Homily at the Celebration of the Opening of the 2018/2019 Legal Year of the Federal High Court of Justice, Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Maitama, Abuja. On Monday September 17, 2018 by Rev. Fr. George EHUSANI (Executive Director, Lux Terra Leadership Foundation)
Sisters and brothers in Christ, it is an honour and a privilege, for me to be asked to preach the homily at this Eucharistic celebration that marks the opening of the Legal Year of the Federal High Court of Nigeria. I am glad to know that in spite of your high learning and experience in the dispensation of justice; in spite of the fact that we call you Honourable Justices and Your Lordships, you nevertheless recognise that you are mere mortals, and that as judges in the Court of justice, you act in the name of the Most High God who alone is the real Judge of his people. So like King Solomon requested of God in 1 Kings 3:9, to begin a new legal season, we are here to join you in praying for a heart to discern good and evil, because your judgements will affect the lives of individuals and groups, and sometimes through legal precedents, your judgements will affect the future direction of our entire country.
This annual celebration of the opening of the legal year with religious service allows us as Church and as Gods people to honour the sacred character of the law, and the vocation entrusted to you its guardians. This is also a day for you hopefully to remember why you chose this profession in the first place, and to prayerfully reflect upon how you can become even more effective servants of truth, justice and the common good. You embrace quite a serious responsibility that causes people to hold you in high regard calling you Esquire, Your Lordship, My Lord. People are generally awed by the responsibility you shoulder each day for all of us. It is indeed an awesome responsibility and an immense moral burden that is placed upon your shoulders, and for which you are bound to render an account before the Almighty God at the end of the day. You need the presence and grace of God in your lives. So we pray today for you and for all members of the judiciary, that you may be given the gift of wisdom and discernment to enrich your knowledge and experience. May the Holy Spirit fill you with wisdom to know how to apply the laws of our land with both impartiality and mercy. May the good Lord protect you from bad decisions and wrong judgments. Amen.
God’s word is filled with stories of judges and lawyers. Not all of them are flattering or praiseworthy. We have many stories about lawyers and judges in the Scriptures, because even the authors of the sacred texts recognise how important you all are to the wellbeing and stability of society from time immemorial. Scripture views the members of the judiciary often as the very substitute of God himself. You are therefore asked to tend to the issues of law as God would. We need you to be wise and fair, insightful and accommodating, prudent but not naïve, as you decide the many complex issues that come before you each day. Our courts and its officers are the bulwarks of the security and wellbeing of our nation itself. We look up to you for wise and balanced opinions that safeguard us all. Your service must be animated by passion and the energy of fire. May your service be praiseworthy and faithful to the laws of our country. May you be abundantly rewarded for being servants of justice and mercy in everything that you do during this new legal year. The law itself must be a bastion of security and harmony for all of us in the country. Judges and lawyers are our first line of defence against mob rule, elite criminality, executive lawlessness and the arrogance of power. Yours is a very noble and lofty vocation. And this nobility and sacred character of your profession is the reason why any unsavoury legal practice among your members so infuriates and scandalises people everywhere, in the same manner as the scandal of priests and pastors horrifies and outrages people everywhere. This annual prayer service guarantees our wellbeing as well as yours. This mass, and all the prayer services you hold each year, are a wise investment also for all of us who depend on your wisdom, your impartiality, your balanced perspectives and your commitment to the common good, to make this nation a more secure, stable and peaceful society.
The theme of my brief reflection with you this morning is LET YOUR LIGHT SHINE: The Nigerian Christian and the Imperative of Judicial Activism for National Transformation. Let me begin with the declaration of Prophet Isaiah while announcing the coming of the Messiah, in Isaiah 9:6. He says: the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those that lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shone.” And on coming into the world Jesus proclaims (in John 8:12) that I am the Light of the world; no one who follows me will ever walk in darkness. (John 8:12).
Christ is the light that breaks through the darkness of human misery. He is the persistent and defiant light that darkness cannot overpower as we read in John 1:5. St. Paul tells us in Roman 13:11-13 that with the coming of Christ, the night is over, and daylight is here. Yes, those who come to Christ in darkness go away bathed in light. What the Scriptures teach us is that on account of the coming of Christ, the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. That is why Jesus tells his disciples and ourselves that: “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, what can make it salty again? It is good for nothing, and can only be thrown out to be trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill-top cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp to put under a tub; they put it on the lamp stand where it shines for everyone in the house. In the same way your light must shine in people’s sight, so that, seeing your good works, they may give the praise to your father in heaven.” (Mt.5:13-16).
Christ has shared his light with us and now asks us to be what we are. He says: Be light to the world. Let your light dawn over the darkness of corruption, hatred, vengeance, violence and war. You are the light of the world. So let your light dawn over the darkness of ethnic bigotry, executive lawlessness and political banditry in your country. Be light, dispelling the darkness of greed and selfishness on the part of the privileged few in your society, which has driven the multitude into misery and destitution. He also says: You are the salt of the earth. Be salt to your country. Preserve your society from spoiling because of widespread injustice, deceit and manipulation. Preserve your country from decaying on account of rampant indiscipline and widespread impunity. Be salt to your country, transforming it through the values of truth and justice, love and compassion, hard work and sacrifice for the common good.
Therefore, confronted with elite debauchery and popular despondency, our light must shine through the passionate pursuit of human rights, the defence of human dignity and the promotion of freedom and abundant life for all in our society. The socio-political and economic circumstances of today’s Nigeria truly challenge those of us who lay claim to Christianity to act as the conscience of the nation. We must assume our responsibility as salt of the earth and light of the world. Our faith must become a faith that does justice. We must be forthright and consistent in working against individual evil and evil structures in our society. As the multitude of Nigerians are plagued by poverty and all manner of human degradation, and as our worsening economic fortunes has pushed a lot of our kith and kin unto the slums, where they live subhuman lives, we cannot afford to look the other way. We enlightened Christians must stand alongside the oppressed, the impoverished, the marginalized, the sick, the handicapped, the prisoners, those denied their just rights and those discriminated against. We are called upon to defend the right of poor workers to just wages, to affordable housing, to descent transportation, to health insurance, and to adequate retirement benefits.
The Christian elite must at all times resist the temptation to apathy and despondency. We must be patriotic but fearless Christians who will demonstrate to the men and women of this land that a true patriot is one who cares deeply about the happiness and well-being of his country and all its people; not one who applauds or defends any government power, or one who is simply concerned with climbing the ladder of professional or career success for personal aggrandisement. We must demonstrate love for our country by demanding the highest standards from our leaders and by accepting nothing but the best for and from our people. We must be ready to stand up and be counted on the side of truth, even as falsehood reigns in the land.
True, many who belong to the Nigerian Christian elite have paid only lip service to the social imperative of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We have often lived like hypocrites, preferring to have our little pleasures and comforts, rather than rocking the boat and getting hurt. We have often avoided as much as possible any occasion of confrontation with the status-quo of power and privilege for a tiny minority, while the overwhelming majority are denied a modicum of dignified existence. We have put up with unjust structures; we have accommodated ungodly dispensations; and now and again we have conspired with callous oppressors of Gods children, only so that we may indulge in our miserable pleasures and be ensconced in our privileged positions. To that extent we have betrayed our Christian prophetic calling, and if we do not repent and change our course, we shall someday answer for it before the Most High. We need to put an end to this season of betrayal, and abandon our erstwhile posture of hypocrisy and complacency. The embarrassing socio-political realities of our day are a constant reminder that if we do not stand up for something we will fall for anything.
My dear friends, whereas the foregoing has been directed at all Christians all baptised persons, among baptised persons the critical role of Christian lawyers and jurists in the project of social transformation must be particularly emphasised. The legal profession is in the western tradition understood as a vocation, a divine calling, much like the medical profession or the priesthood. Whereas the contractor, the business tycoon or the entrepreneur sets out as his or her fundamental objective to amass wealth, and he or she measures his or her success in terms of the amount of wealth and property he or she is able to accumulate in the course of time, the lawyer or the jurist on the other hand is expected to be motivated by an all-consuming passion for the common good, for the promotion of a just and equitable social order, and especially for the protection of the poor and the weak against the excesses of the rich and powerful in society. Lawyers and Jurists are therefore prime custodians of human civilisation, which is why they are often referred to even in secular terms – as the light of their society. (Advocatorum quae societas luci suae)
In a country that has had more than its fair share of notoriously corrupt and abusive leaders, lawyers and jurists cannot be inattentive or indifferent, nor can they feign helplessness. Instead lawyers and jurists must use their privileged learning, their constitutional prerogative and their high standing in society, to stand in the gap between the distressed people of Nigeria, and those who preside over their economic, political and social affairs convicting corrupt officials, condemning acts of impunity and resisting rights violations and abuses. In a country like ours where in spite of our enormous natural endowments, the poor and their children are largely denied opportunities for good nourishment, quality education, decent housing, decent but affordable public transportation, and adequate healthcare, Christian lawyers and jurists must capitalise on their constitutional prerogative and social standing to achieve social transformation, through creative application of the law for social change, and through a number of legal advocacy mechanisms.
Justice is radically intolerant of injustice; justice seeks out injustice to destroy it. Justice knows neither father nor mother; justice looks to the truth alone. Judges must be in the front line in the defence of human rights, and in the project of giving every human being his or her due, simply because he or she is a person; simply because justice requires it. This is the honour of law and the honour of jurists. Only bold affirmation of justice by lawyers and jurists on behalf of poor and helpless citizens can tear down the organised disorder that the political and economic elite have often erected around themselves in this country. Yes, only bold affirmation of the rule of law can curb the arrogance of those who exercise power, and force the agents of primitive feudalism in our day to submit to just, humane and democratic principles of governance. On the other hand, a judicial system (including the criminal justice regime), which betrays or undervalues the equality and the dignity of all persons, compromises its calling, and violates humanity as a whole.
We read in Psalmist 18 that the law of the lord is perfect. It revives the soul. The Lord requires that everyone be given fair judgment and treated with equal dignity, whether poor or rich (Lev 19:15). Injustice is an abomination to God (Deut 25:16) because God is righteous and there is no injustice in him. (Deut 32:4). The prophets lashed out against unjust laws and judges (Is 10:1-2; Amos 5:7, 15). He who sows injustice will reap sorrow (Prov 22:8). It is by justice that a king gives stability to the land (Prov 29:4). Prophet Micah sums it up when he declared that what the Lord desires of us is to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly before our God.
Ancient Greek Philosopher Aristotle says that law is order, and good law is good order. We recall St. Augustines famous dictum, that kingdoms devoid of justice are nothing but a bunch of bandits or a gang of robbers. The challenge before your Lordships and our Christian lawyers today is how to put the law at the service of the common good, instead of allowing it to become a tool at the hands of the oppressors of Gods children. Lawyers are ministers in the temple of justice, and by their training and practice, they cleverly harness, canvass and persuade the judges to sway the judgment in favour of their clients. But as the judiciary is the last hope of the common man, judges ought to constantly beware of the manipulation of the technicalities of the law in order to ensure the dispensation of substantial justice in our courts.
The confidence the people repose on judges is what constitutes the foundation of the court system. It will therefore be a tragic situation if some judges are suspected of yielding their moral authority to political influence. When there is the growing impression that smart lawyers are increasingly able to persuade jurists to exploit the technicalities of the law in order to exonerate corrupt rulers, rogue politicians and greedy business tycoons, then we will begin to set the stage and lay the foundation for the coming anarchy or the revenge of the poor. And it should be noted that such revenge of the poor will not spare lawyers and judges as well as bishops and priests, who in our society are seen to belong to the privileged elite class. The French revolution (of 1792 to 1802) should continue to be taken as a bloody reminder of what dire consequences all of us who belong to the elite class will face, if we do not change our course today, and show greater commitment to upholding and defending the fundamental and inalienable rights of every human being in our society. What is called for today therefore is a measure of judicial activism by which forthright lawyers and godly judges, moved with passion for the common good and inspired by their commitment to God, will courageously engage in the necessary project of social engineering, overcoming the shackles of the literary provisions in our statutes, in order to ensure substantial justice in all cases.
Let me conclude by recognising along with the Psalmist that unless the Lords builds the house, the labourer labours in vain, and unless the Lord watches over the city, the sentries keep watch in vain. (Ps 127:1). And indeed Jesus told his disciples in John 15:5 that “cut off from me you can do nothing.” May the Lord grant you all lawyers and jurists the abiding presence and power of the Holy Spirit, so that you may live out your faith with truth and justice, and discharge your sacred duties with integrity and authenticity, even as you navigate your way through the valley of darkness that our society has become today. Amen.