On Preaching To The Choir And The Abdication Of Responsibility

As a writer and an enthusiast of Yoruba history, I often attend Dawn Commission’s  Yoruba Historical Conversations. Because issues concerning Yoruba language and history are always discussed at the event, there is always the inevitable member of the audience who will raise the complaint of parents not speaking the Yoruba Language to their children, and who will mention the need for all Yoruba, especially the elite to do better on the issue. Also like a clock, another person in the audience will inevitably reply with wording along the lines of: “A lot of us understand the message that the Yoruba language is important, that is why we are here. You should take your message to the Yoruba masses because they are the ones who feel that only English can improve their children social status of their children, and they are the ones who speak English, which is often terrible, to them.”

Anytime I am at the Cocoa House Ibadan (venue of the Historical Conversations) and this minor exchange occurs, I always inevitably think of something that happens when feminism is being discussed on twitter. Someone (who is almost always female) directs a rant worded along the lines of “men are scum” to the males on twitter, to which there will be the inevitable stream of replies from male tweeps along the lines of: “You feminists are unreasonable, instead of taking your fight to the men off twitter who are the ones perpetrating the injustice that you are unhappy about, you continue to fight the men on twitter who are actually supportive of your message.”

This is not a feminist think piece, (come to think of it, it has been a long time I last wrote one of those.) it is just talking about an attitude that always creeps up during discourse on any form of social activism, like when black Americans start complaining about racism and the “moderate” whites say things like, “why are you attacking me I am not racist, go and attack those racist neo-Nazis and KKK members.” Christians have a very nice expression for that attitude, it is called “preaching to the choir.” The expression originates from the fact that the choir is an important part of the church and thus members of the choir are expected to be good Christians who not only understand the word of God, but also the doctrine of the church itself. So in other words the pastor or whoever is doing the preaching is just wasting everybody’s time because he isn’t going to be telling them anything they don’t already know. We have all used the excuse one time or the other to absolve ourselves of blame for not acting in a situation we should have acted in.

Taking it at face value, it seems a decent excuse to give, after all it makes no sense to say I am sexist when I am not. However if one goes deeper into the way the “masses” or the “average man on the street” actually behaves, one finds that the “I am not your target audience, go talk to the people in the street” excuse is just a way of burying one’s head in the sand. Of course if someone is a member of the choir in a given church, it is assumed that such a person is not just a strong Christian, but also active in the service of the church. Therefore there are not many ways you can accuse that person of not doing enough without sounding like an ungrateful person. However, there is a need for us “members of the choir” to realize that we still need preaching to, even as much as the “members of the congregation” I will explain what I mean.

One of the running themes in any social justice battle is the question of privilege. The “weaker” side always brings up the fact that the odds favor the stronger side, because of the privileges the stronger side have. While the “stronger” side argues that privileges don’t really exist, they are just a machination of their opponents to win a moral war. As people, we are built to want more. We only recognize the privileges we want we do not recognize the ones we have, because admitting one’s privilege is tantamount to giving other people who want those privileges the weapon to attack one and to class one with the “privileged elite.”

I come from Idi-Arere, in Ibadan Southeast local government of Oyo State (an area which anybody who is familiar with Ibadan would recognize as inner city Ibadan). When we were much younger, we used to go to our family house there every Christmas. As the children of a university lecturer, we quickly realized that we were different from the other children in the area, with the way our relatives and neighbors, especially the women fussed over us. I personally remember a particular group of women who called me “Our Pastor”. They would try to speak broken English to me (all of them were uneducated) and make me pray for them in English (Even though they knew I could understand and speak Yoruba as well as any of their children). Needless to say I always came away from those visits feeling like a showpiece in a glass case made for them to “ooh!” and “aah!” over. It would take a while for me to realize that while I was trying my best to belong to the family circle, those women were trying to vicariously live their desire to know English, the official language, the language of commerce, the language of the elite, through me. For them at the time, listening to me speak English (even though at around five or six years old, I wasn’t an exactly the most fluent speaker the language myself) was the closest they could get to someone who could speak English.

Now that I am much older, I am now able to draw insights from that experience. The major one is that, even at that tender age, and without my realizing it, I had become a sort of model for them, a member of the elite who had the privileges they did not have. It was embarrassing for me then, because at six years old, it was unimaginable for me to think of myself as someone a group of old women could aspire to listen to. That made me realize that even though these days I see myself as an overworked, underpaid writer who is sometimes still not sure what he wants to do with his life, there is still some people who aspire to have the stuff that I have (which I think isn’t worth much). To bring that insight to the issue of speaking Yoruba to one’s children, the reason the “people on the street” are trying to speak English instead of Yoruba to their children is because they have noticed that the children of the elite have the advantages they have because they can speak English. In other words the reason that the members of the congregation are not listening to the message being preached, is that they have noticed some discrepancies between the message being preached and the behavior of the choir members. The tacit willingness of a group of people, who feel they are already doing as much good as they can and do not need to do any better, to bury their heads in the sand with the “I am already a member of the choir” excuse is the reason why injustice thrives

So whatever cause you support, be it fighting racism, campaigning for linguistic inclusivity, fighting against rape or fighting the patriarchy and male chauvinism, never think of yourself as some sort of hero. You can never reach the limit of how much good you can do to support a course of justice. You should not feel like you are excluded from, the rants and the complaints because you are already a “member of the choir”. Because the battle for justice is never won, and every day is another opportunity to rise up, lace your boots and continue the good fight, even if your fellow foot soldiers think you are not doing enough


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