthy servant to Haran in modern day Iraq to choose a bride for Isaac. The servant’s choice fell upon Rebekah bint Bethuel ibn Nahur, who was a brother of Abraham. Isaac married her and she gave birth to a set of twins, Esau (al-’Eis) and Jacob (Ya’qub).
Ill feelings developed between the two brothers when they grew into manhood. Esau disliked the fact that Jacob was favoured by his father and by Allah with prophethood. This ill feeling became so serious that Esau threatened to kill his brother. Fearing for his life, Jacob fled the country.
In the Christian version of this same story, there is a similar but fuller version with which Qur’anic commentators agree.
From the story of these two brothers one fact stands out about Jacob’s early life; he longs to be Esau. He desires to occupy Esau’s place. From birth we find him holding on to Esau’s heel. Growing up as adults, he buys Esau’s birthright and deceives their father to take Esau’s blessings, pretending to be Esau!
The question is, why did Jacob long to be Esau? It is simply because Esau was everything Jacob was not. Esau was the child his father loved. He had the strength and skill to fight and win in the Darwinian struggle to survive. Jacob wanted to be Esau and he experienced mimetic desire! It was Esau’s face he saw in the mirror of his imagination.
But Jacob was not Esau, nor was the blessing he took the one destined for him. The true blessing was the one received later when Isaac knew he was blessing Jacob, not thinking him to be Esau!
In this story both brothers had different responsibilities from God. Jacob wanted wealth and power but his blessing had nothing to do with such things. His calling was to create a society that would simply be based on the covenant with God. To do this he did not need to be Esau, he only had to be himself and be a man attuned to what God was saying to him beyond nature!
If Jacob had accepted his blessing from God and obeyed God by living out his calling and avoided mimetic desire, his exile for 22 years and the enmity with his brother would have been avoided. It took these 22 years in exile for Jacob to learn this lesson, and to meet his brother again.
At this final reconciliation meeting, Jacob no longer wanted or needed these things.
Listen to him: ‘I have everything’, meaning, ‘I no longer need wealth or power to be complete.’ He says explicitly what he is doing. He says, ‘please take not just my gift but also my blessing’. Jacob now knows the blessing he took from Esau was never meant for him, and he is giving it back.
I picked on this story because it addresses over 80% of the Nigerian population today. On the conservative side this percentage is made up of Christians and Muslims put together. This means that 80% of the leadership of this country are addressed in this story because the story is found in both scriptures. Christians and Muslims are related: created by the same God. Both faith traditions see Abraham as foundational to their religious beliefs and therefore both Esau and Jacob as brothers make Christians and Muslims to see themselves as brothers.
The rivalry therefore between these two brothers is almost the same as what we are witnessing in Nigeria today, and the mimetic desire of Jacob is found in most of our elites in both the religious and political classes. Unfortunately, those we are called to serve do not understand the game that is being played and it is those we are called to serve who suffer from the results of our mimetic desire: destruction of lives and property, displacements, poverty and deprivation of basic necessities of life. As the three scenarios above show: a senator desires to be president, a governor desires to be president, and so it trickles down to the officials at both the Federal and State to local government levels. Similarly, church leaders use their pulpits meant for the preaching of the Good News to present their manifestos for political positions, especially those who, like the ‘man of God’ in the first scenario, can never win the confidence or support of their political parties!
When a preacher goes into politics, what do we expect but a type of theocracy?
I am not calling for a one-party government. We do need a strong opposition party, however, elites need to serve the people of Nigeria at whatever level they contest. Let Nigerians decide to call you to higher services. Be like Jacob who discovered that he did not need to be Esau, or need wealth and power. Jacob had already received the gifts he needed to play the role God had assigned him. Our political and religious elites should begin to live out their religious beliefs and stop living as if they did not believe in God. It is the poor who suffer the consequences of their mimetic desire.
The Most Revd Idowu-Fearon is founder and President, Kaduna Centre for the Study of Christian-Muslim Relations.