JOS, Nigeria — Dalyop Salomon is a young Nigerian lawyer who says that in the past three years, he has lost more than 140 members of his family as well as close friends to the radical Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram. And he insists that in every case, the violence was entirely unprovoked.
“We have never once, not ever, attacked them,” he said.
Faced with a wholesale assault of Christian communities by Boko Haram, the obvious question seems to be, “Why not?”
In many ways, regions of Nigeria where Boko Haram is most active amount to a free-fire zone on Christians. According to Open Doors International, a Protestant watchdog group that compiles an annual report on anti-Christian persecution, 2,484 Nigerian Christians — men, women, and children — were killed in 2014.
That average of seven murders per day is higher than that of Christians in other danger zones such as Iraq, Syria, and North Korea.
To be sure, Christians have occasionally taken up arms and brought the fight to their persecutors in Nigeria and other parts of the world. Yet there is no systematic Christian effort at self-defense, and for the most part, the country’s Christian leaders appear to discourage it.
Surveying Christian opinion here, it seems the answer to whether or not Christians should fight back varies dramatically depending on whether you talk to clergy or the rank-and-file.
Musa Audu Badung, the son of Muslims who converted to Christianity when he was 10 because they were ashamed of the atrocities in the name of Islam, said that Christians are generally defenseless.
“Missionaries taught us that when your enemy strikes you, you turn the other cheek for him to strike again,” he told Crux. “Christ teaches peace, so we don’t take up arms against our neighbors.”
Now, however, Badung seems fed up.
He said he and other Christians in his area have had to learn how to judge by ear the distance at which gunshots are occurring, so they can decide whether or not to wrap up services early and run away. Badung said he personally knows 20 Christians who have been killed, and is aware of scores of others who have perished, many burned alive in churches or beheaded in public areas.
“Currently it’s illegal to handle arms, but if there were an international treaty that allows people to own arms to defend themselves, why not?” Badung said.
Salomon, the lawyer, agreed, arguing that Christians don’t fight back simply because they don’t have the weapons.
“We will call to the international bodies to possibly make a declaration so that people who can’t enjoy government protection should be allowed to defend themselves by purchasing weapons for self-defense,” he said. “Christians are always the victims.”
Assemblies of God Rev. Yakubu Pam believes the empowerment of young people is the solution, and for the past several years has been encouraging them to start small businesses and acquire skills so they are not attracted to self-defense militias.
“Our young people need to be engaged, because if they’re not, they’ll follow the same path as those who are killing people,” Pam told Crux. “Then there’s no difference between us and them. At the end of the day, when the crisis is finished, they’ll be used to killing people and we don’t want that.”
Catholic Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos believes the answer lies in the question, “Where does legitimate self-defense begin and end?”
“When people are so provoked by repeated attacks, killings, and destruction, so pushed to the wall, that they feel they have to look for every means of self-defense, it often goes beyond the boundary,” Kaigama said.
For Kaigama, who’s never “supported the idea that we should arm ourselves and begin a war,” there’s also the matter that when all is said and done, war won or lost, the weapons remain, children know how to kill, and they might be tempted to do so over small arguments.
“We have to look for alternative solutions,” Kaigama said. “See how to solve this problem from the roots and deal decisively with those who generate these atrocities for us and the society.”
Bishop Matthew Kukah of Sokoto, located in the predominantly Muslim far north of Nigeria, also believes that taking up guns isn’t the solution. Although he’s ready to concede that confrontation has, at times, enabled Christians to achieve things they wouldn’t have otherwise, he has never accepted self-defense as an argument for war.
Kukah said that in Nigeria, religion is only one of many “incendiary elements,” others being ethnicity and the disparity between north and south. Like Kaigama, he’s also afraid of the long-term consequences of everyone having a weapon.
“When people come to me and say ‘let’s arm ourselves,’ I say fine, we might arm ourselves,” Kukah said. “But what if we do and the Muslims don’t come?”
The second reason Kukah gives for opposing self-defense is the fact that safety is fundamentally a responsibility of the state. He says that even though he wouldn’t let everybody walk over him, he wouldn’t take a gun if offered one because he doesn’t know how to shoot and has no interest in practicing how to kill someone.
“If you have an absentee father or mother and the kids are fighting over ice cream, order can only be restored when the father or mother or somebody takes responsibility,” Kukah said. “You can’t expect these kids to solve it themselves.”
The Rev. Peter “Morris” Omori, a Catholic priest who was celebrating Mass when his parish was bombed by Boko Haram in 2012, killing 14 people, seems to be an exception to the clerical rule.
Even though Omori said wouldn’t tell his parishioners to arm themselves, he wouldn’t tell them not to, either.
“The Boko Haram people have ruined so many lives that life is no longer meaningful to them,” Omori said. “They kill people like you slaughter chickens for meat.”
“Who would just sit and wait for someone to come kill him or do anything he wants with his family or his property?”
Samson Tsok, a Pentecostal Christian in north central Nigeria who has lost both an uncle and a close friend to the violence, agrees.
“Israel was formed by war, and Israel survives today because of war,” Tsok said, adding that precisely because he believes in peace, he also believes in war.
“I believe that you cannot have any peace without war,” he said.
Tsok opposes the idea of “people folding their arms and praying to God, waiting for him to send down some angels to fight a war for them somewhere.”
“I believe that the Christians must rise to the occasion and defend themselves,” he said. He argued it’s not right to wait passively, “knowing full well that the government is not supporting you, that it actually wants you eliminated.”
“It’s Biblical. Nehemiah built a fence and he was also holding a weapon. I don’t believe in this ‘Slap you on this cheek, turn the other one’ idea. I don’t believe in this teaching,” Tsok said.
Yet Anglican Rev. Neimon Gowon, who serves in one of the Nigerian hotspots, said that Christians shouldn’t arm themselves for the simple reason that if “my faith is worth living for, then it’s worth dying for.”