My classmate, Rev. John Shettima, is originally from Borno State in Northern Nigeria. This was the birth place of the militant group, Boko Haram. He is the principle of a Christian school in Kaduna but most of his family lives in Yobe. He is also here to study Islam, Christian-Muslim Relations in an attempt to understand his community better in the majority Muslim North.
A few weeks ago, Rev. John lost the 9th, 10th and 11th members of his family to Boko Haram (timeline of attacks). He has said of the 13 he shared in the joy of their coming to Christ, now 10 are dead.
His brother-in-law was a police inspector. He was killed in an attack on the police station.
A week after John’s brother-in-law was buried, John’s sister, who had suffered bullet wounds in her legs during the attack, was finally told of her husband’s passing. I don’t know the details, but during our Arabic class, John received the call that she had also died.
She was four months pregnant.
There are now 31 orphans in John’s family.
Violence like this does not make sense to me. I can’t comprehend the frailty of life around me. On top of militancy, there are fires, road accidents, misdiagnoses that end in untimely death, entirely preventable illnesses, maternal mortality and a whole slew of other crises we just don’t tend to think about in the West. Within this semester, our cohort of six has been affected by just as many deaths of close friends or family. “If I should die before I wake” is a weak prayer here. Every time we leave each other, every time a person is away from the group, we pray for safety and God’s grace and protection. There is reason to give thanks for every new morning, not because of sunshiny optimism, but because there it is ever present on the African conscience that one might not have seen it without God’s present hand while we rested.
My professor from the Netherlands asked me how I was doing with all of this tragedy. I stared at him for a moment, unsure what to say. How was I doing? Did it matter?
“I’m speechless. Truly. I don’t know what to do with all of this except pray, and ask others to join me.”
Shortly after this news, I was assigned a paper on Terrorism in Africa. I researched the major cells, including al-Shabaab and Boko Haram. I could list for your here a slew of political, economic and social reasons why I think violence is so rampant among these groups, particularly in Africa. If you want, I’d be happy to share my paper. That writing process gave me something to say, but it didn’t really give me answers.
I flipped through the Biblical texts of catharsis, lament and comfort, trying to reason through how or what I was supposed to feel. I finally settled on Habakkuk, a succinct book of the prophets. It opens as a plea from a man who feels like a single grain of sand trying to hold back a rushing downpour of oppression and injustice. Fitting for how I was feeling at the time. How I feel most days.
How long, O LORD, must I call for help? But you do not listen!
“Violence is everywhere!” I cry, but you do not come to save.
But God replies to Habakkuk and basically says, “Don’t worry, I’m God. I will bring wrath upon the wicked and those that harm the righteous. But I’m doing in in my time and in my way. You probably won’t even see it happening. But don’t worry, I’m in control. I promise.”
And I realized something terrible yet awesome (in the true sense of the word). God is not just great because He creates, but also because He destroys. Destruction is an awfully difficult, but often necessary task. Wild fires have to burn to create the right conditions for new growth. The story of the great flood is a story of destruction, but it is also a story of new creation in the covenant with Noah. When He destroys, He will build again. But because only God can truly create, only by the directive of God can destruction be pure. It’s when destruction is done outside of the orders of God that it becomes sin. When humans try to play God in controlling the order of the world in a destructive/manipulative way that they become worthy of God’s wrath.
What good is an idol carved by man, or a cast image that deceives you?
How foolish to trust in your own creation -a god that can’t even talk!
-Habakkuk 2: 18
When that forest fire is started by a carelessly thrown cigarette butt, or a reckless arsonist. When children go hungry while the money sent to feed them lines the pockets of government officials. When a man is killed because he went to school to become a doctor, but Western education has been deemed apostasy. When an adolescent is recruited to blow himself up in the name of a war he doesn’t understand in exchange for protection for his family.
These atrocities, more often than not, are man driven, not God made. They occur because of and within worldwide, systematic sin. Yet the violence we see here in this world is just a single immeasurable point on the arch of God’s divine justice . And in the end, God will always bring justice.
Because you have plundered many nations,
now all the survivors will plunder you.
Rev. John returned to class the next day, to all of our surprise. Our professor shook his hand, saw him to his seat, and patted him on the back. He said, “It is well, sir. It is well with my soul.”
Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vines;
even thought the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren;
even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD!
I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!
How do I feel? Inspired. Challenged. Encouraged. Overwhelmed with the courage of my classmates. Above all, in the midst of all this tragedy, I have been given hope that what we are doing here is truly work worth doing.