In my mental picture of the Biblical narratives I read about Jesus, I picture something like Niger. The desert, the animals, the poverty, the oppressive weight of a centuries-old religion. Even if Boubon isn’t quite first-century Jerusalem, it seems much closer to it than 21st-century Louisville.
Thus, when I see the donkeys pulling carts into town, I imagine Jesus riding one of them triumphantly into Jerusalem (cf. Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19, and John 12). It is hard to ride a donkey triumphantly. Living in close proximity to donkeys helps remind us of how odd a Messiah Jesus is, a king “coming to you…humble and mounted on a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). Even the chief of Boubon has a Toyota, but the King of Kings would enter a town like Boubon on a donkey.
Therein lies the revelation: despite living in what appears as a more ‘Biblical’ setting, Jesus still doesn’t quite fit in with the Songhai. Jesus’ simultaneous humanity and divinity, the scandalous injustices of the cross and God’s grace, the notion that God cares about people…all of these are foreign concepts in an environment where millennium-long Islamic domination has superimposed a works-based salvation onto a magical worldview seeking power to control the unpredictable course of life.
In this sense, Boubon is very much like first-century Jerusalem, where the Pharisees rested on their works and the crowds hoped for a material miracle. Children and any enterprising bystander mob around white people hoping for an economic miracle in the form of a ‘cado’ (gift) – seriously testing my mental commitment to “let the children come” (cf. Matthew 19:14, Mark 10:14, Luke 18:16). Men scoff and parrot rote Islamic apologetics to discount the reliability of the Bible and the divinity of Christ, trusting in their prayers and alms to enter heaven, just as the Pharisees rejected Christ’s divinity during his lifetime and defended their traditions specifying rules for every area of life. Each evening, as I walked against the current of men piously and publicly streaming toward the mosque for prayer, I thought of Jesus’ words about the ‘hypocrites’ who “love to stand and pray in the synagogues [or mosques] and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others” (Matthew 6:5). Jesus’ words to the Pharisees could easily be repeated to the Songhai of Niger: “you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27).
And yet, before we sit back in self-satisfaction that we are a faith community much more righteous than such ‘backward’ and ‘oppressive’ ‘Muslims,’ let us remember Jesus’ warning against the Pharisee who, “standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even this tax collector [or even those Muslims]’” (Luke 18:11). The distance between the environments of the United States, Boubon, and first-century Jerusalem may be great, but the distance between each of them and righteousness is equally vast. Let us not be caught in self-righteousness, but cry out to God as the tax collector did, whether we come from a Muslim background in a west African village or from a wealthy Christian background in an American city: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (v. 13). In Niger, the Gospel reaches those humble enough to be open to it; we too might remind ourselves that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
Even as Christ affirmed and affirms those humble like little children before him, Jesus did not come to bring peace to Niger or the USA. Nonetheless, in Niger one feels closer to what Jesus does bring, that is, “a sword,” attacking the very foundation of the community in its legalistic regulations, where following Christ means abandoning father, mother, son, and daughter (Matthew 10:34-35; Luke 14:26). Those brave enough to follow Christ here truly “fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” more than “those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28). People struggle to acknowledge Christ before men (vv. 32-33), and many who seek come at night like Nicodemus (John 3), or “for fear of [their families and their neighbors] they [do] not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the [community], for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (adapted from John 12:42-43). Perhaps we too need to examine ourselves to see if we are following Jesus, or conforming to an increasingly unfashionable but still socially acceptable club. Perhaps we need to recognize the radicalism of what we profess to believe, and accept the sword that Christ is bringing to our works-based thinking or other falsehoods.
Let us join our brothers and sisters among the Songhai in surrendering our love from the glory that comes from man, our fear of those who kill the body but not the soul, and our timidity about confessing Christ openly that we might together deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Christ (Matthew 16:24).