Sunday Agang serves as the Provost of Jos ECWA Theological Seminary in Jos, Nigeria. Sunday has been engaged for many years in the work of grassroots peacebuilding in the Middle Belt of Nigeria in his home community and nearby areas, and has reflected on this work in his writing and teaching. We asked him to reflect on recent events in the United States from the perspective of a Nigerian Christian leader. 

I hope no one will read my reflections on what has transpired after the 2020 American presidential election as prying into other people’s political affairs. But why should they? Whether or not Americans like it, in many respects, America is our America: the assumed guarantor and model of political virtues; faithful to the modern republic’s principles and philosophy; promoter of sociopolitical peace, order, and freedom. To some extent, America is the threshold of maturation for modern democracy, to the envy of the entire world. The reason is not far-fetched. 

My primary concern in this article is to unravel what has transpired and created deeper socio-political fractures, and how we might heal or mend the present political impasse.

What Went Wrong?

The United States is perceived as the citadel of freedom, respect for human dignity, justice, unity, love, and peace. However, the political events of January 2021 have caused deep sociopolitical division and shaken this image of stability. The rivalry so ignited can only be tackled if we are willing to face the truth of what really transpired and recognize the underpinnings of what the great American theologian, social critique and political analyst Reinhold Niebuhr called “self-interest and the will-to-power,” which is present in both interpersonal and international affairs. 

What stands out in the current raging political crisis is how self-interest and the will-to-power undercuts national interest and patriotism. This human disease has been allowed to fester, and it is now undermining the unity of a nation. We have seen America as a power for promoting respect for human dignity, love, truth-telling, justice, compassion, order, and freedom; as a welcome respite in a world turned apart by the politics of self-interest and the will to dominate others to the extent of denying them their God-given human rights. What went wrong? Why did American politicians fall so low, embarrassing their citizens and well-wishers across the globe? Is what is happening a sign  of what the scriptures, particularly the author of Proverbs calls, “Pride goes before a fall”? We must begin with the place of pride. 

Pride Has Budded; Repentance is the Healer

There are many interpretations, assumptions, and conclusions about what happened and how to heal it. To begin, we must check where pride exists. America has recorded very impressive advances in science and technology, political and economic transformation and development, and military power. But to ensure a peaceful political atmosphere in a nation, the leaders have to delight in truth-telling, righteousness, fairness, and justice. How can a history of white supremacy continue to hold sway in America’s body politic? Since the 2020 election, the world has watched with utter disappointment as American politicians have allowed pride to grow up into political bitterness, division, and rivalry. 

America remains a threshold of world democratic virtues, peace, and freedom. All other democracies are striving to imitate it. And yet it seems the mighty is about to fall. Should the world let it crash? To many international observers, like myself, this unprecedented political rivalry exposed the subtle yet salient political rupture in the United States. This rupture seems a threat to global human and creational flourishing. 

As is well known, America is the leader of our world economy, politics, and peace. The threat to American democracy is also a profoundly concrete threat to world economy, politics, peace, unity and tranquility. America as a republic is on the brink of becoming a fallen giant, endangering the entire world. 

A Political Pandemic

America’s situation on the global stage can be compared with the novel coronavirus pandemic. The coronavirus pandemic started in Wuhan, China, and spread like wildfire to the world. In much the same way, the American political fracture has opened the floodgates and threatens world peace. All countries are threatened by political divisions leading to loss of respect for human dignity, loss of lives, loss of trust, loss of truth-telling, loss of being our brother’s and sister’s keeper, loss of love of neighbour, loss of peace, and loss of national cohesion and stability.

The political crisis in the States has exposed many of the human flaws ingrained in human political affairs, to which no nation is immune. Wherever pride rears its ugly head, wickedness will result. Such wickedness in human affairs and interpersonal relationships is rooted in human pride and self-centredness. The greatest wickedness a nation and its citizens can face is political division which is hidden out of sight under the pretence of national patriotism or religious affiliation. Such pretenders can use party affiliation as a scapegoat, opening the floodgates of disinformation and introducing an unhealthy cycle of moral obligations that take the form of violent conflicts. 

That kind of situation gives domestic and foreign actors the opportunity to use the poor to help them maintain their status quo. They know how to get us to believe in their political lies, propaganda, rhetoric, and polarisation. They have a perfect way of pitting the poor against each other while they enjoy the goodies of their political drama. They know how to fan and perpetual the embers of hatred, division, and violent conflicts so that they can achieve their self-centred moral lifestyle. 

Reinhold Niebuhr has argued that human self-interest and the will to power defies all forms of religious revivals. He wrote, 

The belief that a revival of religion will furnish the resources by which men will extricate themselves from their social chaos is a perennial one, and it expresses itself even in an age in which the forces of religion are on the defensive against a host of enemies and detractors…..If the recognition of selfishness is prerequisite to the mitigation of its force and the diminution of its antisocial consequences in society, religion should be a dominant influence in the socialism of man; for religion is fruitful of the spirit of contrition. Feeling himself under the scrutiny of an omniscient eye, and setting his puny will into juxtaposition with a holy and omnipotent will, the religious man [sic] is filled with a sense of shame for the impertinent of his self-centred life. [1]

The basic argument here is that religious idealism is not enough to transform human self-interest and the will to power. We will see this as Niebuhr addresses the matter of Christian realism.

Christian Realism: How to Rebuild the Broken Walls of American Democracy 

Extremism has taken over America’s politics to the extent that enlisting the help of politicians poses an extraordinary challenge. This is because many of them are no longer interested in working together for national cohesion; they rather benefit from our  political polarisation. 

In his article, “How to Heal America’s Fracture” Yaffa Fredrick painted a possible picture of resolution by telling the story of two immigrants who are now American citizens: Rremida Shkoza, an Albanian immigrant and progressive democrat, and Julian Song—a Brazilian immigrant, and conservative Republican. Shkoza fled her home country in the early 1990s and found safety in the kindness of a stranger, ultimately seeking asylum in the U.S.. Shkoza was triggered by Trump’s immigration policy, understanding the lifelong trauma of children separated from their parents.  Shkoza herself had first-hand experience with that reality.

Shkoza met Julian Song at a Living Room Conversation, an intimate event designed to bring together people who differ politically, so they could talk to each other and recognise each other’s humanity beyond political rhetorics and polarisation. Shkoza was surprised that Song was an ardent supporter of Donald Trump. Yet because Shkoza was willing to listen to Song’s argument, they both come to realise the issues involved in the current political rift. They understood that the present crisis has many layers of complexity. They both saw that mistrust has supplanted trust and opened the floodgates of suspicion. While they disagreed, both came to see one another as embodied humans.

Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian Realism emphasizes the reality and challenge of selfishness in both individual and social institutions, tracing this out in the uncertain times between the First and Second World Wars. We face a similar situation today, and so Niebuhr’s Christian Realism can be a helpful way of facing the reality before us: a theological approach that recognises the human problem of self-interest and the will to power. Niebuhr could see the ambivalent nature of human nature: “humans have both creative impulses matched by destructive impulses, [and] regard for others overused by excessive self-interest [and] the will to power.” [2]

From the narratives of two immigrants who were ardent supporters of their opposed political parties and yet willing to talk to each other, we can learn a critical lesson: to heal the current political fracture and social impasse in America, Americans from both sides of the political divide need to get out of their comfort zones and deliberately reach out to their fellow humans not on the basis of political affiliation, but on the profoundly concrete basis of God creating them in his image. This is only possible if they value and respect the human dignity of each other and are willing to face the reality of human paradox: the capacity to do tremendous good or tremendous evil to one another. The present political and theological crises have clearly reminded us that America is a country inhabited by mere humans!

Americans, and the watching world, are looking for peace—but it is eluding them. At this point in America’s political history, no rhetoric can bring unity without the pursuit of respect for human dignity, love, justice, truth-telling, humility, and peace. In times like these, American Christians of all denominations must usher in healing by doing what Peter says: “[B]e earnest and discipline in their prayer. Most important of all, continue to show deep love for each other for love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:7-8 NLT).

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics, Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press 1932), 52.

[2] William C. Inboden, “The Prophetic Conflict: Reinhold Niebuhr, Christian Realism, and World Warld II,” Diplomatic History 38, no. 1 (2014):49-53.