One cannot dispute the fact that the church has responded to the suffering of the people in Sierra Leone. The extent of the response is however worth mentioning.
The churches’ role in providing conflict resolution programs is vital. Forgiveness and reconciliation are essential teachings that are not reasonably been explored by the church in Sierra Leone. Most churches organize a one-time program on forgiveness instead of making it a priority since it is one of the most important virtues needed in Sierra Leone today. A dangerous culture developing in Sierra Leone today is that of revenge. If raped victims fail to forgive their aggressors, they would eventually grow with hatred, quietly waiting for every opportunity to revenge. Some people who were infected with the HIV virus during the war believe they should retaliate by engaging in immoral sex through which they also spread the virus. This underscores the critical need of community based health care which is a priority as is HIV/AIDS awareness. Many child soldiers joined the rebel movement (even though under duress) with the conviction that one day, they would grow up and track down their perpetrators.
A realistic observation is that forgiveness is relatively easier when the individual has a close relationship with Jesus Christ. This is the background against which the researcher assesses the evangelistic work of the church as far below expectations. The populace needs to be evangelized and properly discipled. Subsequently, the principle of forgiveness would be meaningful taught in the local church assemblies. Perhaps this is one of the most important ways to arrest the dangerous culture of hate which, if not properly arrested, will rear its ugly head in the not-too-distant future. Realistically, forgiveness and reconciliation could only be meaningfully realized when evangelization and pastoral care are major concerns of the church. For these and other related programs, the church in Sierra Leone needs to spend financially if any reasonable degree of success could be recorded. The suffering of the church “now becomes the work of love, the work of redemption, saving those we love” (Kreft 1986, 138).
On a positive note, the history of the end of the rebel war cannot be complete without chapters on the role of the church which played an active role in reaching the peace agreement of Lome on July 7, 2000, between the rebels and the government. By bridging the gap between both sides, it was able to convince the government to start talking to the rebels. Humanitarian assistance was rendered to both government and rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces (RUF) groups. With the support of Norwegian Church Aid (NCA), the Inter Religious Council for instance provided food for both fighting forces. Through this intervention the cases of looting have been reduced.
The above notwithstanding, there is need for more input from the church in Sierra Leone in the areas of relief, rehabilitation, reconstruction and resettlement programs. The parsonages, churches, schools, clinics and other institutions destroyed, vandalized or ravaged by rebels need to be renovated or reconstructed for them to continue to serve the people. In addition, the programs put together to address the problems of ex-combatant child-soldiers as well as adults, orphans, women widowed by the rebel war, and counseling for traumatized people not only in the church but also in the communities at large are insufficient. A major fault of both the government and the church is the provision of assistance to the citizens in the capital at the expense of those in the other regions of the country where over seventy five percent of the population lives.
More programs are urgently needed to address the issues of children and women. The chauvinistic society is often insensitive to the needs of women in particular who suffered most during the war. When husbands were killed, they took over the running of the family which, in an African setting, is often very large. Most of these families were rendered homeless. They were also victims of rape and other violent physical abuses like amputation of their arms and limbs. Until the church addresses the realistic needs of women and children, the effects of war would be clearly evident for decades to come.
The church in Sierra Leone must identify itself with the suffering of the people. This was exactly what Paul did in the passage of II Corinthians 1:3-7. In the midst of suffering, the Sierra Leonean church must still be thankful to God, rendering praises to Him. This is clearly demonstrated by Paul in the pericope studied. He begins the section with an outburst of praise. This is teaching the church to always praise God in spite of and not because of. When Paul and Silas were imprisoned, the circumstances were not humanly conducive to praise God but their eventual praise demonstrated they were aware of the fact God should be praised at all times, a theme David echoes in Psalm 34:1. There needs to be a serious intimacy with God to such an extent that, like Paul, God is called ‘our Father’ in the greetings (II Cor. 1:2). The church should not be unmindful of the encouraging Scripture that observes that “the Lord is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation” (Exodus 15:2).
A big lesson for Sierra Leoneans is Paul’s use of the word comfort. The extreme poverty of the church in Sierra Leone, (which in reality reflects the general situation in the country), coupled with the untold misery of the rebel invasion, all reinforce the intensity of comfort. Although there are different degrees of trouble, God’s comfort is always available. This realization is sufficient to bring hope to a hopeless church. The burning of church buildings is not the end of the church. In fact, the true church is the assembly of saints and not the physical structures. Some Christians who were members of a famous church, Holy Trinity Church, one of the assemblies of the aristocrats in the society, ceased going to church after the rebels completely burnt their cathedral during the rebel invasion. Some, like the Jews, could just not comprehend how God allowed it to happen.
Paul did not promise the church a Christian life devoid of suffering. The reality is that it is part of the Christian’s training program. In fact, he concentrated on the inevitability of it. Suffering to the Christian, is Christ’s invitation to follow Him. Christ goes to the cross, and we are invited to follow to the same cross. Not because it is the cross, but because it is His. Suffering is blessed not because it is suffering but because it is His. Suffering is not the context that explains the cross; the cross is the context that explains suffering. The cross gives this new meaning to suffering; it is now not only between God and me but also between Father and Son (Kreft 1986, 137).
The good news is that God can deal with any kind of suffering and offer comfort for it.
The relevance of the fourth verse to the situation in the church in Sierra Leone is reflected in the fact that the result of receiving comfort from God is the ability to share comfort with others. This concept of shared comfort is crucial to understanding Paul’s thoughts and motivations throughout the letter. The Sierra Leanean church should realize that its sufferings, like, Paul, were actually a positive force in his ministry. Jesus is central to the process of sharing comfort to that of others. Jesus assumes the position of Sonship at the beginning of the pericope since He is the medium of both comfort and suffering as suggested in the fifth verse. If the hope of the church in Sierra Leone is therefore built on nothing but Jesus, the reality is that, as a Sublime Example, He too suffered and Christians would also suffer in their identification with Him. Though painful at present, the church in Sierra Leone must understand that verse five defines the reason behind Paul’s ability to share comfort with others. If it shares in Christ’s sufferings, it should also share in His comfort. Abundant suffering brings abundant comfort.
In reality, the church in Sierra Leone should not interpret Christ’s suffering mentioned in verse five as incomplete and could be properly quantified if it adds its own suffering to it. Paul explains elsewhere in Scripture (Rom. 6:10) that this was a one time, unique affair or experience. When the church suffers, it is actually revealing the intimate relationship with Christ whose name he actually bears. The life of the church in Sierra Leone, in other words, is the life of Christ- firstly with its suffering and its eventual glory. Paradoxically, the intensity of the suffering of the Christians in Sierra Leone may demonstrate evidence (like Paul) of the high calling to be identified with Christ. Church members who lost their lives and were subjected to other forms of suffering when trying to rescue souls should consider Christ as the divine example. Falling behind rebel lines, enduring beatings when attempting to help fellow Christians in particular and the populace in general is just part of what the church should be doing for a dying world, believing that even if one dies in the process, there is eventual hope.
Kreft (1986) believes that Christ’s coming, redemption of man, death and resurrection are the things He used to solve the problem of suffering. As a result of the resurrection, when all our tears are over, one will, incredibly look back at them and laugh, not in derision but in joy. Paradoxically, an atheist, Ivan Karamozov, brilliantly analyzes suffering better than some Christians when he observed thus:
I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all heart, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened (Kreft 1986, 139).
Are people in need of help? The answer is a resounding yes. Christians who have experienced suffering have a tremendous advantage or are in a better position to give comfort to other suffering Christians. If it is realized that it is God who is in control, then the church in Sierra Leone will see suffering as a divine appointment. The idea of fellowship expressed in the passage is very important Christians in Sierra Leone. Since they suffered together, they will eventually rejoice together. This mutuality of suffering and comfort was active and clearly understood between Paul and the Corinthians.
An analysis of the Pauline concept of suffering as it relates to comfort in the passage considered (II Corinthians 1:3-7) and a corresponding evaluation of the trend in the contemporary church (particularly in Sierra Leone) reveals the unpopularity of Paul’s teaching. Although God is the Father of all comfort, Sierra Leoneans in some instances believe it is not easy to objectively assess how God can see one through a particular kind of suffering. Consequently, they are in some circumstances not thankful to Him for their bitter experiences. The involvement of the church in the military juntas show that a significant proportion of Christians are yet to grasp Paul’s message. Some are however practically demonstrating that God comforts them in order that they too should comfort others who are suffering.
Paul demonstrates or illustrates that experience of suffering and comfort flows from belonging to Christ and sharing in his ministry. Paul deals with suffering and the Christian community. Sierra Leoneans, on several occasions, do not view fellowship as a vital relationship among Christians. Consequently, they don’t rejoice together since they do not suffer together. Some have left the country and living in diaspora while others are looking for opportunities to revenge. Since they do not see God’s hand in their suffering, forgiveness and reconciliation are not popular concepts in the church.
In spite of tremendous suffering, Christians in Sierra Leone must realize that God should be praised in every circumstance since He is a Father who gives comfort to His children. Suffering is not necessarily from God. The truism is that “some suffering is man-made; war for instance. But much is not, at least not in any clear and obvious way. We are born in suffering and we die in suffering, whether we are warmongers or peace mongers” (Kreft 1986, 170). God may allow it for a purpose. There are times when God just say ‘no’ since He has a better yes which could not be seen at the moment. An international student at West Africa Theological Seminary (WATS) was depressed because, humanly speaking, he had been marginalized in the ministry and younger pastors were given the opportunity to study shortly after entering the ministry. It was during the rebel war after his residence was completely destroyed that he finally obtained a scholarship to study in WATS. The end of his training in the M.A. (Pastoral Ministry) coincided with the start of the Master of Divinity program in the seminary and he became the first graduate, which enabled him to obtain a scholarship from Asbury Theological Seminary in the United States of America for a doctorate program. He profited in pain. Failing to realize why God allowed his ‘marginalization’, he is now grateful for the storms that God filtered in his life.
The consolation lies in the fact that God provides comfort for His children. This comfort should not be an end in itself but rather a means to an end. Having received the comfort of God during all kinds of suffering, the church in Sierra Leone has a very awesome responsibility to provide comfort for those who in turn are suffering. Like Paul admonishing Timothy to pass on what he has learned to faithful men who will in turn teach others also, Sierra Leonean Christians, after receiving God’s comfort must also comfort others. When this is done, the brotherhood of Christians would be clearly evident in the nation. The example of Dr. Bola Davies (real name concealed) of Sanders Street, a dynamic preacher in Sierra Leone is worth emulating. After his sixteen year old virgin daughter was violently raped by scores of rebels and brought back to him months after, he is very instrumental in counseling other people, Christian and non-Christians alike who underwent similar ordeals.
A serious problem in Sierra Leone today is accepting one’s spouse after being raped by rebels. A case in point is a Baptist Christian, Bro. Joshua Conteh (real name withheld) whose wife was raped by four rebels in his presence. A pregnancy test conducted soon after this incident was positive and the brother initially insisted that he would not father a fatherless child and strongly recommended an abortion. It took a dynamic team of Christians who had suffered similar traumas to counsel him. Though painful, he eventually accepted her. When she eventually delivered a bouncing baby boy, the child was accepted into a children’s home. Bro. Conteh is now among a team of Christians counseling victims of this abuse.
The above notwithstanding, the church in Sierra Leone is only beginning to grasp with the full reality. Even though the war is now a thing of the past, the implications are felt in varying degrees. An alarming and ever increasing number of Christians are now living with HIV/AIDS. These Christians need counseling rather than rebuke.
The church in Sierra Leone must be commended for the role played in negotiating the end of the conflict. Rev. Theophilus Momoh, the representative of the Catholic Church on the nation’s Inter-Religious Council paid a fitting tribute to the role of the church when he observed thus:
Despite the death and maiming that has occurred during Sierra Leone’s civil war, the church urged dialogue and forgiveness. It is difficult to forgive and forget because of the atrocities committed, but we still emphasize the need for dialogue. Even though the Catholic Church supports the Nigerian-led West African peacekeeping forces, it prefers dialog to go alongside it (Signs of the Times 1999).
The passage, 2 Corinthians 1:3-7, has a very relevant message to the church in Sierra Leone. Even though every issue is Father-filtered, God did not initiate nor did He will the sufferings in Sierra Leone. Amidst the suffering, God is he source of all comfort (including all forms of suffering in Sierra Leone which qualified the country as the poorest in the world). This comfort is through His Son Jesus Christ, indicating that there is no other medium to Him. Sierra Leonean Christians who were comforted have an obligation to be channels of consolation. They must be instruments to comfort of others.
Kreft, Peter. 1986. Making Sense Out of Suffering. Ann Harbor, Michigan : Servant Books.
Signs of the Times. 1999. America, 180(11)