An African Perspective on the "Good News" Response to Religious Extremism

Rev. John Azumah is a Ghanaian Presbyterian minister and currently professor of World Christianity and Islam at Columbia Theological Seminary, in the United States. He has taught in Africa, India and the UK and has published widely on the subject of Christian-Muslim relations. Being a convert from a Muslim background, he speaks with palpable authority on Islam and proposes that the fitting Gospel-centered response is one of good news; a response of reconciliation.  This is a summation of his message at Christ at the Checkpoint, 2016.

Rev. Azumah began with a concise history of the personalities and ideologies which led to the origins of Boko Haram, the religiously motivated group in North East Nigeria that many will have seen reported by today’s media. Rev. Azumah illuminated Western support for key figures like early nineteenth century Uthman Dan Vodio, through to the reformer Abubakar Mahmud Gumi (died 1992) who was provided with a scholarship by the British. Both were key figures that set the scenes for Muhammed Yussef (died 2009) to found the youth movement that later became Boko Haram. Boko Haram seeks to re-implement Sharia, and like those before it, sees the prevailing government in Nigeria as unacceptably liberal and Western democracy and education as evil. Against the chilling and bloodied history of the group, he moved on to propose how Christians should respond to this kind of extremism.

How should we respond? Rev. Azumah contends that Satan would want our response to inspire more radical behavior. If Christians were to respond out of fear and anger to acts of terror, they would be responding in exactly the way that the perpetrators want. The acts of terrorism are designed to promote a fearful violent response. Azumah’s message of reconciliation emphasised the two-fold nature of Gospel proclamation as truth and grace. There is a tendency in the West to think of one or the other, but we must hold the two together says Rev. Azumah, “We must preach Good News. It must be good. And it must be news!”

“Good,” because is it a message of peace.  Rev. Azumah quoted Archbishop Tutu whose counsel to his black hearers during the collapse of South African Apartheid was to “be kind to white people. The racists among them need you to help them rediscover their own humanity.”

Rev. Azumah was unswervingly gracious in his exhortation to “let us not demonise even the radicals,” and his word of truth was particularly poignant at an evangelical conference that began in the shadow of the eight-meter high concrete separation wall: “In times of crisis, the foolish build walls and the wise build bridges.”  The clear challenge to Christians in attendance and those listening online was one of reconciliation; it was Jesus’ radical, countercultural message of peace.

In this way, the Gospel message is also “news.” It cannot be the same message preached by prevailing governments, powers or principalities; a message of retaliation and revenge is not news. Christ’s message wasnew, and therefore it was news. It was different. It remains distinct in the face of the responses encouraged by those in power around us.

No other system preaches a message of reconciliation, but God has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation. What is this ministry of reconciliation? “…That God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them… We are Christ’s ambassadors” (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).  We are to encourage all—even our enemies—to be reconciled to God not only by our words, but also with our lives, infused by his life giving Holy Spirit (2 Cor 3:2-3).