Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sermon on Ken Saro-Wiwa (1995)

In November 2009, I delivered the following sermon at Canterbury House in Ann Arbor. We commemorated the life of Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. In preparation, Rev. Reid Hamilton and I selected Matthew 5:10-16, Micah 3:9-12 and Psalm 37:1-18. Unfortunately I don't have footnotes yet. If you have questions or would like some sources for my info, please get in touch with me.


I love and hate learning about the world. I love it because the more I know, the less I take for granted. I feel more connected with the world around me when I learn about history. I’m sure you all know the feeling.
On the other hand, I hate learning about the world because more often than not, when I take a closer look, I am profoundly disappointed with what I find. You all know this feeling when you hear about something like the use of child labor on Michigan blueberry farms, or the genocide of the Native Americans in the wake of Westward expansion. These are not pretty stories, and they bring up some very difficult questions about our own lives. If I bought blueberries from that farm, how much of my money contributed to the perpetuation of their employment of seven-year-old children? Did the children want to work, or were they being exploited? We are living on land that was taken from the Native Americans; what does this mean for “America” the concept? What does this mean for my relationship to this land and our society? Is it really morally acceptable to ignore our country’s past and continue going about my business, even if my “business” involves moral actions in the present?
I could come up with answers to these questions, but they would be far from complete and final. These questions are far more complex than we may want to admit. World issues seem to be fractal in nature: patterns of elegant simplicity and infinite complexity. As a “preacher”, I feel that it is my responsibility to give you some facts about our saint today, and the connections that I feel it has to our lives. Perhaps Jesus will even be in here somewhere. But how can I come up with a course of action for someone else, if I can’t even come up with one for myself?
Here at Canterbury House, when dealing with saints, we try to combine the specific with the universal. Blending the two can be particularly challenging with saints from hundreds of years ago, as the political, religious and social landscapes are often quite foreign to us. But exploring the historical context helps to bolster the human factor of whatever universal lesson we draw. As John Donne once wrote, “No man is an island.” I’m reminded of Constance, the 19th century American nun who stayed in Memphis to comfort ailing victims of Yellow Fever. Learning about selflessness as an abstract thing is all well and good, but to see how beautiful and tragic it can be in practice is beyond words. It’s the same as the difference between the seeing a photograph of the Swiss Alps and seeing them in person … or walking on them. Fortunately, Ken Saro-Wiwa is not a symbol representing the distant past. We do need to dive a bit into the past, but we hardly need to bend over backwards to connect his life to our own.
If we were to postulate about the resources around which our society (not just American) is most oriented, oil would be pretty high on the list. The number of products which require oil is staggering: tires, paints, plastics, polyfibers, waxes, polish, asphalt, CDs and vinyl records… Because we take such products for granted, it makes sense to investigate where the raw materials come from.
One of the largest oil reserves in the world is found off the coast of southern Nigeria, in a region called the Niger Delta. The last 50 years of Nigeria’s history have been tumultuous, and deserve far more attention then can be given here, but this will have to do for now. After Nigeria declared independence from the British Empire in 1960, the country was split into three states, which were determined more or less along tribal lines. These states were to cooperate within a coalition government. To the north were the Hausa-Fulani; to the southwest the Yoruba; and to the southeast were the Igbo.
The cultures of these three states were very different. The Hausa-Fulani were controlled by an Islamic autocracy of Emirs and a Sultan; the resulting society was based power and wealth that was inherited, rather than acquired. The society of the Yoruba was considerably freer. Traditional religions and customs were permitted by the governing oligarchy of tribal elders, which offset the power of the centralized monarch. By comparison, the Igbo were the most free. Villages functioned independently of any centralized authority. Within the villages, decisions were made by general assembly, rather than by monarchal decree.
Oil was discovered off the coast of the Niger Delta in 1958, which was part of the southeastern Igbo province. The three parties fought for political power over the region throughout the 1960’s. When diplomacy failed, there were a coups, counter-coups, and assassinations. In 1967, the Igbo state seceded from Nigeria and declared itself the Republic of Biafra. After three years of famine brought on by sanctions and military blockades, the republic was reabsorbed back into the Nigerian whole. Since then Nigeria has largely been under the control of a various military juntas. 80% of the funding for these governments comes from oil profits.
The Niger Delta has become a surreal wasteland. Particularly hard-hit was a region called Ogoniland, the homeland of the Ogoni people. Many sources of fresh water became polluted by industrial waste and oil spills. Others have mixed with salt water coming from canals dug by the oil companies. Either way, it is undrinkable. This pollution effects fishing and agriculture adversely as well. Air pollution has rendered the rain largely acidic. Large plumes of burning gas, some of which have burning for decades, light up the night sky. Oil pipelines were installed across Ogoni land without permission or warning. Little to no compensation was ever offered to the Ogoni people for the use of their land.
In 1990 the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People was formed, with playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa as its president. A MOSOP Bill of Rights was written, and peaceful protests were organized. Saro-Wiwa was a charismatic and popular figure, and under his leadership the MOSOP was able to organize a protest of 300,000 people in January 1993. This was approximately 60% of the Ogoni population.
In May 1994, Saro-Wiwa and eight others were detained for allegedly inciting the murder of four Ogoni chiefs. The chiefs were murdered in Gokana, while Saro-Wiwa was in police custody in a distant town. This, coupled with his consistent policy of non-violence in MOSOP, provides strong evidence against his involvement in the murders. He was held for 8 months and finally charged in January 1995. During his tribunal, the Nigerian government invoked a decree that forbade the questioning of the tribunal’s decisions. The defense didn’t stand a chance. Ten days later, Wiwa and the eight others were hanged.
In terms of privilege and opportunity, we live in the uppermost echelon of the human race. We all reap the benefits of a global economic system that is dedicated to providing people like us with what we want, when we choose to pay for it. We have influence over this system, what it provides, and how it provides it. But it would be all too easy to use this opportunity to preach as a platform to call for a boycott on Shell, Chevron, or some other company. There are plenty of movements in America with such goals. If you’re interested, do check them out. Besides, Shell pulled out of Nigeria in the mid 1990’s. Perhaps there are smaller oil companies that operate with more ethical standards than the big guys. If they do exist, it would seem that the morally preferable option would be to vote with your wallet: support those companies rather than the big ones, just like shopping at a food coop instead of at Walmart. But there’s a larger issue at work.
It just so happens that oil products and byproducts are causing a great deal of harm to our environment. If they end up in the ground, they take hundreds of years to biodegrade. If they end up in the air, they contribute to the greenhouse effect. They adversely affect our planet. Now every time I fill up my gas tank, I feel guilty for not having the guts to rearrange my life so I don’t need gasoline. The Maldives is not just trying to create a spectacle when they hold a cabinet meeting, underwater, in scuba gear. They’re worried about their country being flooded, and they’re far from the only ones. In short, global warming is a moral issue.
Maybe if Mike Bloomberg started holding New York City council meetings in the East River with the same symbolic purpose, the powers that be would be taking this issue a bit more seriously. In the mean time, reducing our level of oil consumption, possibly completely boycotting all oil based products, would bring about a tectonic shift in the global marketplace. Perhaps this is a more reliable alternative to waiting for our governments to sign legislation that set long-term emissions reductions.
However, then another issue enters play. A prime complaint from the Ogoni people is not that the oil was being taken from Ogoni land, but that the oil money is being used to fund a corrupt non-democratic government, rather than being given to the people themselves. (A study of Igbo labor would be helpful here.) If the demand for oil suddenly drops, there will be no money for the Ogoni people, and hundreds of other exploited indigenous peoples, to have. In a somewhat roundabout way, our boycott could risk letting Shell and Chevron off the hook.
So what do we do about this? From the situation I’ve described, we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t. But there is a solution. There must be. I certainly have no idea what it is. But I believe that there is a solution. Some people call that solution God, some call it fate, some have other names. I don’t know what I call it, but I feel it has something to do with the fractal model that I think applies to world affairs. We can never know everything about everything in every human being’s head (much less in our own!) But the more we learn, the more informed decisions we can make. And we then have the responsibility to actually make those decisions, not just think about making them.
I’m not trying to say we’re responsible for Saro-Wiwa’s death because we buy Shell gasoline. If world affairs are too complex to assign distinct solutions, they’re certainly too complex to assign blame. And I don’t even mean to sound pessimistic. It would be too easy to spiral into depression. We have to keep trying. Finding the silver lining on the cloud of human depravity is a never ending quest. Be optimistic. There’s plenty to feel good about amongst the bad things. Human beings have accomplished great things, and we will accomplish many more. We all need each other, and correct our mistakes when we become aware of them.

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