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The essence of religion

There are so many religions in the world with so many denominations and sects, yet evil continues to loom large in the society. It appears that even some people who profess faith in religion are allergic to the truth. True witnesses to the message of the scriptures continue to suffer like the true Prophets in the Scriptures who were killed for serving God and humanity. Resisting evil and evil people have become a dangerous mission. That notwithstanding, we must not allow corruption and sin to prosper and remain endemic in human existence. Jesus died for the truth. Eleven out of his twelve apostles were killed as martyrs. This is why it is sad, that some self-acclaimed men and women of God prefer to be agents of the devil to acquire material wealth even if it means using occult powers to perform fake miracles. Jesus teaches that the essence of religion is not miracles.  “The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” Jesus replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:17-20). The essence of religion is to live a fulfilled life on earth and be happy with God on the last day. Religion is the road to salvation and not worldly prosperity.

What is the essence of praying, fasting, going on pilgrimages and all external pious display if not to be available to God to be used in the service of God and humanity? The greed of a few is the cause of the poverty and suffering of the multitude. Some time ago, I gave a recommendation letter to a young graduate for a job I was absolutely convinced that he would be employed if everything goes by merit. I had assessed the person in charge of employment in the establishment to be very pious from his external behaviour. He prays regularly and preaches to others to pray and fast. He behaves like somebody who fears God and the day of judgement. Unfortunately, he proved my assessment of him wrong. He drooped the spirit of the young graduate who was beaming with confidence because he was really qualified and more so that he had a recommendation from a Priest. This is what happened when he submitted my letter to the man in charge. In fury, he said, “Young man, so you do not know a Senator, Minister, Governor, President or a renown political leader. Of what benefit is a recommendation from a Priest to me? Can a priest give me a political appointment? This is Nigeria, where nothing goes for nothing.” The young man responded, “but I can do the job and God will bless you if you offer me the opportunity to prove myself.” He responded: “Could you please get out of my office? You trust in your intelligence as I can see. Here, it is not what you know, but who you know.”

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The young man cried out of the office. He called me and requested if I could help him get a letter from a Senator or the Chief of Staff to the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. When this same employer was a graduate, he never suffered such humiliation. He was given a job before he finished the National Youths Service (NYSC). The only challenge he had was the problem of choice out of the four appointments he was offered. That was when the nation valued merit. That was when university students could eat to their satisfaction with a meal ticket that was highly subsidized by the government. That was when religion and ethnicity did not interfere with excellence and proficiency.  This officer of employment was more interested in what he would gain than how he could maximize the workforce. Religion ought to reform the adherent in various positions of authority to give capacity to human beings who can transform the world (Genesis 1:28; 9:7). Human beings should use their gifts from God to assist others in charity (Qur’an 63:10). God expects human beings to be generous (Qur’an 107:1-7).

The Ancient Greeks categorized human beings into three kinds of people: Idiots, Tribes and Citizens. The idiot is a totally private person, self-centred, selfish, always out for personal gains, interest, pleasures and treasures. He does not have public philosophy, he has no knowledge, no skill, no character and no virtue to live in a flourishing society and community. The Tribes people are not able to think beyond their small tribe and small group. Their primary and ultimate allegiance is to their tribe which is their god. Their religion is tribalism. They are always afraid of things that are different and alien to them. They are very suspicious, so they deal with people with intimidation, force and violence. Jonah did not want to go on a mission to Nineveh, because the city was not his tribe (Jonah 1). Jesus used the parable of the Good Samaritan to condemn tribal alienation (Luke 10:25-37). The citizen is someone who has the skills and the knowledge to live a public life. The citizen is able to recognize that he or she is a member of the commonwealth, and so strives for the common good. The citizen knows his or her rights in the society, responsibilities to the society and fight for the rights and interest of others especially the smallest minorities. It is the citizens that make up a civilized society. Citizens settle their differences with civility so they produce a civilize society which literarily means friendship and friendliness. Every individual should make the choice of being a citizen in the society.

Religion ought to give the different adherents the formation and transformation to be ambassadors of God in every aspect of life. Each person based on his or her religious tenets should use their privileged positions to enhance the living conditions of others without privileged opportunities.  This would go a long way to create a healthy environment for people to function, live, learn, and work together. You can imagine how life would look like if leaders in every work environment, management and project teams are guided with this scriptural principle: ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me (Matthew 25:40-45). Much of the difficulty and human misery that people face in the world is a result of dysfunctional relationships and loss of the sense of eternal reward that awaits good people or the punishment in hell that awaits evildoers and mischief-makers. Because of the loss of the presence of God, some human beings wreck the gifts and capacities of those with personality dynamics.

Idiots and tribal people lack the will to influence the world. If they are in government, they would not provide employment to those outside their families and tribes. Religious leaders ought to be citizens who should make a difference. Saint Paul wrote to the Romans: “You who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonour God by breaking the law? As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you (Romans 2:19-24). Religious institutions should remember these words in appointing candidates for leadership positions. A Religious leader must be exemplary in assigning people to duties and posting people to different missions. There is nothing wrong with religion, it is the adherents who need a change of materialistic attitude to use their faith to transform the world. Intra-personal conversion makes the essence of religion visible.

Rev. Fr. Cornelius Omonokhua is the Executive Secretary of Nigeria Inter-Religious Council (NIREC) (nirec.ng@gmail.com)

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