By Greg Cochran, Ph.D., ICC Fellow
12/14/2023 Nigeria (International Christian Concern) – As December unfolds, traditions clamor with great haste toward Christmas—for many, their favorite season of the year. What kid isn’t entranced with thoughts of presents and multi-colored lights and Christmas cookies? Gift sellers dance with matrimonial glee in concert with their buyers as they see their spreadsheets morph from red to black. ‘Tis the season.
Of course, Christmas is about much more than buying and selling and giving. Around the world, Christmas brings people together in the bindings of friendship and faith and family in such a way that joy explodes—sometimes literally. In Nigeria, for example, Christmas gives reason for knockouts and bangers to burst into the sky with blast after blast of excitement to accompany unique traditions of Christmas rice and the bright new fabrics of this year’s Christmas clothes.
In the past two decades, Nigeria has developed another Christmas tradition—this one, too, bursts forth with blasts, but these are not the happy kind. Since at least the 2011 Christmas attacks by Boko Haram, Christmas in Nigeria has arrived with a more dolorous tone, a tone in which would-be revelers instead must mourn. Each year, it seems, Christmas merriment morphs into weeping, marred by malicious violence.
In 2012, the Christmas season was less violent than in the prior two years but still colored blood-red. In all, at least 60 people—many of them Christians targeted specifically by Boko Haram—lost their lives to violent deaths. These deaths included suicide bombings in Borno and Yobe states; murder of a pastor and five congregants on Christmas Eve; and the merciless execution of 15 Christians—men, women, children—outside of Maiduguri.
Christmas 2013 was pivotal for Boko Haram in Nigeria and beyond. In November of that year, the U.S. designated Boko Haram as a terrorist organization. In response, the increasingly recognized terrorist group expanded its violence from Nigeria to the neighboring border areas of Cameroon and Chad.
On Christmas Eve in 2014, Boko Haram jihadists killed at least 11 people in northeast Nigeria. The group also burned down a church in a Christian village. The violent festivities didn’t end on Christmas Eve. The group launched additional attacks on New Year’s Eve, creating a dismal scene in which at least 15 people were killed and several homes burnt as Boko Haram gunmen raided a village in northern Nigeria near the town of Chibok.
On Christmas Day 2015, every house in Kimba village (Borno state) was burned by Boko Haram jihadists. In addition, at least 16 people were killed in the attacks, including women and children.
Facing intense pressure to act, then-President Buhari and the Nigerian military pushed back the terrorists and broke their strongholds in the Sambisa Forest. Nevertheless, in 2016, the violence was not eradicated, just pushed back to the margins. Christmas attacks happened in the border areas with Cameroon, including an attack by a suicide bomber targeting Christians.
In 2017, four Christmas carolers were killed and 10 injured when gunmen opened fire on the Christians in southern Kaduna state, Nimdem village. Attackers, this time, represented the Fulani herdsmen.
The violence continued through the Christmas season in 2018. On Christmas day, Boko Haram killed four in Chibok, Borno state. On that same Christmas, gunmen killed five in Barkin Ladi, Plateau state.
In 2019, another group—Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP)—joined Boko Haram and the Fulani herdsmen in their diabolical desire to kill at Christmas. Actually, ISWAP broke away from Boko Haram in 2016, presumably hoping to be more gruesome than their extremist counterparts. ISWAP jihadists beheaded 11 Christians on Christmas day to send some sort of anti-human message to Nigerians.
In 2020—during the shutdowns of the COVID-19 Pandemic—Christmas violence continued with at least two more attacks. In one of the attacks against Christians in Pemi village, Borno state, at least 11 were killed by Boko Haram jihadists ruthlessly shooting unarmed villagers.
In 2021, in Zamfara state, suspected bandits attacked communities near the state capital Gusau on Christmas, killing seven and abducting 33.
Far from making progress, Nigerians saw even more violence in 2022. Throughout December, in fact, the “Kagoro killings” took place. Indicative of the violence was the attack on Mallagum village in which three were shot and killed in the aftermath of a funeral service on Christmas day. Overall, 46 people were killed during the holiday slaughters.
So, it’s Christmas time in 2023 in Nigeria. While the age-old traditions of family, faith, and fun doggedly persevere, the growing anti-tradition of fear, fatalities, and fanaticism hopes it might rise to rule the season. But it must not. Indeed, this anti-tradition cannot win because its power is too weak. Christians anchor their hope in a power greater than persecution.
What expectation might Nigerian Christians hold forth for this Christmas? The same glorious messianic expectation of hope promised through the birth of the Christ-child, the same glorious expectation of the incarnation which has fueled the faith of the faithful for 2,000 years. Christians in Nigeria might expect this Christmas to see the reality of God’s incarnational power displayed in Jesus Christ. What would this mean?
Christians have the opportunity to expose false and evil powers while pointing to the purified power of God’s paschal lamb—Jesus, who came to take away the sins of the world. What’s the difference between Christ’s purified power and the evil power of the false rulers? The false powers must rely on the fear of death, while the true power is capable of withstanding complete vulnerability.
Ponder this Christmas question: When Jesus was born into the world as the King of the Jews, was he more powerful or less powerful than Herod, who fancied himself the rightful bearer of that title? On the one hand, the answer could not be more plain. Herod was king of the Jews through cunning and killing. He would literally subject his own son to execution. He was paranoid about potential kings supplanting his throne, so he schemed and fought and killed to keep it. If he ordered an execution, it was carried out.
So the sad case unfolded in the days of Jesus’s birth. Jesus, the [true] king of the Jews, was born in Bethlehem. And Herod knew it. Herod also knew his power to command the sword, and he did not shy from using it. Herod ordered the execution of all baby boys two years old or younger. Having no army to counter the king’s swordsmen, the parents were powerless to protect their babies. And the babies—how could they possibly offer any resistance to this diabolical declaration of death derived from the evil paranoia of King Herod the Great? Herod had all the power to kill, while babies—human babies—are notable for their intense vulnerability.
Jesus, the babe-born king, was no exception. He was even more vulnerable than the norm would anticipate, having been birthed away from home in a makeshift animal manger-turned-maternity ward.
Herod presents power, the power that most impresses (and controls) him: the power of death. This is the highest power known by evil lords. It is the power they yield to and default to when threatened.
But is it the greater power? The power to kill is in fact the greatest power evil knows. Yet evil power isn’t the greatest power, as the incarnation shows.
Herod used all his power—including the power to kill—to rid the world of one newborn child. And that child lived. Herod spent his force—and failed. While the evil power to kill the true king was unleashed upon Bethlehem and its vicinity, that power proved powerless in the presence of the baby-born Messiah.
Make no mistake, the failure of Herod’s kingly power was not mere happenstance or luck or poor timing or chance. Herod’s failure was a complete defeat in the face of superior power. The superior power is nothing less than the power of life over death, the power of the one from whom all life gets its breath and all creatures live and move and have their being. There is but one power—one God—who is able to declare the end from the beginning:
“Remember this and stand firm,
recall it to mind, you transgressors,
remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose….’”
(Isaiah 46:8-10, ESV)
The power of God established the birth of this baby (as Luke writes in Acts 4)—to do whatever God’s hand and purpose predestined to occur. Herod’s power was small, fear-filled, and life-taking. God’s power—by far the greater—was magnificent, faith-fueling, and life-giving. The power of God made a fantastic display through the incarnation. We now call this powerful display Christmas.
While the interim period moves along toward Christ’s return, violent lords will employ their swords in the vain hope of using death to usurp the power of life. Their evil killing power will be as fruitless in the end as Herod’s massacre. King Jesus came to earth to free people from the fear of death (Hebrews 2:14-15).
King Jesus swallowed death, drinking its poison to the last drop in the cup. And his burial became a slight belch of acknowledgment that there was some power there in the killing. But his resurrection displayed the reality God knew from the incarnation: God’s king has come to earth to give life to all who believe. And a day is now unfolding in which every knee in heaven and on earth is preparing to bend and bow low so that every tongue with unmistakable clarity will utter “this King Jesus is Lord” to the glory of God the Father. Merry Christmas to the invincible followers of King Jesus.
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