“Who do Nigerians say that the Messiah is?” - A Political Approach to Christ's Identity
During the mass of Saint Peter and Paul, I asked myself, who is Jesus for a Nigerian today? The Gospel of the day was Matthew 16:13-19. And in the light of our situation as a nation, this Gospel took a new meaning for me. Like Matthew, who was writing to a community mourning the destruction of their temple and the killing of some of their brethren by the Roman Empire, Nigerians are mourning the destruction of our nation and the daily killing of our fellow Nigerians. So, like Matthew’s community, Nigerians are facing a broken future.
How then should we respond to this Christological question? To do this, let us first agree that Nigeria has been taken hostage with neither Churches nor Mosques to worship in peace. And while Christians are devouring one another at the altar of tribalism, the Muslims and Christians are barely talking to each other, with the ongoing killing of many Christians by Islamist groups standing as a stumbling block. At this juncture, it seems no one knows who the Messiah is in our national history.
So, this Gospel has become vital to us as a nation who claims to love God.
In this passage, while Jesus was walking with his disciples, he asked them, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
John the Baptist (replied) says some; others, Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.
But in his usual way, he brought the question home by asking them: “But what about you?” “Who do you say I am?”
To understand the implications of this question, one needs to consider that in Matthew, Jesus didn’t simply ask, “who do people say that I’m,” but rather, “who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
In the Old Testament, “the son of man” is used in different ways. First, it was used to depict a mortal man or the frailty of our human nature (Num. 23:19, Job 25:6, Psalms 8:4, Sirach 17:30). It was also used to describe the prophets or those chosen by God (Dan. 8:17).
But in Jewish Apocalyptic literature, “the son of man” was also used to describe the divine, the chosen one, or the Messiah (Dan. 7:13-14, 1 En 37-71, Ez 13.)
Though Matthew must have used it in this last meaning, I would want us to briefly see how these other Old Testament meanings of the son of man can apply to the Nigerian situation. For example, the first response noted here—some say you are Elijah—could be traced to the insinuation of Herod Agrippa (Mat. 14:2); Jesus as one of the prophets could be what the Jewish people thought of Jesus’ identity.
Yet, Jesus wanted something more, something personal. And Peter, after three years of relationship with Christ, proved to have encountered the true nature of Christ. He has understood that Christ is the Messiah.
This confession of Peter is the faith of Matthew’s community. They have recognized on the crucified Christ the full presence of the promised Saviour. He who accepted to die on the cross to stand by the side of the truth cannot be but their Messiah, their Saviour, the eternal Hero who ended his quest by offering his life to cement the project he firmly believed in.
Today, the same question is being addressed to Nigerians: “who do you say the son of man is?” Is he a tribal warrior, the spokesperson of our ethnic groups, or is he who comes to redeem our entire nation?
Unfortunately, despite our (external) religiosity, we are still ignorant of the principles of our different beliefs. And Nigerians having a short memory, we often forget that Christ (Isa) went against his people’s religious beliefs to stand by the side of the oppressed. Moreover, he also went against the ruling class and the tribal religious leaders, even to the extent of paying the ultimate price.
So, today, how do we want to make our choice of leadership? Are we going to stand by the truth or our ethnic interests? Are we ready to give up our comforts and our religious and tribal differences to stand by the side of the truth? At this moment, our nation is bruised and destroyed by her leadership. So, who do we say that the son of man is? Are we standing by him or selling our birthright to the vultures roaming our political spaces?
Demons are not absent in Nigerian society though they mainly appear like Angels. They also seem invisible, but not how we think of them. Indeed, they operate not only in the middle of the night but mainly during the day and in our government and civil servant offices. They are not roaming or flying by night in the form of cats or bats. They dress in agbada or religious attires and stand in their self-erected altars where they drug Nigerians with venomous preaching that takes away our power to fight for our freedom. Our national demons are human and operate as leaders to keep us in bondage through their unending strikes and corrupt practices.
Today, the son of man is asking us to give up our tribal quests and stand firmly by the side of the truth to assist him in the liberation of our nation from the hands of political and religious vampires.