“Chineke! I thank you for this new morning! I thank you for the sun that rises…Chineke! I have killed no one, I have no one’s land. I have not committed adultery…Chineke! I have wished others well. I have helped those who have nothing with the little that my hands can spare.”
These are the words of Papa-Nnukwu, grandfather of Kambili Achike, and the protagonist in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s debut novel Purple Hibiscus (2003).
These words spoken by Papa-Nnukwu were part of his itu-nzu, which was the declaration of innocence performed daily by practitioners of Igbo religion.
It is my sense that Adichie’s portrayal of Papa-Nnukwu’s faith challenges how Christians should live out their faith; in particular, it should call Christians to assess how much of their Christian lives are informed by cultural attitudes rather than biblical ones.
Coming of Age in 1990s Nigeria
To understand what I’m arguing, I have to offer a selective overview of the book. Set in politically tumultuous 1990s Nigeria, Purple Hibiscus is a “Coming of Age” story about a fifteen year old girl, the aforementioned Kambili Achike. Kambili lives in a luxurious home in the eastern Nigerian city of Enugu with her mother Beatrice and her brother Jaja. Eugene, her father, is a successful businessman and newspaper publisher, who has dared to run editorials critical of the new government. From outside of the wall of the Achike compound, it seems that they are a model, God-fearing family. They are devoutly Roman Catholic. Eugene holds tenaciously to democratic values. He is also generous with his wealth. Jaja and Kambili are fine students poised to lead the next generation of Nigerians.
As Nigeria’s political situation grows darker so does Eugene’s treatment of his family, who cower owing to his abusive behavior. Adichie implies that Eugene’s abuse has been pervasive throughout the family’s history, and has roots in Eugene’s own treatment at the hands of missionary priests during this school days.
What is more, Eugene has disowned his “pagan” father. During one Christmas visit to the Achike rural homestead in Abba, Eugene prayed for his father, as described by Kambili, “Finally, he prayed for the conversion of our Papa-Nnukwu, so that Papa-Nnukwu would be saved from hell. Papa spent some time describing hell, as if God did not know that the flames were eternal and raging and fierce.”
As the story progresses, the reader learns that Eugene does the bare minimum to take care of his elderly father. He refuses to visit his father, and has decided against inviting his father to live with him.
In vivid contrast, every morning Papa-Nnukwu prays to the Creator god, Chineke for his son. “Let the sun not set on his prosperity,” prays Papa-Nnukwu.
The Law Written on Their Hearts
When I read Papa-Nnukwu’s declaration of innocence in the context of the book, I could not help but think of the Apostle Paul’s teaching in Romans 2. I wonder if Adichie intended to draw from Paul’s teaching.
Igbo religion drew from natural revelation. It believes in a Creator god, but also in lesser gods that people pray and sacrifice to. But the brand of Catholicism embraced by Eugene, was rigid and reflected the colonialist attitudes of European priests who still functioned in Nigeria at the time.
Papa-Nnukwu’s declaration of innocence affirms what Paul teaches in Romans 2. The Igbo had established moral prohibitions against theft, adultery, murder, etc. Basically, the Igbo by nature kept the law of God “written on their hearts” (Romans 2:14). Papa-Nnukwu was keen in upholding the moral standards of his people.
Therein lies the rub: though Eugene had received the light of special revelation, he had plenty to learn from the moral codes of his people, received through natural revelation. Eugene had become Catholic, but he had also accepted the colonialist attitudes of the missionary priests who taught him.
Eugene’s treatment of his father is a microcosm of what he had come to believe about his people and homeland in general. Nigeria’s failures were due to its failure to adopt the undiluted faith and values of their former colonizer, England.
Christian or Western?
Christians in the West have to realize that their theologies, liturgical expressions, and worldviews are steeped in culture. What we may call Christian ways may be only Western ways in a flimsy disguise. The danger of this is that it marginalizes Christians whose cultural practices are different from Western ways.
On a personal level, we have to ask ourselves if our Christianity is warm, gentle, and accommodating to other people’s preferences. Through Eugene Achike, Adichie warns Christians about how damaging a tightly wound, culturally insensitive Christian attitude can be. It is no better than the prayers of the “pagan.”
In fact, the prayers of the “pagan” indict the prayers of the self-righteous.