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From Prison to Public Theology in Ethiopia, Part I

We should be defined by how we handle our differences, not by our differences.


Eskinder Nega is an award-winning journalist and one of Ethiopia’s most prominent critical voices. He has spent the last 6.5 years in prison on charges of inciting violent revolution, and was released on February 14, 2018 after the charges against him were dropped. In March, Eskinder was briefly imprisoned again under Ethiopia’s State of Emergency degree.

Before I visited Eskinder in jail on March 31st, I had no idea that he was a Christian. I had only heard him described as a controversial journalist and political activist and had read only his New York Times op-ed “Letter from Ethiopia’s Gulag” (July 25, 2013). During my visit, he spoke passionately about his faith and how it intersected with and shaped his journalistic and political endeavors towards Ethiopian democracy. I was struck by the immense sense of freedom and hope I witnessed and experienced that day, and wanted to hear more. I contacted him when he was released, and on April 11th, sat down to speak with him at New York Café in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Our interview focused on his conversion in prison, his experience of prison life, his vision of Christian public responsibility, and Ethiopia’s journey toward democracy.  

What follows is an edited excerpt from our longer conversation.  

AD: Did you grow up Christian?

EN: I grew up in a very religious family, but this is not unusual for Ethiopia. Until my last imprisonment—I have been imprisoned eight or nine times—I was more a Christian by culture than by faith. Christianity was something I took for granted. I did not know Jesus. I fasted because we fasted; everyone fasted in our family. We came from a very homogeneous environment.  

But then I went to prison, received the gift of faith, and read the Bible for an hour daily. And that changed me. Prison was the ideal environment to read the Bible, to read Jesus’s message and about his work while he was on earth.

One of the reasons I am not bitter about the imprisonment—I spent 6.5 years in prison on false charges—is because I discovered Jesus. For me, there has been an incredible peace that has come from knowing Jesus. Even if I had to spend eighteen years in prison, I would not be bitter. It’s like Paul said, “I consider everything as rubbish [compared to knowing Christ].” The 6.5 years I lost are rubbish compared to what I gained. I gained Jesus. I find that incredible. I feel blessed.

AD: Did this happen gradually or dramatically in prison? What was the process?

EN: I think it was gradual. It wasn’t a sudden transformation. It’s not like I got up one early morning and thought, “There’s Jesus after all.”   

In prison, I only had a copy of the New Testament, and I read it so many times. At some point, I asked my family to bring me a copy of the standard text that had the Old Testament as well, but for over three years, the prison guards would not allow it. They were so angry with me for refusing to stop writing in prison, and they penalized me by refusing to give me the Old Testament.

AD: Did you have a favorite passage or story in the Bible? What was gripping for you?

EN: Everything! To be honest with you, everything. But especially the teachings of Jesus, especially Matthew 5-7—the Sermon on the Mount.

AD: Having read the New Testament so many times in prison, I’m curious how you read and make sense of the fact that Jesus was killed—

EN: He was murdered—

AD: Yes, Jesus, Peter, Paul were all murdered. John was exiled on an island. So what do you think it was about their writings and way of life that was so threatening to the state?

EN: There was a status quo, and they threatened it. And the same thing is happening here [in Ethiopia]: we threaten the status quo and the convention.  

I think the Roman Empire was corrupt to the core at that time. And here comes a message that was contrary to that, a message of discipline, selflessness, love and justice. And the Roman court was threatened by these ideas. The same thing is happening here—in all authoritarian countries, it’s the same story.

The principles of Jesus—love, justice, and peace—resonate throughout the world. They’re relevant to all societies and all humans, and they challenge privilege, oppression, and partiality. And we have the same message.

Essentially, democracy impresses many of the principles taught by Jesus—tolerance, love, and peace.

AD: I teach Christian Ethics classes, and I ask my students, “What are the public implications of our Christian faith?” They sometimes say similar things to what you said, but then when I ask further, “How do we live and implement these things in society?” they quickly express their worry that if they challenge the status quo, they could end up like you: in jail, maybe forgotten, with wasted lives. What would you say to students who are studying the Bible and trying to follow Jesus but fear that if they go to imprison, they’ll be forgotten?  

EN: Forgotten by whom? That’s the big question. Are you forgotten by people? Or are you forgotten by Jesus? Being forgotten by people is nothing. Being forgotten by Jesus, if that’s possible—but it’s not possible—that’s the ultimate damnation. You won’t be forgotten by Jesus, if you stand up for truth, justice, love, nonviolence. As long as you firmly believe in that, you’ll have the strength to withstand whatever difficulties the government could bring. How you fare in this world is temporary and will pass away as quickly as the blink of your eye. Jesus is constantly watching, never forgets, and reads our hearts.    

AD: You’re communicating a counter-cultural theology here, because many people think if God is with you, then you’ll be healthy, wealthy, and happy all the time. They might see your imprisonment as proof that God forgot you, but you’re saying, “Jesus remembered me in prison.” So how do you have this perspective?

EN: Being Christian doesn’t mean that you will be immune from life’s sufferings. You’re obligated to live life as it is, with its ups and downs, with its happy and tragic phases. But it’s your relationship with Jesus that will determine how you react to the events that you encounter. That’s the difference.

Jesus did not opt out from life. He suffered. He was denied by people in his time. He embraced life. There were times when he cried—for example, when he went to Lazarus’s tomb. There were times when he was happy, like when the man asked him about the greatest commandment and he answered to love God and neighbor.

So being a Christian doesn’t mean that you will not suffer. You have to accept suffering because Jesus too suffered. “He has set you an example” [1 Peter]. So the fact that I suffered does not mean that Jesus did not care about me. Had I not suffered, I don’t think I would have ever discovered Jesus. So there was reason for my suffering—for my good. He wanted to give me a gift. And he wanted to give me that gift in prison.  

AD: The first Christians confessed, “Jesus is Lord,” which was a subversive use of one of Caesar’s titles. What do you think it means for us to say, “Jesus is Lord” today in your Ethiopian context?

EN: It’s “Lord” with a capital L. For example, there’s a “lord” of this café, who can do anything he likes. But he’s a “lord” with a small letter. There’s the “lord” of Ethiopia, and he too is a lord with a small letter. There’s the lord of the most powerful country in the world, which is the U.S. Trump too is a “lord” with a small “l.” There’s only one Lord with a capital “L,” and that’s Jesus.

AD: So if the little lords recognized the one true Lord, what would be the social and ethical implications?

EN: It would not be perfection, because we are imperfect. We all carry original sin. There is only perfection in heaven. As long as we live on this earth, we have to embrace our imperfection. We will never create the perfect world on this earth.  

But if we acknowledged the true Lord, we would be aware of our sinful nature, and we would always be repenting and striving. We would not create the perfect world, but we would create a dramatically changed world—a world in which repentance of our sins would be at the core of our activities. A true Christian is one who understands his imperfection. There would be less oppression, partiality, inequality, injustice, hate, and moral corruption.

So we would still have an imperfect world but one that is aware of its imperfection and that keeps on trying to create a better world.

We should insist that Christian leaders should lead us morally, that they should be concerned not only by the heavenly kingdom—the ultimate goal—but that they should be concerned about what’s happening on the ground now. We should not forsake current events. The promise of the heavenly kingdom doesn’t mean that we have to give up on the present world. It’s up to the church to be engaged in both our spiritual wellbeing and our earthly wellbeing. This is what the times demand. This is what Jesus taught. He spoke out against injustice. 

There is hope in the Orthodox Church. There is hope in the Protestant Church. There is hope in the Catholic Church. We should be concerned about the sufferings and injustice of this world, because Jesus was. He taught us to love our neighbors. When your neighbor suffers, you have to be concerned and engaged with him.

AD: You’ve been accused of being an extremist, a radical—

EN: A terrorist, a hate-monger, and everything else.

AD: But I hear you expressing a great charity for a plurality of perspectives, even within Christianity itself. Why has your perspective been so twisted by public messaging?

EN: I don’t think my message has been misunderstood by the people. I think people recognize that all the accusations against me are false. And I don’t think there is misunderstanding of my convictions by the government. They have to misrepresent their opponents—not just me but everyone else too. And this is not true only of the Ethiopian government. It’s true of all authoritarian governments. If you don’t like your opponents and activists, you brand them as terrorists or communists or agents of the CIA and everything else. It’s not because the Ethiopian government is uniquely devilish that I’ve been called so many names. This is in the nature of all authoritarian regimes.

AD: At the end of the Letter to the Hebrews, the author tells his community, “Remember prisoners as if you yourselves were in prison.” How can Christians better remember prisoners?

EN: Jesus tells a parable about the coming of the King and the judgment of nations in Matthew 25. He separates his flock into the sheep and the goats. To those on the right, he said, “Be blessed, you’re going to heaven, because you came and visited me when I was in prison.” They ask, “When did we visit you?” The response he gave was, “What you did to the least of these, you did to me.”

So I think that prisoners have a place in Jesus’s heart. He has instructed us to go and visit them. The difference between those in prison and those on the outside is very small. We are just as sinful as they are. The fact that we are not in prison does not mean that we are better people than they are. By going and visiting them, I think it’s a reminder that we are all prisoners of sin. So I think it is very important for Christians to go and visit people in prison, because it’s a direct order from the Lord.

But it’s not only visiting those in prison. It’s also to visit those who are sick, to give water to those who are thirsty, to give food to those who are hungry. These are direct orders and instructions from the Lord himself. Should we do them, on the last day, we will be able to hold our heads up in his presence and say that we have tried, at least, to live up to his words. 

AD: What is the roadmap for Ethiopians to have a more reconciled society and to move toward democracy given the level of fear, resentment, and frustration?  

EN: Like I told you when you visited me in prison, I think we have the perfect example in South Africa and also in Rwanda. In Rwanda, there was reconciliation after genocide—an incredible accomplishment. But we have a far better example in South Africa, where after the trauma of apartheid, a multi-party democracy was possible. South Africa has been a model for everyone, and we should follow that example, both in terms of transitioning to democracy and what should happen after the transition to democracy—what kind of constitution we should have after the transition.

AD: So a new constitution is needed in Ethiopia?

EN: I think we need a constitution that comes about through the participation of all political parties. The constitution that we have was instituted only by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. Constitutions derive their legitimacy not only from their content but also from the process through which they came about. How do you bring about legitimacy through the process? By including all political parties in that process, because political parties represent public opinion, the attitudes and sentiments of the population.

If what it takes to bring peace and stability and democracy is a new constitution, then a new constitution is what we should have. But this should be left to negotiation. I’m not prescribing specific goals. If at the end of the negotiation process what is needed is a transitional government and a new constitution, so be it. If at the end of the negotiation, what we have is a continuation of present circumstances, so be it. If what comes after the negotiation is just a free election, so be it. But what we need for peace is negotiation with all political parties – both those inside and outside the country, both legal parties and those branded as terrorists. That’s the way of democracy. It’s not about the result. It’s about the process that we should speak about.   

AD: When you were released from prison, I saw a picture of someone giving you a painting of Menelik [a beloved and despised emperor who ruled Ethiopia from 1889-1913]. The person who posted the picture said something like, “See, the cooperation between Amharas and Oromos is superficial and can never last.” The symbols of Ethiopia are so charged and divisive. How do you see Ethiopia moving toward dialogue, cooperation, and unity, when even receiving a gift can be perceived as so explosive and zero sum?

EN: The symbols of nations are controversial everywhere. Take the U.S. and George Washington, for example. For a long time, Washington has been lauded as a great leader, an embodiment of courage and truthfulness. But now people are challenging these accounts, pointing out that he was a slaveholder and thus shouldn’t be seen as a role model. The same for Jefferson. If you look at the writings of Jefferson, they are mesmerizing. He had a beautiful mind! It inspires me across the ocean. And yet he too was a slaveholder. People are challenging the symbols.

Ethiopia, then, is not an exception. We have our debates of who should be the symbol of our nation and who should not be. We have some who worship our symbols and some who vilify them. I’m not worried about these differences of opinion.

It’s how we handle these differences that should worry us. People who like Menelik gave me a gift. I respect their perspective. This is an issue about tolerance. We should accept the fact that there will be people who love Menelik and people who don’t like him or even hate him. This should not frighten us. We could live in peace with our diversity of opinion in our diversity. There’s no reason why we should tear each other up on this matter.

We should not be defined by our differences. We should be defined by how we handle our differences. We could teach the public that when there’s tolerance and democracy, it’s about respecting other people’s opinions, even though you may not agree with them.

Again, I would go back to the example of South Africa. There were extremes from one end to the other. There were whites who hated black people and blacks who hated white people. But the South Africans have been able build a democracy that accommodates both opinions without crushing—without needing to crush—one side. And I think that we can build a system that will accommodate our differences.

AD: I love it!

EN: Very nice talking to you! Next time, I won’t be doing the talking; you’ll be doing the talking. I’ll be asking the questions.

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