Christians Interrogate the Caste Systems in the Nigerian Society and Constitution

A Keynote Address on the Occasion of the Second AquaViva Conference Organised by Fortune AquaViva Foundation in collaboration with The Kukah Centre on the 31st August 2021 in Enugu, by Archbishop Valerian Okeke, the Metropolitan Archbishop of Onitsha

It is a pleasure to be in this national conversation on this critical topic that affects our lives as individuals and society. On that note, I wish to express my gratitude without alloy to the organizers for inviting me to initiate this conversation with a keynote speech and invite the faculties to discuss the issue from their perspectives.

Since this Conference is about Caste System, it is most appropriate that this intellectual conversation holds in Enugu, the capital of Igboland. The position is well-intentioned and advised, since one of the most known and obnoxious Caste systems in Nigeria exists in Igboland. Accordingly, Enugu, the then capital of the old Eastern Region, of Biafra, of Igboland, of the old Anambra State and currently of Enugu State and South East geopolitical zone, sufficiently proves a natural venue for a conversation that heavily affects Igbo culture and internal discrimination. I will not anticipate what the presenters will say, but I am yearning to drink from the rich fountain of their knowledge and experiences. I am looking forward to the fruits of this conference which, hopefully, will focus on greater unity and attenuation of discrimination.

Equality in dignity lived in fraternity and liberty expresses the adequate conception and condition fit for humans redeemed by Christ. The Christian faith and different religious and philosophical traditions accentuate this truth, which the United States of America appropriated as her foundational principle. Thinkers like Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu accentuated this truth that humans were created equal and free, though not forgetting the responsibility to build a brotherhood, a nation-state for the flourishing of all peoples. All humans are created free, but everywhere in chains, entangled with the ramifications of being human – fallen, redeemed and in a journey towards perfect integration.  Our common origin and shared destiny provide us with the foundation for living our different vocations with equal dignity. At the same time, we seek meaning, fulfilment and happiness, and God in whom our vocations are interrogated, understood, and lived.

Any question of politics, ethics, or economics presupposes a question of anthropology. Before establishing the modality of human existence, it behoves one to interrogate man in his operating, reasoning, feeling, and operating dimensions. In delving into this question of sociology, politics and religion, anthropology is central. It plays through political systems in which humans organise their society, establish and administer rights, privileges, and resources, and ensure the security of life and property, and thus discovering their vocation and fulfilling their destinies. The political society exists to accentuate human values and guarantee human flourishing, which intersects the attainment of happiness and the discovery of God. Often, however, it ends up complicating matters. Man always finds himself in chains, contrary to J.J.Rousseau’s optimism, due to the stark reality of man’s deprived condition. And this ontological indigence constrains freedom and constitutes easy allurement to and ready alibi for the expression of his original deprivation, which atrophies efforts at the establishment of an inclusive society where the rights and dignity of all are respected. To get things right, the appropriation of the redeemed quality of the fallen man passes through a dynamic process of cultivation and formation. Otherwise, the key actors will lead the ship of the given society to doom.

Nigeria is a case where the commonwealth is poorly managed because the key actors are mismanaging the essential resource, namely, the human persons. Their acts of crass ignorance, greed, selfishness, nepotistic and divisive engagements with the instruments of governance and administration of the common good says a lot about the quality of their persons. Fast derailing in the journey to nationhood, Nigeria suffers from the effects of entrenched injustice, namely violence, banditry, terrorism, mutual suspicion, distrust, ethnic cleansing, and regress. In the spirit of our shared humanity, I urge all Nigerians, Hausas, Igbos, Fulanis, Yorubas, Tivs to sheath their swords and go for unity. Fratricide can never be a blessing. Killing your brother will never be a blessing either in this world or the next, no matter the theology behind it and the spirituality you hold. Irrespective of your ideology, convictions and conscience, to kill one’s brother can never bring one a blessing. So I appeal to all Nigerians that this shedding of blood must stop, and if it does not stop, we all will continue to suffer it, including the future generation. The spilling of innocent blood comes with many repercussions. The world is still suffering the effects of Cain’s killing of his brother, Abel. It inseminates the land with violence, strife and destruction, which is evident from primordial fratricide. God asked Cain about his brother, Abel. And he queried God, since when did you make me my brother’s keeper? Unfortunately, since then, the world has not gotten better because of Cain’s fratricide. It is still early enough to stop this bloodshed.

In consequence of the precarious effects of caste culture, the generality of the citizens lacks the motivation and desire to transit to nationhood. It corrupts the system, and institutes a bad reward mechanism that appreciates destructive agents and punishes those who actually need support. Another evidence of classification that segregates and empowers some to the disadvantage of others is the favouritism of one religion to the detriment of others. Such favouritism creates a caste mentality in which some feel more important than others. This system that confers exclusive privileges above others or exclusive social liabilities that put them below others spells the crisis in Nigeria between ethnic nationalities and religions. Some people in Nigeria enjoy automatic privileges, rights and ‘open doors’ just because of their religion or region, while others are automatically disadvantaged because of these two or more fault lines of Nigeria. Therefore, beyond thriving in deals and privileges, citizens forget that our first vocation is to be human. Precisely, humanity is a project in progress, and it forms the bedrock of a good or bad society. Interrogating these Caste Systems will engage us these two days in response to our shared fraternity and dignity, which invites us to work for the liberty of every child of God.

Particularly, the Osu Caste system, an ancient Igbo practice rooted in the Igbo traditional religion, has not only survived into our age but still ravages some communities in Igboland. With inexact origin, this obnoxious culture stratified the Igbo societies between the free-borns and outcasts. This system served as one of the expressions of Igbos search for meaning, happiness and God, albeit in shades, shadows and systems. However, for all intents and purposes, the Osu caste system has spent its days and outlived its usefulness. It was obnoxious then, and it is still unaccepted today. In the Igbo traditional religion, the Osus sought immunity from the deities, but it robbed them of their dignity.

Our Christian faith helps us to progressively appreciate that there is no justification for discriminating against others. It is never licit to discriminate in the name of God of love. Our faith helps us to grow in the awareness that our shared humanity and Christian faith requires us not only to give an account of our brothers but that caring for them forms part of the criteria for the last judgment (cf. Gen. 4:9; Matt. 25: 31-48). Whatever you do to the least of my brothers is done unto me, says the Lord (Matt. 25:40) forms an undying echo that spurs us to work for the excluded and marginalised.

This new common ground of faith in Christ and advanced appreciation of the inalienable rights of man on account of the dignity of the human person implies a change of context. This changed context requires a change of attitude and disposition relative to the question at issue because context informs texts. Since Christianity teaches us that all are children of God by creation and His special children through a dynamic filiation by baptism, it goes without saying that no one is outside of God’s creative wisdom, and indeed none is outside of His providence and grace. So it is antithetical to the Christian faith to suppose that deities owned some people. How can it be imagined that a person baptized, consecrated and configured into Christ is said to be owned by a deity? Moreover, it raises the question of faith in the sacrament of baptism. Isn’t it an assault on the Christian faith that the consecration to the deities is valued over the consecration to Christ in baptism, chrismation and the Eucharist?

My friends in Christ, our baptism makes us members of a big family of God. It makes us special brothers and sisters in Christ and of Christ, and it eschews all forms of discrimination. The present challenge invites us to deepen our appreciation of the Christian faith. The Nazareth Manifesto of Jesus (cf. Luke 4: 30-36) and its feeder passage (cf. Isaiah 61:1-2) require Christians to stand up against all forms of enslavement of humans by unjust systems, structures and persons. Entrance into this family of God, Christianity, inserts a convert into a family where there is no discrimination, favouritism and exclusionism because all are firstborn sons and daughters. It has a mission to set the captives free. In the Igbo context, the Osu need real liberation, and our faith enables us to divest all forms of fear we have invested and liquidate the dividend of fear.

We proclaim: this culture of discrimination and violence must die. Then we have to work. We have to reignite the fire within and fan aflame the embers of faith in our society because, without fire, it is impossible to inspire. I am happy that the organisers have lined up great men and women to articulate thoughts and offer solutions in this area.

I heartily welcome you all to Onitsha Ecclesiastical Province and wish you fruitful deliberations. Nnoo nu! Feel at home, you are in your house. We are all brothers.

Thank you all, and welcome once again!