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November 18 2022 17:42

Mutual respect, honest dialogue

An interview with Panti Filibus Musa, Archbishop of the Lutheran Church of Christ in Nigeria and President of the Lutheran World Federation

Archbishop Panti Filibus Musa is advocating for hope and respect for human beings created in the image of God. He is the head of the Lutheran Church of Christ in Nigeria, a church with more than two million members in a country of 208 million inhabitants. Simultaneously, as the president of the Lutheran World Federation, he is making sure that the focus of the communion is kept on the commonly held pillars of the LWF and not on the dividing lines. interviewed Archbishop Musa at the end of his visit to Hungary.

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– Churches are facing a number of crises globally. What is the biggest challenge for your church in your context?

– The biggest challenge for the church is not unconnected to the biggest challenge of the society the church finds itself in: it is the instability and insecurity in the country. For about a bit more than ten years, many parts of Nigeria, especially in the north, have been going through major security challenges. They relate to the activities of the Islamic extremist group called Boko Haram, the tensions between herdsmen and farmers and nowadays we also have the criminal activities of some bandits. This situation affects everything. It affects the economy, the relations between religions, families are forced to leave their homes, children are traumatized, women are abused, and so on.

Church communities suffer a lot. These criminal activities often affect the whole community but in the north and northeast, where I come from, churches are special targets. Worship places are destroyed, people are attacked in worship, families are destabilized. So, as a church we feel all this instability more, because many of the communities affected in our region are Christian communities and because we are dealing with the people whose lives have been uprooted.

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– How can the church respond in such a situation?

– First of all, as a church we have to convey to these people the message of hope that sustains them in the midst of crisis. Second, we have counteract the language of hate and languages that emphasize enmity and differences. We have to preach about what it is that holds us together, what is it that we share as a nation. Nigeria is our country, whether we are Christian, Muslim or Hindu. It is important for the church to insist that we must find ways to live together. Yet, we cannot live together if there is no justice. Justice is fundamental. Therefore, we advocate and try to call on the government to fulfill its constitutional responsibility and ensure the protection of the lives and property of every Nigerian regardless of their tribe, religion or ethnic origin. All people must be respected because they are human beings created in the image of God. This is a very important message. We engage in dialogue inter-religiously and ecumenically, as well. We get together with Catholics, Anglicans, Methodist and others to discuss how can we, as a church, be part of nation-building.  

Of course, we also try to respond depending on our resources. When a community is attacked and people have lost everything or they have nothing to feed on, we respond by assisting where possible. We call for others to share their resources and raise funds ourselves to be able to offer support with the most immediate and longer-term needs.

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– You have mentioned that we have to look for the things we share instead of emphasizing our differences. In the global family of Lutherans, where can we see unity and where are the dividing lines?

– We have to acknowledge that the Lutheran World Federation is a communion that brings churches together from different contexts. Each is dealing with different realities and each situation is unique. What the LWF is trying to do is provide a common platform where we reflect on how we understand ourselves together as Christians in the Lutheran faith and what does that mean for our fellowship. We refer to some important pillars that hold us together: joint theological reflection on the realities we are facing, responding to the needs of those who are suffering and mission. Diaconia is done internationally by World Service, which takes care of refugees in many places, but we also support our member churches in their localities in order to respond.

Of course, there are always issues that tend to divide. Political issues are like that; for example, in the past we struggled a lot with the position on the apartheid system in Southern Africa.  In recent times, we have had the issues of family, marriage and human sexuality. We know that there are churches where this is a v

ery difficult topic. The Lutheran World Federation consciously decided not to take a decision but to continue to provide a place for respectful dialogue among member churches. There is no single solution that the LWF could offer and that would satisfy everybody. In some countries, it is even illegal to deal with these questions, in other countries there is freedom. The LWF must be conscious of this diversity so that at the end of the day the local ministry of the church is supported rather than jeopardized.

We also have global programs on theology, diaconia, mission, gender justice, intergenerational issues, among others. Yet, in order to have all this transmitted locally, we need a certain level of empowerment and accompaniment of our member churches given their own local realities. There is always room for reinterpretation and for localizing the decisions taken on the global level.

I must also add that as a Lutheran communion, we always find ecumenical commitment very important. We are exploring ways of dialogue and cooperation with the Roman Catholic, the Anglican and the Methodist church and nowadays also with the Pentecostals. We do not see ourselves as a church body in isolation but in relation with these other churches. Beyond the Christian family, we also try to engage interreligiously with other faiths. For example, we have an agreement with Islamic Relief International on how to deal with the 2 million refugees we are taking care of globally. The Lutheran World Federation is the one single Christian denomination that is taking care of so many refugees and this fact is even recognized by the UN.

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– You were elected President of the Lutheran World Federation in 2017. How has this position influenced your view of the communion in comparison to your earlier experience as member of the staff in Geneva?

 – When I worked in Geneva as a staff person, I was dealing with the issues of the member churches on a daily basis. First, as the Secretary for Africa, I kept in touch with the bishops and the presidents of the continent and my role was to support them, empower them, give them advice or build capacity. Later, as a DMD Director I did the same on a global level.

Now, as the President, I am more involved in policy-making and governance. My task is to ensure that the decisions taken on the global level nurture and promote our sense of being in communion. I have the constitutional responsibility to make sure that we follow up on our commitments to one another as churches, our ecumenical commitments and our commitment to justice and advocacy. The President is the custodian of all these commitments.

Unfortunately, my time as President was deeply affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. This made it really difficult for us to have our annual meetings with the Council. Most of these had to take place online and it was only due to the dedication of Council Members and regional Vice Presidents that we could do that. But for their joint support and efforts, I don’t see how we would have functioned.

– The Thirteenth Assembly of the LWF will be held in Krakow next year. How is the communion preparing for that?

– We are grateful to the Lutheran Church of the Augsburg Confession in Poland for hosting the Assembly. In the middle of November, we will be Krakow to visit the venue, talk about the agenda for the Assembly and fine-tune the budget. There is a great excitement globally that once again Central Eastern Europe is going to host the Assembly. I am convinced that the churches in this region have many lessons to teach us based on their history and we will have the gift of listening to their voices.

At the same time, we know that this Assembly is going to take place in a context of instability that we never thought would happen again on European soil. I think that the Russian invasion of Ukraine and this context of the war is going to have implications for our Assembly. Once again, we are brought face to face with the reality that while we assumed that the world is attaining peace and progress, we have to go back to the drawing board and talk honestly about the global situation. We will not only focus on Russia and Ukraine. There are so many other conflicts in the world and as a communion that was founded on the ashes of World War II, we have to remind ourselves of our responsibility for other parts of the world.

I think that climate change is going to be another important subject. Climate change is not a theory, but it is something that many of our member churches are already paying the price of. In Africa, ponds and rivers are drying, the desert is increasing, you cannot predict when rains will come and there are droughts and floods in places where we never expected them to happen. Many people are already suffering and this means that we need to move beyond rhetoric and ask ourselves the question: what must be done in the world today to at least begin to change the narrative and take better care of the creation. This is where the role of the church comes in because we have the capacity to mobilize people in terms of adapting but also in terms of standing for positive change.

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– Your visit to Hungary is the last stop on your European tour. What have your impressions been of our country?

– Wonderful! I must begin with appreciation for our relationship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hungary. It makes a difference to know that we have sisters and brother in another part of the world. It was great to meet them, to see what they are doing and to relate that to our own situation. Also, I have been hearing over and over again that the Hungarian government is concerned about the fate of those who are suffering because of their faith. This encourages me, because it makes me realize that we are not alone in our struggles in Nigeria and in many other parts of the world. It is also consoling to see how the churches and organizations here have been caring for fellow human beings who are in difficulty and that some congregations have welcomed hundreds of people after the war broke out. Finally, I want to take note of the fact that the ELCH has always played a significant role in the life of the LWF and has contributed so much to our understanding of the communion. We are grateful that.