Innocent Chizaram Ilo
I am Igbo. I was born in the late ‘90s in Aba, Southeastern Nigeria, into a moderately conservative Christian home. Growing up, we—my parents, three other siblings, and myself—started our day with a morning devotion. This is a standard practice for an average Christian home in Nigeria before the children get ready for school and the parents jet off to work. Depending on how spiritual a family is, a mini-version of this devotion may be repeated at night, before bed.
We would gather around the center table in the parlor at quarter to six. My siblings and I, still groggy from sleep, my mother’s eyes darting from side to side to make sure none of us doze off, my father laying out the family Bible on the table or tending to the wick of the hurricane lamp (if the electric power was out, which was most of the time). My mother would delegate one of us to say a brief opening prayer before we would take turns contributing songs during Praise and Worship. Sometimes, the Praise and Worship sessions had songs like this:
The walls of Jericho fell down flat
The walls of Jericho fell down flat
When the people of God are praising the Lord
The walls of Jericho fell down flat
This song was usually accompanied by thunderous clapping, which reverberated throughout the house. Other families in the block of flats we lived in and the storey-buildings that lined up our street would also perform this thunderous clapping, so nobody really complained about the noise. After singing, we would call upon the Lord to help prise open our enemies’ palms so we can possess our possessions, just like the Lord did for the Children of Israel.
“The Walls of Jericho Fell Down Flat,” a banger still popular in Nigerian churches, tells the story of the Lord promising to deliver Jericho into Joshua’s hands. In preparation for this takeover, the Lord instructed Joshua to march around the walled city with his soldiers and seven priests, who would bear seven trumpets of ram’s horn before the Ark of Covenant. This march was to be done once a day for six days, and seven times on the seventh day. A long trumpet blast would announce the end of the march, followed by a unified shout from the people, and the walls of Jericho would fall. The walls did fall, and the Children of Israel razed the city and all that was in it to the ground; the men, women, children, and livestock.
When we sang this song or read passages from the Bible about the Lord instructing the Children of Israel to wage war against Jericho, the Amorites, the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaites, the Jebusites, the Amalekites, the Canaanites, and the Girgashites, we never saw the people who were being killed and had their lands stripped away from them as human beings. We saw them as obstacles standing in the way of the Lord’s promise to his chosen people. To acknowledge their humanity would be to question why an all-loving god would sanction so much bloodshed, plundering, and land-grabbing. These songs and Bible passages (which were always accompanied by preaching that reinforced this genocidal rhetoric) were imprinted in our hearts at home, huddled around the center table in our parlor during morning devotions, on the assembly line during school prayers, and in Sunday School classes. There was no way of escaping it.
I was an inquisitive child, and naturally had many questions about the songs, Bible passages, and sermons, but they were buried under the shushes of my parents, teachers, and clerics. The only explanation they could offer was that it was the Lord’s will and we had no right to question it, which never made any sense to me. In some Sunday School classes, our instructor would show us picture books to further illustrate these stories. Now, imagine a room filled with little children listening to this, getting dewy-eyed as the Lord’s chosen people are about to embark on another pillaging quest, and jubilating when the quest is victorious. Many years later, I am still unlearning the miseducation of my childhood and trying to create a balance of stories. I am still pondering the cognitive dissonance behind my parents confiscating my M&B novels and Best Horror Movies DVD collection because they had violent and sexually explicit content but never batting an eyelid at me reading the Bible.
Whether to make the public fall in line, uphold oppressive systems, shield institutions from accountability, or erase and rewrite history, ideology has been the essential tool for people in power. Regardless of whether the instructing party is aware of or oblivious to the untruths they are imparting, or of whether this miseducation is carried out passively or actively, in formal or informal spaces, the instructed party still assimilates it; it colors their perspective and morphs the trajectory of their thinking. In the wake of the violence in Sheikh Jarrah this summer, we saw tweets celebrating a picture of the Iron Dome intercepting rockets fired towards Israel as a testament of the Lord’s undying promise to protect his chosen people. Religious ideology has been deployed to obscure the countless human rights violations and war crimes the Israeli government has committed, both this year and in many decades past. These kinds of reactions are a testament to the depth to which Zionism is woven into Nigerian society, especially among Nigerian Christians. The most concerning part is that most of us do not realize the extent of this indoctrination.
Zionism occupies a complex space in social and political discourse, as any interrogation of the Israeli state is often misconstrued as “antisemitism.” It is therefore imperative to clarify that we seek only to condemn only the militarism and repressive, punitive actions of the Israeli government against Palestinians and other minorities, and to critique the ideologies that provide cover for their actions. For countries like Nigeria, British colonialism, which came with an intense wave of Christian missionary work, led to the rise of Christian values among its citizens, many of whom now profess the faith. Some of these values have enabled Zionist rationalizations for repression of the Palestinians to take hold. One can also draw parallels with the religious justification of European imperialists pillaging the African continent under the guise of The Great Commission. The material realities of the modern-day invasion and repression of Palestinians by Israel are obscured by ideology, portrayed as a righteous cause by the Lord’s chosen people to take back what is rightfully theirs, the fulfillment of Yahweh’s promises to Abraham and his descendants.
According to a 2015 estimate by the Pew Research Center, there are approximately 87 million Christians in Nigeria. Just like these millions of Nigerians, I once viewed this centuries-long ‘conflict’ between Israel and Palestine through the lens of Zionism. No matter how many reports of humanitarian crises in Palestine or images of women in hijabs huddling with their children amidst the rubble of bombed buildings in Gaza, it seems nearly impossible to convince the average Nigerian Christian that Israel is in the wrong. Prayers will be said every Sunday in the thousands of churches across the country for the Lord’s guidance against the Israeli state’s enemies—praying for victories in Israel’s incursions into Gaza and the settlement of the West Bank. For the same reasons, the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was celebrated.
Much like American evangelicals, many Nigerians feel a displaced sense of ownership of Jerusalem as a home. Somehow the glory of expelling of Muslims and other non-Judeo-Christian faiths from the Holy City will accrue to us as well, because we are all descendants of Abraham. Every year, the Nigerian government, through the Nigerian Christian Pilgrimage Commission (NCPC), spends taxpayer money to sponsor Nigerians to pilgrimages in Jerusalem to keep this idea of Jerusalem as home alive.
On May 17th, the Christian Association Nigeria (CAN) issued a statement through the organization’s National Secretary, Daramola Joseph Bade, calling on the Federal Government to reverse itself on the support given to Palestine to date. As Israel bombed schools and newsrooms, worsening the already crumbling healthcare system in Palestine, with the unwavering support from their powerful allies, CAN, like most Nigerian Christians, continued to paint Israel as the victim. The Western media, which distorts many narratives about the Middle East, is regularly watched in Nigeria and so also exerts great influence on us, further numbing us to the plight of Palestinians. (Asia Khatun makes an excellent argument about media misrepresentation here.) Even the (partial) democratization of information made possible by the Internet has not meaningfully shifted the paradigm of Nigerian Christians’ beliefs about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They have been internalizing ideology for a lifetime.
I began this essay with a declarative statement; “I am Igbo”. The defenses of Israel with which I have been indoctrinated in Nigeria have been rooted in both my religious background as a Christian and my ethnocultural identity as Igbo. The 18th-century West African writer, abolitionist, and slave Olaudah Equiano claimed in his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, the African Written By Himself, that the Igbos are descendants of the lost tribe of Israel.Though this has been debunked multiple times, many Igbo, including scholars, have continued to dwell on this claim, despite its inconsistencies, and really, its downright ridiculousness.
This hypothesis hinges on coincidences, like the Igbos sharing some basic traditional practices with the Jews. For instance, the Igbo belief in circumcision of male children after eight days (ibi ugu) is also one the essential parts of the Lord’s covenant with Abraham, as is the naming of newborns after eight days (igu aha). Infant circumcision and naming ceremonies are widely practiced cultural rituals and are not particular to the Igbos and the Jews. The Igbos also believe in Chukwuokike, an omnipotent and omniscient God who created the world, which is closely related to the Jewish version of Yahweh and Jehovah. However, while Chukwuokike has no qualms about their adherents worshiping other deities like Ani, Osimiri, Afijioku, and Amadioha, the Jewish god is explicitly clear about not having any other god before Him. In 1966, an anti-Igbo pogrom in northern Nigeria led to the deaths of tens of thousands and sparked the Nigeria-Biafra war. Because Igbos and the Jews both survived genocides that were foregrounded by years of hateful rhetoric, the two cultures have been linked in the minds of many Igbos. However, the resemblances are only superficial.
In May, as images of Igbos praying for Israel in a synagogue in Abuja, Nigeria circulated on the Internet, one could not help but point out the irony of a people who survived genocidal violence fifty years ago now cheering further violence. How fast do we forget the injustice we have faced? How willing are we to replicate that violence and visit it upon others? There is no better time than now to interrogate the biases we imbibed growing up, especially when these biases distort our view of a moral catastrophe: the loss of Palestinian homes and lives, the land pried from their hands, and the families robbed of their children. All too often we hear only ear-splitting silence from many parts of the world—or apologia for these crimes, cloaked in Christian values. Our silence does nothing but enable human rights abuses, continuing the grand tradition of religious values being weaponized against another a group of marginalized people and justifying the violence meted out against them. ♦
Innocent Chizaram Ilo is Igbo. They live in Lagos and write to make sense of the world around them.
Cover image: Nsibidi, the pictogram system used by Igbo peoples.