That the House decided to even consider “a bill to set up the Ecclesiastical Court of Appeal in the country” is a puzzle. That the bill passed a second reading is a shock, in view of all the serious issues that the country has on its lap at this time.
It is a puzzle because, the idea of a religious court within a secular constitution is an anomaly. It is true that the Sharia Court has been adopted in the constitution since 1979. But the Muslim argument with regard to that clause is that there is no unbridgeable gulf between the religious and the political in Islamic faith. But this is clearly at variance with the Christian doctrine as exemplified by Christ himself in his divine intelligent reaction to the tricky question of the Pharisees: Give unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar and unto God that which is God’s. This acknowledges the church-state dichotomy and the need to keep them as such. It is especially more critical in an environment of religious pluralism that we inhabit.
Since this new attempt at aggravating the sensitive issue of the politics of religion, there have been observations to the effect that the constitutional provision for a Sharia Court and the acceptance of the Sharia judicial system was an original sin which should not have been condoned. Let us assume that this is a cogent argument. But is that why we should proceed to commit more constitutional sins? Should we continue to multiply sins without necessity? What next? An Ogun judicial system in deference to Ogun worshippers? Or a Shango judicial system? How about an Ala judicial system? Indeed, did it ever occur to our lawmakers that the Common Law system which is the foundation of our constitution and judicial system has its ancestral roots in the so-called Christian jurisprudence?
Let us assume that Ecclesiastical Courts are needed. On whose authority are they to be set up? By definition, these are courts or tribunals “set up by religious authorities to deal with disputes among clerics or with spiritual matters involving either clerics or laymen.”(Encyclopedia Britannica). These courts also have Bishops or Archdeacons with knowledge of Christian Law as officers. In the system proposed by our lawmakers, who appoints these officers? The church or the state?
In the bill sponsored by Honourable Gyang Istifanus Dung, the courts will “adjudicate matters of personal Christian Law and civic matters, which shall be prescribed in the rules of practice and procedure of the Ecclesiastical Court.” Such matters are to include marriage and its dissolution, guardianship of infant, will, and the “guardianship of a Christian who is physically or mentally infirm.” The rationale for the provisions of the bill is the “constitutional guarantee of the right of every citizen to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”
We have been on this ridiculous and dangerous path for some time. It is more like sibling rivalry between immature kids. One child is diagnosed with a slanted vision and she needs prescription glasses to correct it. Her older sibling is envious and fakes vision problems so she can also have prescription glasses. Muslims get to visit Mecca and Medina on holy pilgrimage as part of the recorded pillars of their religion. Christians have no such injunction. But there must be equality of rights and privileges for all religions! Therefore, parity requires that Christians also visit Israel on holy pilgrimage. And if Sharia is allowed in the judicial system, why not Ecclesiastical Court?
The reasoning is troubling to say the least because it has reduced our discourse in the public sphere to absurdity. At a time of high rate of joblessness, runaway inflation and mass poverty, all that our lawmakers care about is the creation of a religious court that has no meaning whatsoever in view of the Christian origins of our civil law tradition. When Paul chided the early Christians for going before non-believers to adjudicate conflicts between them, he did not instruct them to request the civil authorities to help them set up courts. His instruction was that they—Christians—had the obligation to resolve differences between them internally. They were to set up an internal conflict resolution system managed by spiritual elders. Our People’s House has turned that instruction on its head.
It is gratifying that the Northern wing of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) has distanced itself from the sponsorship of the bill. It is hoped that the national body will also do so.
Our secular constitution has no room for state religion or the adoption of a sacred religion by the state. That is logical. Even if a disproportionate majority of citizens embrace one religion, it would still be unfair to the minority with a different religious leaning to have them succumb to the religious will of the majority.
Thankfully we have a multi-religious system and it presents the nation with an unusual opportunity for the development and promotion of a Nigeria-wide civil religion, a secular celebration of our national history, values and institutions. This is the cause for which leaders in the executive and legislative branches should commit to, instead of their current obsession with the propagation of divisions in the religious realm.
The private religious leanings of citizens must not be allowed to stand in the way of a national civic orientation that nonetheless uses religious symbolisms as tools. From the triumphs and failings of the past, we could assemble a mix of notable and memorable events to which we can all relate and which can serve as a solid framework for our common allegiance. The national day is one of such events. Even those significant events that a large number of us have come to disparage as the beginning of our collective misery- the amalgamation day- could be turned around in the hands of purposeful and visionary leadership. After all, what is in a day but for the rudderless leadership and unjust and callous policies that make its memory infamous! The pride of citizens in their nation is a function of many factors not least of which is how it nurtures their sense of belonging and their idea of fairness.
The point is that it takes an exceptional leadership who is able to rise above the pettiness of ethnic chauvinism and religious bigotry to create the environment for a disparate people to see themselves as one indivisible nation and to rally round their flag and other symbols of their common heritage. Following the clarion call to national greatness, patriotic citizens will eschew the divisiveness of private religion, and embrace a national civil religion that prioritises commonality over differences. Thus if prayer is warranted at the opening of the Federal Executive Council meeting or the National Assembly, they can creatively pray in the name of Providence or Creator of the Universe instead of God or Allah or Ogun. To these they can freely revert in the privacy of their homes or the sanctuaries of worship.
I should be remiss if I do not here acknowledge the reasonableness of some of our moderators at special events who initiate opening and closing prayers by asking the audience to recite the last verse of our National Anthem. That is what civil religion is about. It is a recognition of and respect for our common bond.
A national public adoption of civil religion and a private allegiance to our various sects is not only desirable, it is required if private religion will not continue to be the clog in the wheel of national progress. If nations with a predominance of one religion can afford the risk of unfair theocracy that deprives minorities of their religious freedom, this nation of plural religiosity cannot. The leadership of every branch of government therefore is morally obligated to creatively steer the wagon of the state away from the risky path to archaic theocracy and towards the peaceful thoroughfare of civil religion, which celebrates our common political heritage and summons us to embrace same, beckoning us to a hopeful future.(Concluded)