Embassies and consulates are a country’s storefront. In them, nations typically endeavor to put their best foot forward because they know that these outposts not only represent their country, but are quite probably all that most will ever see of it. The idea is to impress, to make a statement of national greatness. Tuvalu, for instance, a small island nation in Polynesia, owns a London embassy that is valued at 11 percent of that country’s national debt. That may be taking PR too far, but you get the idea.
So, what is one to think when a nation doesn’t try to impress you? Well, that tells you something, too. Chiefly, it tells you that they don’t care. Wherever the Nigerian government was spending its money, it wasn’t on marketing. I left the consulate grounds preparing for the worst.
At this point, some of my readers are thinking that I would be very foolish to go to Nigeria after my friend’s warning and the sketchy bipolar advice from consulate personnel. And, were I someone who believed that this life is all you get, I would agree with you. Why take the risk? But I am a Christian. As such, some things should supersede safety, Christian mission most of all. Furthermore, my good friend, Jwan Zhumbes, the Bishop of Bukuru, had asked me to come and teach the people of his diocese. For me, that is reason enough.
I am fully convinced that America’s current identity crisis is, at bottom, a faith crisis triggered by an absence of Christian courage. As we have become less Christian as a nation, we have become untethered from absolute notions of freedom, justice, human dignity, sanctity of life, family and, ultimately, right and wrong. Indeed, we have become untethered from rationality to such a degree that many in modern America, in the words of Isaiah 5:20, “call evil good and good evil.”
Even so, conservatively speaking, American evangelicals still comprise 26 percent of the US population. Yet, other than in presidential elections, where are they? Why is their societal influence modest relative to their massive numbers?
The answer lies in what American Christians have become in recent decades—insular, comfortable, and epicurean. Having confused the Gospel with the American Dream, the Great Commission with voting, they have unwittingly contributed to the de-Christianization of America. And now that the marketplace of ideas is so hostile to them, they are, with few exceptions, a bullied, fearful lot, who have retreated from the culture and the great issues of our time, preferring the (false) safety of their families and like-minded communities. In contrast to their Christian forebears or, for that matter, those who have wrestled the culture from them, they are seldom willing to risk their comfort and wealth for the sake of their faith, much less their lives. This is what I called “Candy-Assed Christianity” in the March 2017 article for Fox News.
Those of you who are tracking with me may be thinking, “Okay, I get it. You have a point. We need to speak-up. But go to Nigeria? Isn’t that taking risk to a whole different level?”
In short, yes. It is consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous countries in the world, if not the most dangerous country in the world. Add to that the fact that I was going to the Jos Plateau in north-central Nigeria, where violent clashes with armed Muslim militia had resulted in multiple instances of rioting and slaughter in 2001, 2008, 2010, and bombings in 2014. Since that time, the bishop told me, Westerners ceased coming.
“Nigeria is like a scarecrow,” he said. “You only need see it from afar to be afraid.”
And they are afraid for good reason. Jay Smith, the friend I mentioned in the previous article of this series, had advised me not to go for good reason, too. His opinion on Nigeria was not acquired from Trip Advisor. He had lived in Africa and had been to Nigeria more than once. During a 2008 visit to that country, he spent nine hours hiding in the wheel well of a car while a mob went up and down a blocked highway looking for Westerners to victimize. Nigeria was, in his view, unique to the African experience. It wasn’t that terrible things didn’t happen in other countries; it was the sheer magnitude of them in Nigeria. The bishop had told me as much: “Even other Africans are afraid of Nigeria.”
So why go?
Some people do risky things because they are ill-informed and unwise. While visiting some dangerous corners of the globe, I have met those people, usually students, who seem to have little notion of the perils involved in what they are doing. They are the Steve Irwins of travel, taking extraordinary risks for the sake of an adventure or an Instagram post. Recently, for example, a British woman was murdered deep in the Amazon while on a 40+ day kayaking trip—alone. That’s not bravery; that’s stupidity. If we have any self-regard or any regard for the feelings of those who love us, we don’t risk our lives frivolously.
Some risks, however, are worth taking. Christians are called to share in the sufferings of other Christians, especially those who are suffering because they are Christians (Hebrews 10:32-34; 12:3-4; 13:30)—and they are suffering and dying at an alarming rate. John L. Allen, Jr. of Spectator Magazine (UK) writes:
“The global war on Christians remains the greatest story never told of the early 21st century…. According to the International Society for Human Rights, a secular observatory based in Frankfurt, Germany, 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians. Statistically speaking, that makes Christians by far the most persecuted religious body on the planet…. According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, an average of 100,000 Christians have been killed in what the centre calls a ‘situation of witness’ each year for the past decade. That works out to 11 Christians killed somewhere in the world every hour, seven days a week and 365 days a year, for reasons related to their faith…. In effect, the world is witnessing the rise of an entirely new generation of Christian martyrs. The carnage is occurring on such a vast scale that it represents not only the most dramatic Christian story of our time, but arguably the premier human rights challenge of this era as well.”
For most people, this is news, and this because it is, as Allen says, “the greatest story never told.” How demoralizing must it be to suffer persecution while your fellow Christians, people who might offer you comfort and encouragement, not only don’t visit you, but seem little more than vaguely aware of your circumstances?
When faced with important decisions, Acts 16:6-10 has served as a model for me. There we are told that Paul, Silas, and Timothy went through Phrygia and Galatia because the Holy Spirit prevented them from preaching in Asia. They then tried to go to Bithynia, “but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” In other words, in making decisions about where they would to go next, they didn’t sit back and wait for an answer to fall from the sky. Quite the contrary, they got on with job of “going into all the world” and trusted the Lord would direct their path (Proverbs 3:5-6).
But Paul wasn’t married and I am. So Lauri’s opinion on the matter would weigh heavily with me. If going to Nigeria would deeply distress her, I wouldn’t go.
“Do you think I should go?” I asked. “Before you answer, know this: whatever you say is what I’m likely to do here. Answer carefully.”
After much thought, she replied. “Does it make me anxious? Yes. Do I want to talk about the ‘what ifs’? No. But I guess I think this: if you don’t go, who will?”
With that, the wheels were set in motion to include Nigeria as part of our Around the World in 80 Days expedition.
That was months ago. Now, with it time for me to fly from Europe to Africa, the bishop sent this final warning:
“Go about this trip confidently. Be friendly, but never betraying that you are a first-timer [to Nigeria]. Do not ask questions that will betray you as someone who has never been here before, though you are indeed a first-timer. And answer only those questions you consider necessary to answer. It shall be well with you.”
With that sort of warning echoing in my mind, I made other arrangements for Zachary, boarded the plane for Abuja, and hoped for the best.