Society and Culture

Igbo traditional religion and Christianity

Chinua Achebe (1958:123-125) gave us the first Igbo description of the impact of that encounter between Igbo traditional religion and Christianity when Obierika said:

How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us. White man is very clever. He came quietly and peacefully with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.

The above words articulate the sentiments expressed by an Igbo elder after realizing how the new religion (Christianity) had gone in terms of winning converts and dividing the members of the clan. And it is true that henceforth things were never the same for the Igbo.

The question that comes to mind is whether the Igbo did misunderstand him? If the missionary had not posed as quiet and peaceable, could the Igbo have been less tolerant with him? How exactly did the missionary manage to win some Igbo over into Christianity? In Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Nneka wasted no time in joining the Christian when she became pregnant because she has been losing her children through ogbanje. The outcasts in Mbanta flocked the church. Christianity offered freedom from evil spirits and oppression. There was the case of Nwoye who was shocked because twins were thrown away into the forest to die and about Ikemefuna who was killed for sacrifice by his father Okonkwo. We remember how Ndi Igbo gave out the shrines of their various gods to Christian missionaries who cleared those sites, erected churches and nothing happened to them contrary to the expectations from the people, their gods and shrines. The Igbo are not sufficiently stupid to hang on to those failed shrines and gods, even if they had not completely imbibed Christianity. The gods were dead and the people became convinced that the white man’s God was very powerful. There were those who failed at this time to become part of this dynamic process and they lost out. The priestess of Agbala in Umuofia spitefully called the christians the excrement of the clan and the ‘new faith’ was a mad dog that had come eat it up (Achebe, 1958:101). Thus when the colonials and missionaries wanted the chiefs and the chief priests to surrender their children for education, these principal Igbo chiefs who were custodians of true Igbo history refused for fear of being treacherously enslaved. Rather less privileged people like the ‘osu’ caste, outcasts and personal servants regarded as ‘worthless and empty’ men as described by Achebe were given to the Europeans for education. When this class of people became educated they had no enthusiasm to engage in the collation and preservation of Igbo history in view of their past shameful family background. This negative motivation or social resentment even led many of these educated elites to join in the colonialist propaganda that the Igbo had no common history (Nwosu; 1983:6). Thus christianity and Igbo are weighted for what they are worth and a choice is made accordingly.

Therefore the advent of Christianity in Igbo land had meant the introduction of a christian world view. Admittedly, Christianity made tremendous achievements. They abolished slave trade and slavery, human sacrifices and twin killing, introduced education, built hospitals and charity homes. They destroyed some level of superstition, increased human knowledge that brought about improved human welfare. Igbo traditional religion was incapable of achieving this because it was static as well as looking downwards. Through education and christian religion it was possible for the Igbo to re-shape their faith and world view. Nevertheless syncretistic practices among many Igbo christian show that Igbo traditional religion is still alive. But this encounter with Christianity means it will ever be the same again.

The early missionaries saw themselves as social and religious reformers. However, while they tried in their own way to achieve their mission goal, which was the conversion of Africans into Christianity, their approach and attitude did not produce a wholesome result. They thought by condemning African religious beliefs and practices, social and political means of control. That they would produce ‘a new man’ born in a new faith; but this ‘newman’ produced became a split personality – who could neither totally return to the old nor firmly be rooted in the new. This was made worse by the fact that most of the missionaries were not only ignorant of the Igbo people but also lacked adequate knowledge of the content of the christian message. For instance, one of the listeners in Achebe’s This Fall Apart asked the missionary thus:

If we leave our gods and follow your god, who will protect us from the anger of our neglected gods and ancestors? In response, the missionary nastily said angrily: Your gods are not alive and cannot do you any harm. They are pieces of wood and stone.

The impatience and unwillingness of the white missionary to educate the traditional Igbo on WHO JESUS IS and WHAT HE CAN DO for them in relation to their gods marked the beginning of a false start in communicating the christian message to the Igbo. It was a brand of christianity, which did not affect all facets of Igbo life. It was that failure which gave rise to ambivalent christianity in Igboland whereby most Igbo christians resort to their local deities, ancestors, medicine men, divination, sacrifices and use of charms or amulets to seek for solution and protection in their crises moments. Nevertheless the Christian message has continued to challenge Igbo man and his environment.

It is important that we be reminded that the various ethnic groups in the world have their traditional religions as an answer to the reality of their existence. The Philistines, the Babylonians, the Greeks and the Romans, all indulged in idolatrous worship. The Arabs used to worship many spirits (Jinns). Stonehenge in southern England is a living evidence of Druidism, which was the heathen worship of the early inhabitants of the United Kingdom. Human sacrifice was a part of Druid worship and was only abolished in the Roman period, (Kato, 1985:33).

Whatever rationalization we may try to make, the worship of God in traditional Africa and the primitive nations of the world is idolatrous. Idolatry is worshipping God in pictures, and this was thought to be normal, not sin, since in their view, God is always represented in visual symbols, and so there must always be pictures, idols and statues in their shrines or places of worship. True worship must be spiritual, not material and idolatrous. Pictures designed to encapsulate divinity necessarily diminish God’s honour, and transcendence and sovereignty. It is impossible to capture God’s power and majesty in a visual image and all attempts to do so deteriorate into magic, superstition and idolatry. Images in worship destroy the human spirits; distort God’s spiritual identity and they promote the lie of idolatry. The depravity evident in African traditional religion is evident among all peoples of the earth (Psalm 14:2-3). Traditional Igbo ancestor turned away from ‘Chukwu’ and set up his gods, with Ala as the arch-divinity. The Igbo myth of origin as shown by Nri myth reveals how Nri sacrificed his first son and first daughter. We don’t know why Nri could not be patient to be fed by ‘Chukwu’ as he fed his father Eri and his people. As with Adam the Igbo man’s ancestry to search for answers (about his welfare) away from God broke the link between him and ‘Chukwu.’

It is important to observe that while pagan worship was a part of the religion of the peoples of the world, they could still change to other religions of their choice. Most Arabs accepted Islam and became Muslims. The British no longer claimed Druidism as their religion, but Christianity. It was the white missionaries who brought the church to Igbo land. Why should this not be the case in Igbo land? 

View pictures of Igbo symbols

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