For Christians mindful of the Church year, Advent is to Christmas as Lent is to Easter—a time which, while it need not be dominated by joyless solemnity, should properly have a touch of melancholy about it. As I look through the Advent hymns in my Anglican hymnal, separated from the Christmas hymns, I fear that their distinctive quality is lost in our haste towards Christmas. Chief among these is the hymn “O Very God Of Very God,” whose lyrics never fail to strike a solemn chill in my heart. With magnificent economy, J. M. Neale conveys the spirit of Advent season: a season of longing, a season of waiting, a season of turning our face whence daylight springs. A season of cold night and thick darkness, when in low voices of confession men might allow themselves to whisper, “Tonight, my hopes are weak. Tonight, my fears are strong.”
I have recently felt this spirit of Advent more strongly than ever as I reflect on the ongoing plight of Nigeria’s persecuted northern Christians. My attention was drawn this past week to a new report by French-Jewish philosopher, provocateur and war correspondent Bernard-Henri Levy, one of a single-hand handful of Europe and the UK’s elite journalism class who has shown any interest in the crisis. The page can be translated from the French for those who, like me, aren’t bilingual. I would encourage people to do so, with a warning for those sensitive to descriptions of very strong violence. Levy writes incisively and humanely about the suffering villagers and the corruption infesting every level of their surrounding governance which has allowed their slaughter to continue. He also provides chilling perspective from the side of their persecutors, the Fulani herdsmen. In an especially astonishing image which seems such stuff as literature should be made on, Levy confronts a smirking youth with a T-shirt bearing a swastika. The youth is briefly set back on his heels but finds his spin soon enough.
The reader palpably feels with Levy the burden of Nigeria’s pain, as a band of faithful leaders make their weary way to rendezvous in Abuja, bearing records of the slaughter this “banality of an evil” has wrought: a thumb drive, packets of bad photos with dates and captions, “which they will submit, like so many bottles in the sea, to a stranger about whom they know nothing but who will perhaps be the messenger of their suffering.” Levy takes them in trust, feeling unworthy but determined, at the very least, to be a witness.
I first became aware of this hidden horror through the work of one of the other fingers on the one hand who has brought back a report, British journalist Douglas Murray. In writing and speaking about what he personally witnessed, Murray has minced no words about the parochialism of his own peers, both the freethinking variety and the milquetoast politically correct Anglican variety. The simple and ugly fact, which he relentlessly drags by its hair out into the noonday light of truth, is that most Westerners do not care about Nigeria’s Christians because most Westerners hold them beneath contempt. They are unattractive. They have the wrong opinions about sexual morality. They can’t be turned into mascots for any useful cause. Therefore, they are ignored, and their slaughter covered over with boilerplate rhetoric about how “the Nigerian conflict” is a “tit-for-tat” of farmers versus herdsmen.
Both Murray and Levy remain secure in their own personal lack of any particular religious belief. Yet they exhibit that ingrained addiction to truth-telling that makes them incapable of tolerating those who live by the lie. I am often moved to reflect that men who possess this quality are, perhaps, not so very far from the kingdom. I could wish it was a hallmark of more who already claimed the name “Christian.”
Among those who do honorably bear this hallmark is the British activist Baroness Cox, who herself narrowly escaped assassination on visiting the Nigerian war zone. In an interview, she recalls a newsletter sent out by Archbishop Ben Kwoshi of Jos shortly after his wife, Gloria, had returned badly beaten but alive from a kidnapping. The Archbishop is a figure who burns with singular intensity throughout reports brought back from the northern Nigerian war zone—a shepherd by no means exempt from the terror that has come down like a wolf on his fold. He wrote in the newsletter about the first Communion he and Gloria shared together while she sat up in her hospital bed, praising and thanking God that they had been found worthy to suffer for His sake. This video offers a painful yet bracing glimpse into the witness of this family in their own words. In it, Kwoshi recalls another raid where he knelt praying with a gun to his head, “Lord, if there is still work for me to do, let me live.”
As Christians, we believe God has the power to spare any whom He chooses. Yet the relentless and indiscriminate slaughters of Nigeria’s Christians stand as a stark and haunting reminder of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s “And if not…” David in the Psalms writes that the arrow and the noisome pestilence will not touch the one who has called on the name of the Lord. Yet how many have known him, and still been cut down? How many have called upon Him, and their mouths been stopped?
Again, I draw from Baroness Cox’s wisdom as she reflects in the same interview above on the problem of evil. Christmas, she notes, is a time of great joy, yet in the midst of great joy there is a slaughter—the slaughter of the innocents. There is a calvary. There is a crucifixion. And so we are reminded how it is that crucifixion is now and always, always now, since before Abraham was.
In thinking on these things, I have no more fitting conclusion than the words of an Armenian Catholic priest to the Baroness. He thanked her for coming to witness their own persecution this way: “When Christ rose and appeared to the disciples, he invited Thomas to put his hands into the wounds. Then he said ‘Now you believe. Go and tell.’ And so I thank you today for coming and putting your hands into the wounds of the church. Now you believe. Go and tell.”
Those happily honorable few who have taken it upon themselves to place their hands into the wounds of the Church may not yet all believe as Thomas did. Nevertheless, they did go and tell. And so we read what they have told us, and we ache. We read, and we wait in faith that though the stars should break faith with the sky, yet a deliverer comes. We read, and we look to the East, to the kindling of that dawning, to the dawning of that day whose light shall never more be quelled.