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My ordeal in herdsmen kidnappers’ den – Fr. Marcel Onyeocha Cmf

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My ordeal in herdsmen kidnappers' den – Fr. Marcel Onyeocha Cmf

On Saturday night, April 10, 2021, the ugly news of the kidnap of a senior Claretian priest and renowned professor at the Imo State University, Owerri, Rev. Fr. (Prof.) Izuchukwu Marcel Onyeocha cmf started to filter into town. The next day, Sunday April 11, the news was everywhere in Nigeria and overseas, especially in the social media, and there were many versions of it. At midnight that Sunday, April 11, Fr. Onyeocha was miraculously freed by his abductors.

In this interview at the Claretian University Hospital, Owerri, where he is receiving treatment, Fr. Onyeocha shared his agonizing experience in the hands of his Fulani herdsmen abductors. It is touching, heartbreaking and harrowing.

Excerpt:

Fr. we thank God for your freedom. There are many versions of both your abduction and release. What exactly happened?

What happened was that I went to Enugu for a wedding. One of my former students was wedding at Enugu. He had written his Ph.D on my Philosophy and he wanted me to be present at that wedding. He even went the extra mile of getting a driver to drive me to that place because I wasn’t well. After the occasion, we started coming back and on the way our car developed a small problem of “Break & Quench.” It started from Enugu and if you re-started it, it started until we got near Ihube Junction, it wouldn’t start anymore. So, the young man (the driver) got an okada to take him to Okigwe Roundabout to get an electrician because we suspected it was fuel pump. So, they brought a fuel pump within 15 minutes and it was noticed that it was not fuel pump that was at fault. By then it was getting to 6pm, that Saturday evening. So, the electrician called to see where he could get the Coil, as many had already closed shop. They eventually got the coil and were back in about 15 minutes. Then he fixed the coil and everything was alright. It was when he was closing the bonnet, that these people swooped from the bush, and attacked us.

How many of them?
They were six in number and they are all herdsmen. They were armed with unsheathed machetes and other weapons inside their bags. They dragged me out of the car and started punching me, kicking me, and hitting me with the flat side of their machetes. It was terrible; they were hitting my head. They left marks on my face. They kept dragging me into the forest for more than an hour. All this happened in the forest; they didn’t take me to any building.

While these things were happening, nobody helped you – No security people around?

Everybody ran away, even the driver and the electrician. I didn’t know if anybody came anyway. It was the herders that told me that they were not interested in those people (the electrician and driver) but me, the big man sitting in the car.

It was completely dark; I couldn’t see anything, may be they see in the night because they were walking as if they were walking on the road, through potholes and mounds. Since I couldn’t walk by myself, they dragged me and if I fell down, they beat me. We got to a place and they sat down. It seemed they cleared that place. We sat down and they were threatening me, that they will cut off my head. They asked me to use my phone to call my people to send them N50 million. I said I didn’t have such money. Even, they said they were going to use my phone to video the cutting-off of my ears and after which they will remove one of my eyes to show the people that they were serious. They said they were giving us some time to meet their demand. So, later at about midnight, they moved from that place to another dark place. Then, after about one hour, they moved again to another place till Sunday morning. I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t hear any sound; the sound of anybody, vehicle etc, and there was no footpath there.

I was saying my prayers quietly throughout. And they were using my phone all the time, not their own, playing computer game with it until they exhausted all the airtime. Then eventually, they said okay, they came down to N15 million. I said to them, ‘I’m not sure I’ve seen one million naira cash put together and I’m sure I’ve not seen it. But they said, it doesn’t matter to us, sell that car and people will pay at least N10million to buy it and send them the money. And the negotiation continued. They were threatening me, every minute throughout the ordeal. Around 5pm (Sunday), they said okay, you know your phone will run out soon and if these people don’t bring N15m, we will kill you this night and then move on, and go where we can get money. This is business, this is our job to get money; so they should stop wasting our time.

Then around 6.30pm, there was a sudden change of heart as one of them said, if we release you now, can you find your way to the Express Way? I said, I don’t know where I am unless you show me the way, but if you release me, I will thank God, I’ll thank you. They said, no, no, your people should bring N15m. Sell that car. If you sell it for N10m, we will take it.

The change of heart I noticed was when they sheathed back all their weapons and went to one side. They were no longer standing behind me with their raised machetes. They now stand among themselves and conversing among themselves in their language and if anybody called me on my phone they would put it on speaker and will mention their demands.

All along they were asking some tricky questions like, what place is this? I told them I didn’t know and I didn’t know actually. At about 10pm, they said you will walk by yourself if we let you go. I said, if you showed me the way, maybe some people will help. They said not yet. They were waiting till midnight. At midnight, they said, alright, let’s go. They were holding me by the shoulders as we were walking. Then they came to a footpath, a road junction where the foot path joined. One went right the other went left. They said okay. They pointed towards the right and said, go there, you’ll get to a village first and you’ll ask them how to get to the Express Road.

So, it was a dead end they were sending me. That place was a Quarry, a construction site, there was no road leading anywhere. Below it was a gully, on top of it were high piles of latrite, and as I was trying to find my way, a huge rain started. There was no shade and all the rain fell on me. By the way, they also gave me back my handset, so, I used the torch of the handset, and was raising it, calling for help. Well, I saw some light flash but they would flash and then disappear. They were perhaps afraid too. Eventually one of them mustered the courage, approached and flashed his light on my face from behind; I turned, showed my face and introduced myself etc. They were security people, I think guarding the Quarry. They had to take me by the hand like a little child.

Meanwhile, that rain was so severe that the mud almost reached my knees. They brought me out from the forest and took me to where the other security people were. They were armed, legitimate security men. They used their phone to call the armed forces, military team. They came in their patrol vehicle immediately; put me in the vehicle around 1 am. They said they would take me to the nearest hospital but I said don’t take me to any hospital; take me to any Catholic Church. They took me to a Presbyterian Church. But I said, no it’s the Catholic Church I want to go. So, they now turned and only then I knew that the Express Way they were talking about is about 20kms from where they dropped me. They took me to St. Mary’s Cathedral Okigwe. Everybody had gone to bed. Two seminarians came out, and the priests started emerging. They took good care of me that night. Meanwhile, when the Cathedral Administrator came, he said the police called him and said I was in the Cathedral. The priests did me proud and brought me back to Owerri safely. Now, I’m at the Claretian University Hospital for evaluation. I can now stand and walk.

What do you think informed their change of heart becoming kind after threatening to kill you?
Will I tell you? Isn’t it God? Who else can do it? They saw I was a priest and they tore my clothes and threw them away saying, it doesn’t matter to them. All they needed was their money. They just changed suddenly and gave me back my phones. Even one of them asked if I could give him the bigger phone and I said take the phone if you want. He said no.

What was their language? Were they speaking English?
They were speaking good English but that was when they were talking to me. To themselves, they were speaking their language. I didn’t understand a word throughout the ordeal. I think when they began to have a change of mind, instead of their drawn unsheathed weapons, they now sheathed them back and instead of standing behind me, they now went apart, about six feet away, conversing quietly, while I was seating where I was seating. I cannot say this or that informed their change of heart, I think God.

Don’t you think that their oga, having heard the tension generated by your kidnap, may have told them to release you immediately?
Well, not that I was aware of because they have their own phones too with which they were communicating. I didn’t know what they were talking about. I don’t know what informed them but they were very calm; gave me my phones back.

What food were they serving you?
I ate nothing. I had one bottle of Eva Water, that’s what I drank on Sunday morning around 7am. That’s all I had until I came out. They made me an offer and went and bought malt, biscuit and bread and they were offering me, I said no, that I was sick and needed to go home and take my medicine.

Which means there is a village nearby where they bought the snacks?
There was a place where one always went to and came back with a black bag full of the things they need. They knew what they were doing.

Do you think the villagers are not aware of their presence and menace around the area?
Those people are clever. I think during the day, they parade themselves as herdsmen but at night, they do what they do.

How old are they?
They are teenagers. I think the oldest of them is not more than 22 years.

Were you blindfolded?
They didn’t blindfold me. But they made me look in the same direction they were looking and I could see them with the corner of my eyes but what could I do. Even if I look at their face, will I fight them?

We thank God you did not stay as much as Bishop Moses Chukwe stayed in kidnappers’ den
Yes, but what I would say is let nobody experience anything near what I went through. I think it is the worst type of thing anybody can experience; not even for a minute.

Did they bring in other victims within the period?
No, I was the only person they held and in that case, I knew that the chances are only as slim as that, to say let’s go without their getting what they were looking for. Even when they say go, I thought they were going to shoot me from behind. They didn’t shoot me. They just left. I think it is God.

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The Life of Exile And the meaning of Redemption (5)

By Fr. Dr. Gilbert Alaribe

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The Life of Exile And the meaning of Redemption (1)

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labour under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. 

They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonour, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they, rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.

To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world”.

The Christian life is a pilgrimage of faith. The nomadic existence of a Christian is not like the wayfaring of a perennial wanderer, of the man or woman who has opted for the open road, of willed homelessness. The Christian does indeed incarnate/instantiate home ‘in the world’; yet he is not ‘of the world’. 

The Christian as a resident alien

The theme of the continuing exile of God’s people in the world was one that the author of the New Testament book, The Letter to the Hebrews, gives renewed attention and urgency. The author – like possibly many Jews of his time – rereads Israel’s history, from Abraham up to the time of audience under Greek and Roman influences, as one of incomplete possession of the land (cf. Thiessen, 2007). Israel’s history is thought to have been frozen in the period of the exile, as evidenced by the continuing subjugation of God’s people to foreign nations. Though Joshua led the people of Israel to the Land of Promise, he did not succeed in leading them to the Land of Rest (Hebrews 3 – 4). Through a radical explication of Psalm 95 the author is certain that while the promise of the land was fulfilled, the blessing of rest was denied as a result of the disobedience of the people. The envisioned end of Israel’s continuing exodus and wildereness wandering (Hebrews 11:1 – 12:3) will be when God’s people draw near to the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22 – 29). As a result, a rest-less-ness, a condition of ongoing exile and persistent search for the road homeward, remains an ongoing existential experience for God’s people in all generations.

Hauerwas and Willian, evoking mostly the sentiments of the anonymous author of the Letter to Diognetus, and as well the words of Paul in his Letter to the Philippians, describe the conditions of the Christians in the contemporary world as that of resident aliens. At the personal level, Paul had enjoined the Philippians: “work out your salvation in fear and trembling. It is God who, for his own generous purpose, gives you the intention and the powers to act” (Philippians 2:13). At the collective level, and because the Christians in Philippi were surrounded by a deceitful and underhand brood, Paul commands them to ‘shine like bright stars in the world, proffering to it the Word of life.’ (v.15). As residents, and yet lacking in citizenship rights, the Christian community was not to model itself according to the world, but must continually raise its sight heavenward: “Our homeland is in heaven and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:20). The description of the life of the Christian minority in Philippi as a ‘colony of heaven’ was something that Paul knew his hearers will understand: “A colony is a beachhead, an outpost, an island of one culture in the middle of another, a place where the values of home are reiterated and passed on to the young, a place where the distinctive language and life-style of the resident aliens are lovingly nurtured and reinforced” (Hauerwas & Willimon, p….).

In our mostly secular world the Church no longer dominates social life, nor is it ascribed any fundamental role in the society. There is always the temptation for some Christians to hide and withdraw into some cocoon where they may feel ‘secure’ and ‘aloof’. But – even as resident aliens – can the Christians really dispense with the world, any more than the soul dispense with matter? Just as the soul is never so enfranchised as to be able to reject matter, so the Church must continue to seek out ways to become a contagious force, ‘the salt of the earth’ and ‘the light of the world’ (Mathew 5:13 – 16). And, accordingly, Hauerwas and Willimon occupy themselves extensively with the question about the models of exchange between the Christian Church and the world around it. How best can the Church relate with the world around her in a way that is unapologetic but credible? How can she witness to Christ in that world, and become a leaven for the transformation of culture? What does it mean for the Church to be a ‘colony of heaven’ in the mainstream world around it, with all the changes in social living, and the vast array of languages and cultures encountered in the mostly secular, plural world of today? What adventures of faith and outreach await the Christian community as it attempts to embody Christ’s model of living that is credible in the world of today?

Church and culture: Faith Journeys

The intention here is not to delve into philosophical debates, but to recognize the spectacular journeys of faith, and the extraordinary mission, the Christian Church in every age must undertake in order to become a leaven for the world around it. In my Volume One (Alaribe, 2015), I commented on the words of Gorres about the two awakenings that must happen in today’s world: the awakening of the church in the souls of men (Gaurdini), as well as the awakening of the world in the souls of men, and in the heart of the Church (Gorres). Both awakenings are faith journeys requiring encounters with the wilderness at various levels. For the Church to reach out to the world, it will require that the shells in which previously the missionary zeal of Christians had slumbered, be burst open with a new vision and a new ardour. When the Church awakens in the heart of men, and brings to fruition in their lives the virtues of heaven, then the kingdom of heaven – long the object of prayer – will make its entrance in the affairs of men. Again, when the world awakens in the souls of men and in the heart of the Church, then piety will no longer be something otherworldly, but a reality that takes seriously the ebb and flow of daily life.

To allow for the possibility of believing at the same time and fundamentally – believing each through the other – in God and in the world, was one of the major themes captured in a letter of Pere Teilhard de Chardin to Pere Victor Fonoynont: “I would like to be able to love Christ passionately (by loving) in the very act of loving the universe. Is it a wild dream or a blasphemy? Besides communion with God and communion with the Earth, is there communion with God through the Earth – the Earth becoming like a great Host in which God would be contained for us?” (p. 245 of The Religion of Teilhard de Chardin).

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The Nigeria-Biafra War (5) The Battle Begins – Year 1967

By Prof. Peter Okorie
Culled from “Nigeria Too Hard to Hold,” By Prof. Peter Okorie
(Copies available at Assumpta Bookshop Owerri, OCS Building,
IMSU. Cost N3000. Contact: 07036465863, 08037061402)

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The Nigeria-Biafra War (5) The Battle Begins – Year 1967

By July 1967, Nigeria was battle ready with over 8,000 soldiers massed around Makurdi-Oturkpo axis, armed to the teeth, and supported by dozens of ferret armoured cars and heavy artillery. Biafra barely had three battalions, albeit poorly equipped, when the war started. On July 6, the Nigerians attacked the barely one month old Republic, predictably from two main axis: Ogoja and Nsukka. In the Ogoja sector, three Nigerian battalions attacked Obudu and Gakem. There was one poorly equipped Biafran battalion to stop them. Similarly at the Nsukka sector there was one poorly equipped Biafran battalion to stop two Nigerian battalions.      

In some professional armies, there is a joke shared with young army recruits that God usually fights on the side of the bigger battalions. This statement is not borne out of any atheist inclination. Very far from it! The joke is a way of warning soldiers that the outcome of battles is determined by the quality of weaponry and training, not righteousness of one’s cause, or luck. In such armies, when a soldier sends a radio message to his commander that he is in trouble, the usual reply is: trust in your weapons and training. Yes, there may be occasional lucky breakthroughs where a chance direct hit on a strategic enemy target could change the course of battle, as was the case in Abagana in Biafra. But these were occasional events. As children say: not everyday is Christmas.       The attack at both Ogoja and Nsukka sectors followed a similar pattern: prolonged artillery bombardment of Biafran positions, next advancing ferret armoured cars spitting fire 180 degrees arc, followed by the infantry, often in compact phalanx and chanting war songs. A defending army, without bazookas or any anti-tank weapons under this circumstance, has no option than to allow the heavy frontal armoured column to pass and thereafter engage the infantry at the flanks. In both sectors the Biafran forces inflicted heavy casualties on the Nigerian Army and captured considerable military supplies from them. A captured Yoruba officer confessed that their intelligence reports grossly under-estimated the Biafran defences. However the Nigerians continued to reinforce and advance. In about a week of fighting it looked as if the Biafran resistance had collapsed. The defenders, already outrageously out-gunned, now also ran out of ammunition. Ogoja was lost on 12 July followed by Nsukka on 14 July. A long awaited shipment of weapons to Biafra mysteriously arrived Port Harcourt but the much needed artillery and bazookas listed in the manifesto were not there. Aware of the precarious shortage of weapons and ammunition, the Federal forces opened up new fronts to thin out and exhaust the Biafran defenders. They landed three battalions in Bonny with only one platoon of Biafran soldiers there to stop them.      

In a manner, akin to the German style Blitzkrieg (lightning war) the supposedly ‘dying’ Biafra took over the Midwest region of Nigeria on 9 August, 1967. The expeditionary brigade of 3,000 soldiers and militia fanned out in three axis: one north-wards towards Auchi to protect the northern flank; a second battalion southwards to take over seaports in Warri and Sapele; and the third battalion, the main force, to move straight to Ibadan where they would be joined by local forces for the onward march to their final destination – Lagos.

The expeditionary force, called Liberation Army, was led by Brigadier Victor Banjo, a Yoruba. Brig. Banjo was one of the Nigerian army officers detained in Enugu in connection with the January 15 coup. It was assumed that, as a Yoruba, Banjo was bound to appeal more to both the Mid-West and West, including Lagos, thus making it feasible to galvanize forces to remove Gowon from Lagos. If the expedition was led by an Eastern officer, the old narrative of Eastern (Igbo) domination would re-surface. The Chief of Staff of the Liberation Army was Lt. Col. Adewale Ademoyega, one of the five majors of January 15 coup, who was also detained in Enugu. Like Brig. Banjo, Col. Ademoyega was one of the first six graduates that enrolled as an officer in the Nigerian Army. He earned a degree in History in the University of London. Both Banjo and Ademoyega were soldiers of outstanding intellect and bravery.      

For inexplicable reasons, rather than follow the initial battle plan of going straight to Ibadan and thence to Lagos, Banjo paused in Benin for several days where he made speeches. In some quarters this was seen as a deliberate sabotage. In other quarters it was argued that he needed the break to ‘connect’ properly with the West and that the speeches were meant to assure the West that he (Banjo) was the person leading the Liberation Army. It took several days of persuasion and, eventually, a meeting with Ojukwu before the Liberation Army continued its westwards advance. By 16 August, they had crossed Ogosu River after inflicting a defeat on the Federal army there. Despite resistance by the Nigerian Army, the Biafran forces continued to advance, capturing Ore on 20 August. The defeat of the Federal forces at Ore led to the Yoruba slogan – ‘O le ku, Ija Ore’ (it was tough at Ore battle). The Nigerian army had to blow up the Shasha bridge at Mile 82 Lagos-Ore road to stop the advance of the Liberation Army. Thus the element of surprise had gone. The federal forces re-organised and started fighting back.

Over two thousand years ago, Sun Tzu in The Art of War wrote: 

The condition of a military force is that its essential factor is speed, taking advantage of others’ failure to catch up, going by routes they do not expect, attacking where they are not on ground.

This means that to take advantage of the unpreparedness or lack of caution on the part of opponents, it is necessary to proceed quickly, as hesitance would spell doom. The Liberation Army hesitated at Benin and lost the initiative. Had this expeditionary force followed its initial battle plan, Col. Gowon would have fled Lagos, and the One Nigeria project would have either been abandoned or made much more difficult, if not impossible altogether. Biafra would have been an illustration of Sun Tzu’s dictum of the classic ‘To win without fighting is best’.      

 The quickly mobilized 2nd Division of the Nigerian Army led by Col. Murtala Muhammed was charged with the responsibility of re-capturing the Mid-West. It promptly attacked from two sectors: Ore and Okene. The Ore sector remained stable but the Okene-Auchi axis collapsed. Fearing being cut off from the Auchi direction, the Biafran force at Ore eventually had to withdraw eastwards. Enugu fell on 4 October, 1967. Two days later, the Nigerian Army took Asaba and would have crossed into Onitsha if not for the partial destruction of the River Niger Bridge. Nevertheless the Nigerian Army still decided to attack Onitsha.

Emboldened by its successes so far the 2 Division under Col. Murtala planned a frontal attack on Onitsha by crossing the River Niger. The invasion commenced on 12 October. After intensive artillery bombardment as usual, which was assumed to have thoroughly weakened Biafran defensive positions, the Nigerian armada left Asaba all headed towards Onitsha. The boats were systematically sunk one after the other by Biafran defenders resulting in heavy casualties on the invaders. A senior commander of the Nigerian army at that period described the tactics of a frontal attack on the enemy at the opposite end of the river as one of the blunders of the Nigerian Army during the civil war. It was reported that a home made Biafran rocket had its first ‘kill’ of a Nigerian naval boat.

But a large number of Nigerian troops still managed to land in Onitsha. Instead of pressing their military objectives, they started celebrations in Onitsha market. This gave Biafrans time to organize a counter-attack led by Joe Achuzia and Major Assam Nsudoh.

oe Achuzia from Mid-West was at that time a volunteer militia while Major Nsudoh was a regular soldier from the so-called minority areas of Biafra. These officers were admired for fighting alongside their men. It was the kind of man-to-man fighting Biafran soldiers craved for. Almost all the invading troops were either killed or captured. Onitsha was completely cleared. Biafran troops captured a lot of Nigerian stores including a brand new Panhard Armoured Car, a badly needed fighting vehicle in Biafra then. The armoured car was later named ‘Corporal Nwafor’ in honour of the brave Biafran soldier who died after immobilizing the vehicle.

 The victorious battle at Onitsha was highly significant. It was the first time Biafran troops recaptured a Biafran city. The 2nd Division lost so much in men and materials in the first invasion and it was assumed they would not try it again. But they went ahead and tried two more times and they were again defeated in the two attempts. At the end of the battles, a majority of the estimated 5,000 attacking force were either killed or captured. After the battle Joe Achuzia was commissioned into the Biafran Army as a Major, thereafter rising to a Brigadier at the close of the war. He later became one of the most successful Biafran commanders and was nicknamed Hannibal for his exploits. He was known for his versatility in asymmetric confrontation, his passionate desire to fight shoulder-toshoulder with his men; and intolerance for cowardice among his men. Prior to joining the Biafran Army in May 1967, Achuzia had been an engineer with the Shell Petroleum company based in Port Harcourt and married to a British wife. He was a founder of the Militia in Port Harcourt.

Over ten years after the civil war, ever loyal to his former boss, Achuzia was a conspicuous figure in the super mammoth crowd that came to welcome Ojukwu from exile in June, 1982. He was also present in most events which this author helped organize for Ojukwu’s burial ceremonies in 2011/2012. Seeing the calm looking veteran, it was hard to reconcile that this was the fire spitting warrior who was ‘Hannibal’ to some or ‘Air Raid’ for others. Hannibal was a Carthaginian General and statesman who commanded Carthage’s main force against the Roman Republic during the second punic war. He is still today widely considered one of the greatest military commanders in world history. Hannibal the Carthaginian was a familiar character to the ‘boys’ in the Biafran Army, as the primary school history textbook in use at that time had a spectacular drawing of Hannibal crossing the alps to battle using elephants as carriers. 

While Biafra was still savouring the victory at Onitsha, the Nigerian Army entered Calabar on 18th October. It was again a case of one poorly equipped Biafran battalion against six or more well equipped Nigerian battalions amply supported by over half a dozen ferrets, saladin armoured cars, mortars and artillery guns. At the end of 1967, Biafra had lost Nsukka, Nkalagu, Enugu, Ogoja, Bonny and Calabar. Biafra had also lost the whole of the Mid-West. But while the Federal soldiers stayed in the main towns, Biafran fighters were all around them in defensive positions. The deadlines on ‘crushing’ Biafra had not materialized. Though a lot of grounds had been lost, the fighting morale remained high. There was an all-pervading optimism that once Biafra secured a steady source of weaponry from a world power, she would recapture all lost grounds.

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The Life of Exile And the meaning of Redemption (4)

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The Life of Exile And the meaning of Redemption (1)

Redemption remains always a difficult enterprise that engages individuals and groups at several levels. Not a few of the slaves living then in Goshen, groaning under their burden, and crying out for help from the depths of that slavery (Exod.2;23), trusted that hope was still on the horizon. Even Moses was uncertain of his suitability for the job: “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exod.3:11). The cumulative of critical encounters, actions and reactions of the principal actors in the drama affirm the truth that human agents can always cooperate with divine grace to create in human history outlets of revitalization, reversals and accelerations.
Israel on a journey homeward

The books that capture the story of liberation of Israel from exile, and that make available to future generations of God-seekers the challenges on the homecoming journey, are especially Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua. When God initially announced his intention to Moses of rescuing the enslaved people from Egyptian bondage in Exodus 3:8, it was with a promise that Moses will lead Israel to a country rich and broad, to a land flowing with milk and honey. Canaan was the divine destination for God’s people. Its beauty and attractiveness are pictorially made evident by using the imageries of milk and honey. In some sense these imageries evoke the picture of Eden, the garden of abundance, pure delight and enjoyment that harboured our First Parents – Adam and Eve.

Any ordinary reader would expect the ensuing journey from bondage to redemption to be an upbeat experience brimming with excitement. The people had great dreams and high expectations at the delights of Canaan. But redemption was a costly enterprise. Redemption remains for every generation an altogether dramatic and tenuous experience. To negotiate the journey to Canaan, Israel had to spend 40 long years wandering in the treaterous wilderness. There were many reversals on the journey of Israel’s redemption: At Sinai the loose multitude that left Egypt with Moses underwent a wholesale transformation of identity to become ‘God’s people’; yet no member of that generation that witnessed the sacred events on the mountain survived the bewildering conditions of the wilderness. At emergency junctures throughout the journey the people witnessed many mighty works of God; yet stories of disappointments and failures abounded in almost equal measure. Many times Israel was in awe of the wonders of God in the wilderness; but as often, Israel grumbled against God and showed lack of faith. We are left to wonder: why did God not make the story of redemption easier for Israel, so that God’s people could just stroll into the land of their dreams and settle? How could a journey to the Promised Land almost turn into such a national disaster?

Such was the portrait of the journey of redemption by the books of the Pentateuch. The journey homeward for many people in our time may not be evolving any differently. For many the path to their own freedom winds through roads that open up to frontier experiences where the wayfarer becomes altogether a pathfinder. For others the personal and collective sacrifices needed for the journey will entail the discarding of the medley of inessential details and surface charms that encumber the soul. For every believer the journey will ever remain a formative experience shaping both personal life and destiny.

The two Tensions of Human Existence: the dweller and the wayfarer
Between the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy Israel made about 42 stopovers on their way to Canaan. A journey that looked so straightforward at the beginning became increasingly long and circuitious. Seldom was Israel allowed to travel in any obvious, direct, path (Exod.13:17 – 18). Indeed every journey of redemption remains hazarduous, and as the wayfarer veers off into uncharted territories, innumerable trials and tribulations test the limits of courage. Occasionally Israel was fickle and short-sighted, and so complained and revolted against God and Moses (Numbers 11:4; 14:1 – 2; 21:5); other times, disheartened because of the challenges on the way, Israel was tempted to stay rooted in one place, to attempt no further progress, and even to turn back in terror (Exod.14:10 – 12). But again and again the command was prompt: march on (Exod.14:15), move on from here (Exod.33:1). Other stop-over stations for Israel served as resting posts, places for refuelling, for resolving communal disputes, for awaiting guidance from God. And so the entire exodus itinerary consisted of periods of halting, and of wandering: “Whenver the cloud rose from the Tent, the Israelites broke camp, and wherever the cloud halted, there the Israelites pitched camp. At Yahweh’s order, the Israelites set out and, at Yahweh’s order, the Israelites pitched camp. They remained in camp for as long as the cloud rested on the Dwelling” (Numbers 9:17 – 18). Two generations of Israelites spent their lives on the road, pilgrims living between the stations of resting and the experiences on the open road.

Kohak (1996) has rightfully noted that the ‘dweller’ and the ‘wayfarer’ are among the more perennial metaphors of our humanity. Both are metaphors of incarnation, of human presence. On the one hand, life becomes actual only if it consents to dwell, to commit itself to flesh, to a time and a place. To be human is to be in the world, to be a dweller. On the other hand, to be actual life must equally learn to transcend the present in memory and imagination, to transcend space in love and vision.

Both metaphors are captured in the Bible: In the words of Jesus, his disciples are to be ‘in the world’ but not ‘of the world’ (John 17:14 – 15). The disciples of Jesus must be ‘in the world’, citizens of a country, at home within their particular historical time and place. Nonetheless, Life will cease to be meaningful if it is submerged in its embodiment, a slave to the fads and fashions of the times. To be meaningful, the Christian life must stand ‘out of this world’ and be able to feel the seduction of the horizon. And so the Christian must be ready, every moment, to transcend sedentary existence: “Anyone who comes to me without hating father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes and his own life too, cannot be my disciple. No one who does not carry his cross and come after me can be my disciple” (Luke 14:26 – 27).
The strategy for living differs for both the dweller and the wayfarer:

“Dwellers are strong in sinking roots, wayfarers in travelling light. Dwellers seek to stay with their love, wayfarers know the task vain and cut their anchor rope before time and tide can drag them down. Perhaps their respective ways of experiencing time are the key. The dwellers’ time is as cyclical as the eternal return of the seasons. There is nothing new under the sun, and unto its circuits the wind returneth. There each end is also a new beginning, each death a new birth. The time of the wayfarer is linear, as the endless open road. There are no returns; there are no replays. Time is irreversible, ever new. What is left behind is gone forever. Wayfarers must travel light and never look back. Their strength is detachment as the strength of the dwellers is rooting” (Kohak, p.38 – 39).

The Christian life displays these two tensions of human existence. The Christian is in the world, has a home somewhere, and at some point in time; and yet the Christian is not of the world – his or her place is not exhausted by his or her belonging to a particular tribe, nation or place, at any particular point in time. The anonymous author of the Letter to Diognetus captures these two tensions of the Christian existence in the world:

“Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

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LEAD STORY JUNE 13

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