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Doing the Right Thing the Wrong Way

Doing the Right Thing the Wrong Way

By Mitiku Adisu

The recent outcry over violence against Christians in Jimma region of southwestern Ethiopia is an object lesson on the danger of doing the right thing the wrong way.

Clashes in Ethiopia are not new phenomena and have persisted for centuries [with varying intensity, of course] the most memorable of which was the one that Ahmad Gragn (born c. 1506—died 1543) visited upon our nation. A sense of history is what we need in times like this to not overstate documentation of events. Joined to this is the attempt on the part of some to suggest an idyllic environment existed between [Orthodox] Christians and Muslims until Protestant Christians came along.

That there is a culture of relative tolerance between Christians and Muslims is a fact of life. However, that should not preclude the reality and importance of fundamental differences, the knowledge of which could increase mutual understanding and respect for the other. The first enemy to be subdued is, therefore, ignorance itself!

And so the first week in March we had church burning and dislocation of Christians by the hundreds with one death confirmed so far. What is concerning about these clashes is that a clear and worrying pattern has emerged in that little or no preparation was made before or after such events. No violence happens out of the blue. There is always a period of building tension often based on hearsay, accusations and counter-accusations, innuendos, first between individuals and later within the larger community which finally is triggered by a seemingly ‘minor’ incident. The unfortunate thing is that government action always came after damage has been done, followed by a promise to apprehend and bring the perpetrators to justice. In other words, the Ethiopian government needs to do more than it promises!

Secondly, no two eyewitnesses will report exactly the same way. What is disconcerting is not the fact that reports have minor variations but that, in this case, some tended to promote a hidden agenda. These, it appears, are on a quest for confirmation of their preconceived notions, to cover-up ignorance or, in few cases, to present themselves as ‘experts’ on matters pertaining to religious conflicts [the absence of which could mean unemployment or less funds]. In cases like these, a little exaggeration always helped to get a point across. One report said, “The country known for food shortages and famine is now at a boiling point for Muslim/Christian violence.” Is Ethiopia really “at a boiling point?” The whole country? We don’t think so! Another ‘expert’ bent over backwards to link the group inciting the present violence to Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and/or to 7th century Medina! Few more made inflammatory comments that do not help bring matters under control.

Thirdly, politicizing the conflict may be expedient in the short-term but could amount to sowing the wind only to reap the whirlwind. Let us remember that we live in the age of instant communication where every jot and tittle once inscribed in space has a way of reinventing itself and remaining lodged as a thorn in the body politic. Careless comments come with a price. Those who pay a hefty price for political expediency and poor judgment may not be the same ones who initiate us along those slippery paths. The fact that protestant Christians are viewed as ‘foreign’ has direct correlation to the way missionaries have continued to operate in Ethiopia. We will not go into naming individuals and groups that actually presented Muslim violence as extension of political cleavage and partisanship in the US. To score political points at a time of great distress to believers is not only a disgrace to the gospel of Christ but also a hindrance to its propagation and to the world wide mission of the church. Likewise, the Ethiopian government has tried to paint the present predicament as part and parcel of a terrorist network originating in Yemen and extending to Djibouti, Eritrea, and Somalia and to the locus of the present conflict in Ethiopia. We believe the statement was made to divert attention from recurring failures to protect Christian communities and to circumvent the sentiment that Ethiopia will not be spared growing popular resentment flooding North Africa and the Middle East.

One disturbing thing is the [mis-]use of the Constitution. It is true that the Ethiopian Constitution makes provisions in regard to rights to exercise one’s religion and to propagate it without coercion. It is also true that in a society where illiteracy, ethnicity and religion hold sway and where human rights and democratic sensibilities are at best faint the manner of exercising those rights could mean not recognizing certain boundaries. Rights are preferred to fulfilling one’s duties and responsibilities. Our observation of YouTube, discussion forums and blog posts does seem to confirm that more than likely a remark and an uninformed zeal by Christian workers could have precipitated the conflict. Similar feelings are now routinely broadcast by marginal groups within the Orthodox and Protestant communities.

We acknowledge that in the world there is bound to be persecution for the sake of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. But then we are also instructed to be gentle and wise because the ultimate objective is to build relationships and in so doing make the message of hope and forgiveness deliverable. Jesus never denigrated anyone and never failed to shine upon those He met his liberating love. He consistently pronounced the consequences of sin and offered a way out. He is the Way; He is the only Way. He lived and taught this; we believe Him and, by His grace, we follow in His footsteps no matter the cost. In Christ the message and the messenger are one and the same. That is why we need to fervently pray for grace, wisdom and the power of the Holy Spirit even as we strive to fulfill the Great Commission.

We’ve noticed fundraising campaign is underway to aid dislocated communities. That indeed is a Christian thing to do. One troubling observation, however, is the ease with which some organizations fail to be transparent and the fact those funds are fungible. Outside intervention is good but intervention by locals is much better. Strengthening local leadership and resource sharing should take precedence over help from expatriate groups. Let us not forget that the poor tend to be more generous than the rich!! (Luke 21:1-4) We would advise our Christian brothers and sisters hailing from North America and Europe [with denominational strategies, views, and goals] to not dictate to or takeover local leadership but instead to quietly and humbly provide a supportive role and in as much as possible to remain in the background. In the meantime, local Christian workers should not simply rehash imported “strategies” but rather to train in methods that are respectful of local cultures and mores! Finally, Muslims, too, are Ethiopian.