When a suicide bomber drove an explosives-packed car into the flagship church of one of Nigeria's largest denominations, angry Christian youth retaliated by burning Muslim shops and killing nearby motorcycle riders.

The February incident, which killed 12 and injured 40 at the Church of Christ in Nigeria's Jos headquarters, fueled the global debate over whether Nigeria will erupt into a religious civil war. Christmas Day bombings of northern churches by Islamist extremists, which killed 44, also fueled such fears. The headlines haven't stopped since. On Sunday, gunmen attacked church services in Kano and in Maiduguri, killing at least 21 people, including a pastor preparing for Communion.

Missing from all the analysis and commentary on the ethnic, political, and economic causes of such violence was one crucial element: theology.

Decades of violence have tested the faith of Nigerian Christians, but have also warped their theology. Too many of them now believe that violence is more redemptive than nonviolence; in other words, they resort to human efforts—traditional retaliation—when seeking justice. Correcting this warped theology offers the best way forward. Violence is a moral problem that challenges the core of the nature, presence, and power of the gospel in any environment.

Nigeria began the 21st century with the February 2000 slaughter of thousands in Kaduna over the introduction of Shari'ah law, and September 2001 saw a spree of church and mosque burnings in Jos. In November 2008, disputed local elections triggered clashes between Muslim and Christian youth in Jos. Hundreds died. In April 2011, riots following the controversial election of Christian president Goodluck Jonathan killed an estimated 800 people. Hundreds more have died in 2012 since Boko Haram militants urged Christians to leave the north.

The escalating attacks on churches and their members have prompted two main reactions. Some church leaders proclaim that Christians have the right to fight back against such evil. "We have turned both [cheeks], and they have slapped us. There is nothing else to turn," says John Praise, general overseer of Dominion Chapel International Churches. Other church leaders argue that, based on Jesus' teachings, Christians must always turn another cheek. "[Jesus] did that when he was arrested. It was what he used to conquer the world," says Bishop Wale Oke, a national vice president of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria.

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Today the eye-for-an-eye camp is growing in numbers, while the cheek-turners are dwindling. However, both arguments challenge the core teaching of Christian faith and theology, resulting in a deadlock. Rather than fighting back or folding our hands, Christianity teaches us to leave vengeance to God while taking concrete steps to bring peace. Scripture says, "Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves."

After years of researching, writing, and living in two flashpoints—Kaduna and Jos—on Nigeria's fault line between its mostly Christian south and mostly Muslim north, I argue for a third response that will finally bring healing: just peacemaking.

In the book The Impact of Ethnic, Political, and Religious Violence, and a Theological Reflection on Its Healing, I outline the salient reasons why just peacemaking is the solution to Nigeria's cycles of sectarian strife. My research shows that both Muslims and Christians fall victim to the Devil's scheme of using human agents to perpetuate moral excess and corruption. For example, in order to maintain the status quo of systemic injustice and structural inequality, the Nigerian political elite pit the poor from both faith communities—Islam and Christianity—against each other. They do so by creating an environment of political, social, economic, and ethnic dissatisfaction. The resulting violence has affected both the way Christians and Muslims relate to one another, and also the way Christians do theology in Nigeria.

The Language of Violence

The loss of ethical perspective stems from a reactionary theological method prevalent during the heyday of African independence in the late 1950s and early '60s. It prompted political and cultural criticism of the West and caused African theologians to engage in a hermeneutic of suspicion. Their theology began with the burden of trying to indigenize Christianity so that Africans who saw it as foreign would accept it. They criticized Western imperialism on one hand and Islam or traditional African religions on the other.

This approach did more harm than good. African theologians spent too much energy judging Western theologians, and spent little time developing theology to benefit God's kingdom in the African context. This impaired dialogue with the global community and other faiths. It censured society without equally criticizing itself. Consequently, in Nigeria today, "The land is full of bloodshed and the city is full of violence" (Ezek. 7:23). The Christian community has been lured into the language of violence instead of the language of dialogue, love, and compassion. Christians lack the antibodies to resist the temptation to fight back when attacked.

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Christian leaders across the country argue that the Christmas Day bombings were a declaration of war on Christianity. "Nigerian Christians may have no other option than to fight back their attackers," the Christian Association of Nigeria recently told President Jonathan. Pastor Philip Mwelbish, the association's leader for Plateau State, told the Associated Press, "We have a proverb in Nigeria: 'If you push a goat to the wall, he will bite you.' [Muslims] have pushed us to the wall."

But do Nigerian Christians truly have no other option than to respond with the same violence meted out by Muslim extremists?

The unfortunate truth is that after decades of religious violence, many Nigerian Christians are no longer willing to listen to Jesus' command to turn the other cheek. Feeling that Muslim extremists have had enough of a field day, these Christians have placed their hope for redemption in violence because they misinterpret Jesus' cheek-turning as mere passivity. What they don't realize is that what violence cannot do, active nonviolence—just peacemaking—can do. "Violence begets violence," said Martin Luther King Jr. But active nonviolence begets justice, love, forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace.

Just peacemaking requires dialogue and reconciliation. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught his disciples the principle of just peacemaking. Many think that just peacemaking is an impossible ideal. But that is misreading the text—one of many effects of violence upon the clarity of the gospel in Nigeria. Close attention to the text shows that Jesus was offering something else: a "transforming initiative," in the words of ethicist Glen Stassen.

Christians need to understand that the central message of the Sermon on the Mount is a protest against the socioeconomic and sociopolitical injustices of Jesus' day. In preaching this sermon, Jesus demonstrates that he loves righteousness, justice, and human flourishing.

God desires that the church should model and call the world to its God-given vocation: creating a humane society where justice, love, kindness, compassion, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation are a way of life. This is why the biblical concept of righteousness emphasizes interpersonal relationship, creating community, and hope for the future. The church's understanding of God's justice should shape its relationship with the rest of the world, particularly other faiths that do not share its perspectives. God is just because he brings justice to unjust men and women and makes them right. His justice is a saving justice (Ps. 31:2; 146:7). Through this justice, God creates peace—a shalom that lasts.

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The enemy of humanity is the Devil's schemes cast in social and political injustices. Nigeria's elite perpetuate moral excesses, encouraging a vicious cycle of violence that helps them to preserve their power. As German theologian Jürgen Moltmann aptly observed in Creating a Just Future, "Unjust systems can be kept alive only through violence. Where there is violence there is no peace; for where violence reigns, it is death that reigns and not life."

The cloud of fear hovering over Nigeria has kept Christian leaders from grasping a central aspect of Jesus' teaching.

Just peacemaking focuses on the God of justice, love, patience, and compassion who gives every human being dignity. That dignity is at the heart of Jesus' teaching on turning the other cheek. Jesus was introducing a transforming initiative that could return dignity to the poor. Theologian Walter Wink has argued that, based on the social and cultural context of Jesus' day, his message is far from passive. It is active. Jesus was teaching his disciples how to take back their human dignity in a Greco-Roman society where dehumanization was rampant.

Greco-Roman culture recognized the right hand as a hand of honor and the left hand as a hand of dishonor. In that context, whoever used their right hand to beat someone reduced their victim to nothing. But if the victim forced his or her oppressor to use the left hand, then the oppressor reduced himself to nothing. This turned the tables on the oppressors. They would not only realize that they had just dehumanized themselves. They would also abruptly recognize the humanity of the marginalized person.

Jesus was telling the poor that it was possible to nonviolently force persecutors to recognize their human dignity by turning the other cheek. The poor needed to remember that there was always an option; nonviolent initiatives would enable them to help oppressors recognize that the oppressed were fellow humans, not infidels. Jesus was teaching the church a powerful principle: Creative methods can end vicious cycles of violence.

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Alternative to Retaliation

Unfortunately, the cloud of fear hovering over Nigeria has kept Christian leaders and their followers from grasping this aspect of Jesus' teaching. Their assumption that "turning the other cheek" means passivity has led to revolts whenever violent attacks by Muslims occur. Christians seem to have no message for Muslims other than fighting back.

In Kaduna and Jos, I have proposed just peacemaking as an alternative to retaliation. I have been working with two groups—Ganty's Aid for Widows and Orphans (GAWON) and Global Relief and Development Mission (GRDM)—to demonstrate that just peacemaking is a viable option and to show how to practice this theology. I believe that Christians need to reach out to their Muslim brothers and sisters as fellow victims of the systemic injustices perpetuated by the rich elite. Through this process, Muslims who assume that all non-Muslims are infidels will recognize the fellow humanity of Christians.

In Kaduna, GAWON introduced a revolving loan program based on Jesus' principle that creative initiatives can reduce threats to human dignity. The loans empower Muslims and Christians widowed or orphaned by the sectarian violence that killed thousands in 2000. GAWON believes the best way to help Christian victims overcome retaliatory violence is to create opportunities for them to work alongside Muslim victims in order to build trust and confidence. Widows work on income-generating projects in groups of 10 based on their needs and interests. They hold each other accountable and support and encourage each other. The loan program launched in 2002 in the Moro'a chiefdom of southern Kaduna State. Since then, the community has enjoyed stability and peaceful coexistence. It has even provided refuge to Hausa-Fulani tribesmen forced to leave nearby communities where just peacemaking has not been practiced.

In Jos, GRDM gives loans and relief materials to both Christian and Muslim women in order to break the wall of partition between the two faiths. Because conflicts that emanate from differences are often very costly—destroying human lives as well as the material resources desperately needed by those who survive—GRDM collaborates with other NGOS and local governments to encourage the spirit of just peacemaking in Plateau State through workshops, seminars, and parleys.

In a Nigeria confronted with myriads of problems that perpetuate the vicious cycle of retaliatory violence, the way out is to adopt Jesus' active principle of just peacemaking. Because sectarian violence heavily affects both the Muslim and Christian poor in northern Nigeria, they need each other. Christians should make every effort to work with poor Muslims in the north who suffer the same oppression and exploitation. Both need a new affection for God, for justice, for checks and balances, for accountability, and for a free press and an independent judiciary.

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Fighting back or passively turning the other cheek will fail both Christians and Muslims. But just peacemaking, as a principle rooted in the theology of nonviolent reaction to hostility, provides a biblical alternative to retaliation. As the apostle Paul advised the Roman church, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."

Sunday Agang is provost of ECWA Theological Seminary in Kagoro, Kaduna State, and a John Stott Ministries-Langham scholar.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Christianity Today coverage of violence in Nigeria includes:

Church Leaders Debate Self-Defense | Nigerian Christians abandon cheek-turning. (December 19, 2011)
'In Jos We Are Coming Face to Face in Confrontation with Satan' | The Anglican Archbishop of Jos speaks out on last week's deadly attacks and the media coverage that followed. (January 26, 2010)
The Truth About the Religious Violence in Jos, Nigeria | It's not easy to state who started it or how many died. But the horror for those affected is clear. (January 21, 2010)
More Human Smoke Rises in Jos | This week's deadly riots struck home for the academic dean of ECWA Theological Seminary. (January 21, 2010)

CT's Liveblog also has updates about Nigeria:

Update on Religious Violence in Nigeria (January 6, 2012)
Sudan, Nigeria Rise Most in 2011 Persecution Rankings | Open Doors' 2012 World Watch List ranks countries where Christians suffered in 2011. (January 4, 2012)
Church Bombings Mar Christmas for Nigerian Christians (December 27, 2011)

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