“But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” (Philippians 3:20–21)
It was close to Nigeria’s Democracy Day, May 29, in 2012 or 2013, as I walked from my apartment home with my headphones on, listening to songs on my favourite playlist. My serene time alone was suddenly and annoyingly interrupted by a promoted “patriotic” song which contained the National Pledge in it. I decided to say it along with the artist. Though it had been ages, I was sure I could easily recall all the lines in the same way that I could drive any car even if I had not done so in years. I was dead wrong!
The song came to an end and I was still trying to remember the lines of the Pledge. I tried twice or thrice and kept mixing up the lines. Out of personal embarrassment, I eventually tried the millennial solution: I googled it.
I forgot, not so much because I intended to – after all, the last time I recited it was as part of a daily routine in secondary school aeons ago. Also, at that time, I had not lived in Nigeria for several years and it had been a while since I had heard both the pledge and the anthem.
That said, it was still troubling. Symbols are extremely important to human beings, especially when conveying things that we hold very dearly. The National Pledge represents a lot of things, but at its core is its symbolic value. Not being able to recite it, even when given three tries, said something about my patriotism: it was severely diminishing. This episode made me begin to question even deeper what it meant to be a good citizen, especially considering that I was also a Christian. As we celebrate Democracy Day, I want to share a few thoughts about how Christians should think about being good citizens of our dear country Nigeria.
How not to be a Citizen
In my experience and observation with those I interact with personally or through social media, I would roughly give two general categories of how not to be a citizen.
Nonchalant Citizen: If you are below 55 years old and have lived your entire life in Nigeria, it is fair to say that you have not been handed a lot. Inconsistent power supply, substandard public education, substandard and ever degrading public infrastructure, corrupt leadership, pockets of cronyism, etc. Living under these conditions and being expected to have any kind of love for the country seems to be some kind of cruel joke. People in this category are reminded of how awful the country is to them when they think of October 1st, May 29th, or have to recite the Anthem or Pledge. They never, ever have anything good to say about Nigeria. However, in the final analysis, this way of thinking, though thoroughly understandable, is wrong. As Christians, we don’t love the country we’re born into on a transactional basis, but primarily because in God’s sovereignty he has ordained for us to be born there. (Acts 17:26)
Overzealous Citizen: This kind of Christian is aware of the undesirable characteristics of the country, but believes that acknowledging or speaking about it in any way is to engage in negativity which never leads to progress. This person identifies with a sentiment that believes that: “When we keep the negative in front of us, we will only heap negative results, but if keep a positive vision in our sights, backed up by speaking/declaring only positive things then we will eventually reap the nation we desire”. More troubling, in my estimation, is the practice of seeing Nigeria’s destiny fulfilled in Scripture and believing that God’s plan for Nigeria is only to see her prosper economically, socially, politically, etc. Too many sermons or prophecies are rooted in this assumption but unfortunately, most of the resultant content, the genuine desires notwithstanding, ends up living a lot to be desired when properly judged by careful Scriptural examination. Therefore, I often say that “God promises a New Jerusalem and not a New Nigeria…” (Revelation 21:2).
These two types of citizens make one fundamental mistake: both are expecting from the nation what Scripture has not told us to expect. How then can we be good citizens?
How to be a Citizen
Let me start by saying that I want the economic, social and cultural flourishing of my city and country as any Nigerian would. In fact, I see it as a duty, and that does not contradict anything I have written up to this point. Paul in Philippians 3:20–21 helps Christians to think more clearly about this sometimes-complex issue. Here are some things to observe:
- Christians are dual citizens: He says “Our citizenship is in heaven…”. By saying this, he is not saying that we are not citizens of our countries: Paul himself claims both his Jewish (Philippians 3:5) and Roman (Acts 22:27) heritages. Instead, he is saying we have a primary nationality that demands our allegiance above all other allegiances, including the country of our physical birth. In other words, when found in a situation where allegiance to one opposes the other we should/must always choose in favour of our heavenly citizenship.
- Christians’ Lord is also their Saviour: He also says “…we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ”. Being part of this country or kingdom is to recognise Jesus as Lord, however, you cannot be part of this kingdom without recognising him as Saviour. Though these two identities of Jesus are distinguishable, they cannot and must not be separated.
- Christian Citizenship is Eternal: The return of Jesus to transform our bodies into the nature of his resurrected body is to make his citizens fit for dwelling in his eternal kingdom. Very few people of their day thought the Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman or British empires would come to an end; they were far more stable, wealthier and older than Nigeria is today. Yet they did. Christians must be very careful not to pin idolatrous hopes on our nations in a way the Bible does not call us to.
With these biblical guardrails in place, let me then complete my initial quote:
“God promises a New Jerusalem and not a New Nigeria, nonetheless, we should work for a renewed and flourishing Nigeria”.
Our focus on the eternal leads to rejection of idolising the present, making us clear-headed and realistic about working for progress in the present. Christians work for justice, because we believe in an eternal kingdom of perfect justice (Jeremiah 23:5). Christians value our bodies and restrain ourselves from premarital sex because we believe that God will resurrect our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:13–14).
So much of Christian ethics is built upon the Christian hope. It has also been the case historically that the fuel that drives a lot of our social activism in the now is sourced from our view of what God promises in the eternal future. Therefore, because we believe in a future kingdom that will be free of any suffering (Revelation 21:4), we must work passionately for the alleviation of suffering. Because we believe in a world whose ground will not be cursed like Adam’s (Revelation 22:3), we continue to strive for innovation and creativity in our workplaces that moves our nation forward. Because we believe in a world where there will be perfect righteousness (2 Peter 3:13), we must continue to work tirelessly to see good governance and the eradication of corruption in our political institutions.
We do all these precisely because we look forward to that world: because we believe that no matter what we work for in this world, it will not be like the one to come. So, as we strive to make things better for people here, we should be as—if not more—passionate of getting others into that world (John 3:3, 5) and then anticipating along with them in the hopeful cry saying: “Come, Lord Jesus”.
Happy Democracy Day!