The Vision of Jesus Christ for the Economic and Political Life of Christians - A
Model for Nigerian Catholics in the Third Millennium
Rev. Peter Schineller, S.J.
Nigeria is a land of opportunity and a land of problems. Some of the economic and
political and cultural problems include these: What solution, what way forward to lessen the
unemployment and underemployment of youth? How rid the corrosive presence of corruption at
all levels? How eliminate discrimination against women? What is a just wage in Nigeria, and
what should the minimum wage be? Is privatization the way of the future? Should Nigeria
look for help from the IMF? How can we achieve debt reduction or cancellation? How do we
implement the recommendations of Vision 2010? How can Nigeria move to provide basic health
care and education, water and electricity for all its citizens? How can we overcome ethnic,
religious, and regional factionalism and build one strong, united, peaceful nation? Do we call a
national conference to discuss the future of Nigeria? How reduce the number of prisoners in
prison but not yet tried or sentenced? Can any elements of Sharia law be implemented in accord
with the Constitution of Nigeria? How can the scourge, the plague of AIDS be lessened? Will
a market economy put Nigeria on a sound footing and slow down the rate of inflation? When
and how does the government begin to seriously address the ecological questions?
Is Jesus the Answer?
The list of questions could easily be doubled. Where do answers, solutions, responses
come from? As Christians, we spontaneously, religiously turn to Jesus Christ. We believe that
he is the answer, and ultimately he is the answer. We like to think that he provides the vision,
the solution, the way forward through these difficulties. But, I am afraid, it is not that simple.
Things are never as simple as they seem. Why is it not so easy and simple?
Jesus lived almost 2000 years ago, in a different place, time, and culture. He never had to
interact with Sharia law, with the IMF, with the Constitution of Nigeria, with petrol shortages or
with the pandemic of AIDS. The point I am making is that there is no clear, simple route from
the life and teaching of Jesus to the economic, political, and social problems of Nigeria in the
New Millennium. The Gospels (and there are four of them, and at times they present different
views of Jesus) do not provide a clear blueprint for the future of Nigeria or any other nation
today. We must be very careful about going from the Bible to our situation. We must be slow
and cautious in trying to set forth Awhat Jesus would say or do@ in our circumstances.
Does this mean that Jesus has nothing to say? Can we conclude nothing regarding
Nigeria from the vision of Jesus? By no means. It does mean, however, that following the
teaching and tradition of the Catholic Church, we must move slowly and cautiously from Jesus
2000 years ago to Nigeria today. Pope John Paul II thus writes for example: AThe Church does
not have tecnhical solutions for the problem of underdevelopment as such, as Pope Paul VI
already affirmed...@ (Encyclical on Social Concern, No. 41). One scripture scholar, John
Donahue, S.J. expressed it this way: AWhile it is axiomatic to say that Jesus was not a social
reformer, his teachings and actions had strong social implications during his lifetime and
continue to shape the consciences of his followers today.@ (Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits,
March 1993, p. 39).
Social Teaching of the Catholic Church.
What the Catholic Church does offer , especially in the past century, is it social teaching,
which does base itself on the life and teaching of Jesus, as well as the entire Old and New
Testament. It does try to give directions, recommendations and guidelines that would be helpful
for particular situations. The most important example of this is the Pastoral Constitution on the
Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) from the Second Vatican Council. This flows
from the great social encyclicals from Pope Leo XIII to Pope John Paul II. If one reads that
decree of Vatican II or the social encyclicals, one will discover few references to the words of
Jesus as found in the Gospels. Yet these papal and conciliar teachings are deeply based in the
Scriptures and in the teaching of Jesus. How does this happen?
I believe what the Church is doing is following a method that Jesus himself followed.
That is to say, Jesus looked at his culture and context. He evaluated it both positively and
negatively. As resources in addressing the problems of his day, he looked to the Jewish
tradition as found in the Old Testament. Above all, he was led by the Holy Spirit as his guide
and teacher. On the basis of this, he spoke, he addressed the religious problems of his day. He
brought about a revolution, a new community we now call the Christian or Catholic community.
So too, the Catholic Church today, through its leaders and its theologians, looks at our
world situation today, reading the signs of the times, evaluating the culture positively and
negatively. Then it turns to its resources and tradition, above all to the person, the life and
teaching of Jesus Christ. And led by the Spirit as Jesus was, it makes recommendations and
offers suggestions and criticisms and strives to build the new community.
In other words, Church leaders and theologians are extremely cautious in going from
directly from the life and teaching of Jesus to the situation in Nigeria. That would be a form of
biblical fundamentalism. That would be taking answers from the Bible which might have been
answers for their questions and their context, but which do not adequately respond to or address
the complex problems of Nigeria in the Third Millennium.
Church leaders do go back to Jesus and try to encapsulate his basic vision and viewpoint
under general principles which must then be applied to the circumstances of today. Our
procedure will be to present some of these basic principles and then tentatively show how they
might apply to Nigeria. In this way, we are doing, I believe, the best we can, in setting forth the
vision of Jesus Christ for the economic and political life of Christians.
Principles Based upon the Life and Teaching of Jesus.
In outline, I will briefly present ten foundational principles, briefly exemplify each of the
principles with the teaching of Jesus - the way, the truth, and the life, and then show concrete
areas in which they present a challenge to Nigeria, and how the Catholic Church has begun to
respond to that challenge.
1. THE PRINCIPLE OF HUMAN DIGNITY.
Every person, regardless of race, sex, age, national origin, religion, sexual orientation,
employment or economic status, health, intelligence, achievement is worthy of respect. It is not
what you do or what you have that gives you a claim on respect, it is imply being human that
establishes your dignity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (No.1934) thus says:
Created in the image of the one God, and equally endowed with rational souls, all men
and women have the same nature and the same origin. Redeemed by the sacrifice of
Christ, all are called to participate in the same divine beatitude: all therefore enjoy an
. Jesus extended his love to everyone, to the children, to the woman caught in sin, to the tax
collector, to the sick and the suffering. He says he came to call sinners (Mk. 2:17), because all,
even sinners, are children of God and loved by God their Creator and Redeemer.
In Nigeria we frequently witness discrimination based on tribal origins, sex, and
religious affiliation. We witnessed the often oppressive rule by decrees imposed by successive
military governments or by long-standing dictators. The Catholic bishops of Nigeria spoke out
forcefully for the principle of human dignity. opposing all forms of discrimination and
oppression of human dignity. In 1994 they wrote:
We salute our countrymen and women, who in the face of this dire situation, have been
promoting and defending human rights and freedom... We must continue to resist the
violation of our fundamental human rights, including the right to free expression, and the
right to choose our leaders.
The principle of human dignity means that workers in civil society and in the church are paid a
just or living wage, and paid on time! The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us of this:
Remuneration for work should guarantee man the opportunity to provide a dignified
livelihood for himself and his family on the material, social, cultural and spiritual level,
taking into account the role and the productivity of each, the state of the business, and the
common good (No. 2434).
2. THE PRINCIPLE OF RESPECT FOR HUMAN LIFE.
Human life at every stage of development and decline is precious and therefore worthy of
protection and respect. It is always wrong directly to attach innocent human life. The sacredness
of human life is a necessary part of the moral vision of a just and good society.
Jesus came and said that he Acame that we may have life, life in its fullness@ (John 10:10).
In the sermon on the mount he taught: AYou have heard that it was said to those of old, >You
shall not kill: and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.= But I say to you that every one who
is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment@ (Mt. 5:21-22).
At times in Nigeria we hear of those who want to change the laws and make abortion
more available. Many languish and suffer in prison for years without trial. Most who have been
convicted and imprisoned live in inhuman conditions. In some instances, the death penalty is
given for the crime of armed robbery.
Pope John Paul II in the Cameroons in 1985 said:
How can we not think of the arbitrary imprisonments, condemnations, even executions
without real trials, detention in inhuman conditions for crimes of opinion, tortures,
In his encyclical AThe Gospel of Life@ the Pope wrote:
On this matter (of the death penalty) there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and
in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be
More recently, in response to the Synod of Africa, the Pope reminded us:
The peoples of Africa respect the life which is conceived and born. They rejoice in this
life. They reject the idea that it can be destroyed, even when the so-called >progressive
civilizations= would like to lead them in this direction.
The pope continues by challenging us to overcome the culture of death with a culture of life.
(No. 43, Exhortation, The Church in Africa).
3. THE PRINCIPLE OF ASSOCIATION.
The human person is not only sacred but also social. By association with others, in
families and in other social institutions that foster growth, protect dignity and promote the
common good, human persons achieve their fulfillment.
Jesus went about doing good and the crowds gathered to hear his words. Then he called
and chose the twelve apostles, and called the seventy two disciples to associate with him more
We hear regularly in Nigeria of the difficulties that labor unions, student unions,
political parties have faced in organizing themselves, and in organizing public meetings. In the
recent past, instead of allowing or encouraging free, public associations, military governments
have often banned or even worse, set up and sponsored their own paid-for associations and
In his encyclical On Social Concern, Pope John Paul wrote that throughout the world,
need to reform certain unjust structures, and in particular their political institutions, in
order to replace corrupt, dictatorial and authoritarian forms of government by democratic
and participatory ones. This is a process which we hope will spread and grow stronger.
Yes, democracy is a process and Nigeria still has a way to go to authentic democracy, which calls
for literacy, education, and truly representative political parties. The Church can and should
play a key role in this move to authentic democracy.
4. THE PRINCIPLE OF PARTICIPATION.
The Catholic Church teaches that people have a right and a duty to freely participate in
society, seeking together the common good and well-being of all.
Jesus says: AI am the vine and you are the branches... Apart from me, you can do nothing@
(Jn. 15:5). He invites us to participate in the work of building the kingdom. We are called in
union with him and with one another, to be fruitful laborers in his vineyard, to go out and bear
much fruit (Jn. 15: 8).
In Nigeria, it seems that many political leaders have almost bought elections and their
main interest now is to regain that money. They are not concerned with the good of the people.
The people in turn have little opportunity for active participation, as the leaders are mostly intent
on enriching themselves rather than looking to the people and the common good.
In his encyclical On the 100th Anniversary of Rerum Novarum in 1991, Pope John Paul
The Church values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of
citizens in making political choices, guarantees the governed the possibility of electing
and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them through peaceful
means when appropriate.
The principle of participation also applies within the Church. After the synod of African
Bishops, Pope John Paul II emphasized the importance of the local church, where active
participation is encouraged:
The laity are to be helped to become increasingly aware of their role in the church,
fulfilling their particular mission as baptized and confirmed persons.... They are to be
trained for their mission through suitable centers... (No. 90).
5. THE PRINCIPLE OF PREFERENTIAL PROTECTION FOR THE POOR AND
A society is to measured and evaluated by how it treats the weak and the powerless. The
common good, the good society as a whole requires preferential protection to those affected by
the absence of power.
The heart and hand of Jesus went out in compassion to the sick, the hungry, the leper, the
outcasts. Jesus told the disciples of John the Baptist that the sign that he is the true Messiah is
that Athe poor have the good news preached to them@ (Mt. 11:5). Jesus praised the generosity
of the widow who contributed two coins, but it was all she had. (Lk 21: 1-4).
In villages and cities of Nigeria, what is the condition of widows, the handicapped, those
with AIDS, the beggars, so called mad-persons? And what is the attitude of leaders and the
populace to those in need? Pope John Paul II has said that the poor are not burdens, but our
brothers and sisters. While visiting Burundi in 1990, he wrote:
May every sick person, whatever the affliction, be the object of loving care with no
discrimination. The moral fabric of a society is judged by the respect it can show without
exception to all life and to all suffering. Doesn=t the commandment of brotherly love
refer to the weakest in the first place?
After the Synod of African Bishops, the Pope strongly supported the African bishops, and quoted
them when he wrote:
The church must continue to exercise her prophetic role and be the voice of the voiceless,
so that everywhere the human dignity of every individual will be acknowledged and that
people will always be at the center of all government programs. (No. 70)
6. THE PRINCIPLE OF SOLIDARITY.
Catholic social teaching proclaims that we are our brothers= and sisters= keepers,
wherever they live. We are one human family, with one common origin, namely the creative
love of God.. The principle of solidarity functions as a moral category that leads to choices that
will promote and protect the common good. According to the Catechism of the Catholic
Church, solidarity is a Adirect demand of human and Christian brotherhood@ (No. 1939).
Jesus, though he was rich, became poor for our sakes (2 Cor. 8:9). Jesus wished to be one
with us, in solidarity with us as our brother and our redeemer. And so, as the gospel of John
proclaims, Athe Word was made flesh. He lived among us@ (Jn. 1:14)..
Is there growing unity or disunity among the people of Nigeria? Do Nigerians see
themselves forming one nation? Or are the religious and ethnic differences so sharp and deep
that they militate against unity and solidarity? The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes
the various forms of solidarity, Asolidarity of the poor among themselves, between rich and poor,
of workers among themselves, between employers and employees in a business, solidarity among
nations and peoples@ No. 1941).
If unity in Africa is to be achieved, it must also include those in Muslim tradition. Thus,
in 1992, Pope John Paul II extended the hand of solidarity to the Muslim Community in
We can work together for harmony and national unity, in sincerity and greater mutual
confidence. We can collaborate in the promotion of justice, peace, and development. It is
my earnest hope that our solidarity of brotherhood, under God, will truly enhance the
future of Nigeria, and all Africa, and add to the good ordering of the world as a universal
civilization of love.
The Pope challenges Catholics to respond to this Aby practicing the virtue of solidarity. The fruit
of solidarity is peace, an inestimable good for peoples and nations in every part of the world@
(The Church in Africa, No. 138). He calls upon the church to be in the front line in the
movement to unity and solidarity:
As God=s family on earth, the church should be a living sign and efficacious instrument
of universal solidarity for building a worldwide community of justice and peace. (The
Church in Africa, No. 114).
7. THE PRINCIPLE OF STEWARDSHIP.
In an era of rising consciousness about our physical environment, the Catholic tradition
calls us to a sense of moral responsibility for the protection of the environment, air, water,
minerals, woodlands, and other natural resources. Stewardship responsibilities also look toward
our use of our personal talents, our attention to personal health and our use of personal property.
In the parable of the talents, Jesus expects us to care for and multiply the talents and
resources we are gifted with. He said that Awhen much has been given a person, much will be
required of him. More will be asked of a person to whom more has been entrusted@ Lk. 12:48).
Jesus himself is in our midst not as one who takes or holds power, not as one who exploits
others, but AI am in the midst of you as one who serves@ (Lk. 22:27).
Nigeria is richly endowed with human and natural resources. How have we used or
misused the oil resources and mineral reserves? Do we realize the treasure in our tropical
rainforests, in fauna and flora, in the variety of animals and fish, in the waters of our rivers and
In 1990, Pope John Paul addressed and challenged the leaders of Africa to be true
stewards and servants, using their talents and personal resources for good:
If you have received a superior education, if you have reached a position of some power,
it is to qualify you to serve your compatriots. This creates demanding duties for you and
calls for proof of real unselfishness.
Those in positions of authority need to change from the logic of domination to the spirit of
service. This spirit of service, a spirit of stewardship extends over the realm of the personal and
the natural. In his encyclical on Human Labor Pope John Paul calls for a Aspirituality of
stewardship.@ In place of exploitation, the must be stewardship and responsibility, not only in
regard to our environment, but also in our relationships with one another.
8. THE PRINCIPLE OF SUBSIDIARITY.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, this principle means that Aa
community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower
order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to
co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the
common good@(No. 1883).
This principle puts a proper limit on government and those in authority by insisting that
no higher level of organization should perform any function that can be handled efficiently and
effectively at a lower level by individuals or groups who are closer to the problems and closer to
the ground. Overactive governments frequently violate this principle.
Jesus, although in the form of God, did not deem equality with God something to be
grasped at. Rather he emptied himself, and took the form of a slave, becoming obedient even to
death (Phil.2:7-8). Then in turn, Jesus called and trained apostles and disciples to share in his
authority and to carry on his ministry.
In Nigeria we often see and hear and speak of the Abig man syndrome.@ Those who
have authority make that authority well known and felt. We note, for example, the inclination
on the part of leaders for immense, expensive, and all too often unfinished, grandiose projects.
While small local health clinics are needed, we leave unfinished huge and expensive hospital
This principle of subsidiarity applies both to civil society as well as to the Church. In
regard to civil society the Bishops wrote in 1995:
With the benefits of hindsight, it can now be said that Nigeria would have been better off
if the military had never intervened in her political life. Since military rule, by its very
nature, entails an over-concentration of power at the centre, it stifles freedom, initiative,
and healthy competition among the various components of the Federation.
In regard to the Church, Pope John Paul II responds to the Synod of African Bishops and stresses
the importance of the local church.
Right from the beginning, the synod fathers recognized that the church as family cannot
reach her full potential as church unless she is divided into communities small enough to
foster close human relationships.... The laity are to be helped to become increasingly
aware of their role in the church, thereby fulfilling their particular mission as baptized and
confirmed persons... (No. 89-90).
9. THE PRINCIPLE OF HUMAN EQUALITY.
. The equality of all comes from our essential dignity as children of God. Treating equals
equally is one way of defining justice, and justice in turn means that we render to each person his
or her due. While each person is different, while cultures and customs vary, while talents vary,
discrimination because of these differences goes against the more basic principle of human
Jesus could see good in everyone. He challenged his Jewish listeners to be more open to
the good will of the Samaritans. He challenged his apostles by speaking alone with a Samaritan
woman. He reminded all of the boundless love of God and shocked his Jewish listeners by
saying: APeople will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south and will take
their place at the feast in the kingdom of God@ (Lk. 13:29).
The bishops of Africa set forth the image of the Church as the family of God as the
guiding idea for its program of evangelization. This image, according to Pope John Paul II,
AEmphasizes care for others, solidarity, warmth in human relationships, acceptance, dialogue
and trust.@ (The Church in Africa, No. 63). He adds that it opposes all ethnocentrism and
excessive particularism. Yet in Nigeria we hear of persons promoted or condemned because
they are Asons of the soil.@ Woman may be treated as second-class citizens in terms of
employment and wages, because they are women. In both civil society and in church, woman
are not given equal opportunities with men. Access to education, to water, electricity and health
care too often depends upon one=s place or one=s status or one=s wealth.
In his encyclical The Gospel of Life Pope John Paul II writes:
In transforming culture so that it supports life, women occupy a place, in thought and
action, which is unique and decisive. It depends on them to promote Aa new feminism@
which rejects the temptation of imitating models of Amale domination@, in order to
acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society,
and overcome all discrimination, violence, and exploitation (No. 99).
10. THE PRINCIPLE OF THE COMMON GOOD.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read that the common good is to be
understood as Athe sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as
individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily@ (No. 1906). A proper concern
for the common good is the antidote to unbridled individualism and narrow-minded self-
centeredness, the me-first attitude.
Jesus begins his preaching by proclaiming that the kingdom of God is at hand (Mk. 1:15).
His kingdom, open to all and for all, is a kingdom of truth and justice, of peace and love.
Leadership in his kingdom must imitate the good shepherd who lays down his life for his flock.
It imitates Jesus, who looked not to his own good and welfare, who came Anot to be served but
to serve - to give his life in ransom for the many@ (Mk. 10:45). AWhoever would be great
among you must be your servant@ (Mt. 20:26).
In Nigeria, leadership and authority, whether civilian or military, has often carried with
it connotations of corruption, bribery, conspicuous wealth and domination. The attitude of
looking almost exclusively to the good of my family, my clan, my village, unfortunately can be
found at all levels of society.
Year after year, the Catholic Bishops of Nigeria have addressed the task of nation
building, looking beyond self-interest to the common good of all Nigerians. Thus in 1996 they
The Catholic Church pursues its prophetic role with undivided attention. Like the sentry
in the prophecy of Ezechiel whom God commanded to speak to the nation, we continue to
denounce individual and social injustice in our society... We continue to encourage
Nigerians to recognize their rights and to resolutely pursue and defend them with all
legitimate means at their disposal.
Through nurseries, primary schools and secondary schools, through hospitals and clinics,
the Catholic Church in Nigeria continues to demonstrate to all, Catholic and non-Catholic
alike, its concern for the common good.
Speaking in north Africa, in Morocco, in 1985 Pope John Paul II stressed that Christians
and Moslems together can and must work for the common good.
We have many things in common as believers and human beings.. We believe in the same
God, the living God.. I believe that we Christians and Moslems ought to acknowledge
with joy the religious values we have in common and give God thanks for them.
Ultimately these principles of the social teaching of the Catholic Church are based on
the life and teaching - the vision of Jesus. Setting forth these ten principles is a step in the
journey, an important step, but only a first step. The principles must not remain words on
paper. Through discussions in homes and businesses, through preaching in pulpits, through
catechetical instruction and teaching in the classrooms, through ecumenical discussions, these
principles must become part of our way of thinking and acting.
One final principle: God=s love for us. I am leaving one most important item till last. The
vision of Jesus - for Nigeria is not primarily what we should do, but what God has done for
us. Whatever we do is a response to the love, the boundless saving love of God made manifest
in Christ Jesus. God loved us first and justified us. Then we in return, in gratitude, follow
Jesus and his way. We try to show God=s love and justice to one another, and to all of God=s
people, especially the weak and the marginated.
In this sense, the teaching of Jesus is not primarily an ethical doctrine - what we should
do, not primarily a series of rules or laws. It is primarily gospel or good news, the proclamation
of the gracious love of God manifest in his life and teaching, his death and resurrection. The
gift precedes the response. Welcoming the Good news comes before good deeds. For the vision
of Jesus to be present and effective in society and in our individual lives, we must first be
captured by its saving message and have experienced the power of God=s Spirit at work in us.
Yes, with the words of the prophet Micah, 6:8, God asks us to Ado justice, love tenderly, and
walk humbly with our God.@ This we as Christians always do in response to the gracious and
boundless love of God given us in Christ Jesus.