ROTIMI Omokunle is one of us. Our compatriot. He and his wife were travelling to a certain destination on Saturday, November 6, when they ran into an armed robbery operation. It was the couple's day of misfortune. The robbers dragged Omokunle and his wife out of their Datsun van. They shot repeatedly into his eyes and pumped bullets into his wife's arms. They then left husband and wife by the roadside, obviously thinking that they were dead. But miraculously, the couple survived and they were soon rescued by the Kwara State Command of the Federal Road Safety Corps.
Many Nigerians who have read their story have been filled with sheer pain and horror. They are alarmed at the extent of the bestiality of the criminals in our midst. Why shoot a man in the eyes and maim his wife after dispossessing them of their hard-earned belongings? What is it that drives some human beings to such evil? Mr and Mrs Omokunle are victims of a society on its way to perdition where men have lost their senses, values have been thrown overboard and the highways have become dangerous. The danger is that human life, that precious commodity, is losing its value in our environment; be it in the warring villages of Plateau, Rivers or Delta or the dangerous highways of Kwara State, or the killing fields of Anambra. One woman, Mrs. Mfon Ekong Usoro was so touched that she sent a cheque of N160, 000 as her own contribution to the cost of the couple's treatment at the University of Ilorin Teaching Hospital where they are on admission.
But the news is that Mr Omokunle has added a twist to the tale of his own treatment. A member of the Jehovah Witness, a Christian religious group, Omokunle is insisting that he should not be given any blood transfusion in the course of his treatment. His reason is that his faith forbids this. The hospital is now in a dilemma. The doctors had managed to remove one of Omokunle's damaged eyes successfully without going against his instruction. But they still have to carry out a neurological operation to remove ten pellets lodged in his brain. To do this surgery, the doctors would need to administer blood transfusion. They have tried to explain the nature of the operation to Omokunle, and the risks of the choice that he is making. They have offered advice. They have tried to persuade him. But Omokunle who is said to have recovered from the initial shock of his ordeal is adamant. He is a child of faith, and a worthy Jehovah Witness.
In the face of tribulation, he would neither waver nor forsake his faith. And so he says: "Help me thank Nigerians for their concern for my continued existence. They have been wonderful people. However, they should help me appeal to my doctors here not to transfuse me during the proposed operation. I am a Jehovah's Witness and my religion forbids that." It is most unlikely that Omokunle would change his mind. He wants us to appeal to his doctors. What do we say to his doctors who are bound by the Hippocratic Oath, and whose main job is to save lives? How do we tell the scientists to suspend science and accept the faith of religion?
The conflict between science and religion, between faith and reason, between dogma and fact is one of the major dilemmas of the 20th century, and a big challenge in the Age of Reason. Jehovah Witnesses are especially popular for their unwavering commitment to the traditions of their faith. They do not celebrate birthdays, funerals or Christmas. They do not salute national flags or recite national pledges. When they are ill, they do not take blood transfusion. Their position on blood is usually defended on the grounds that blood itself is life, it is the source of energy, to transfuse blood is to play God, to attempt to recreate man, and this violates the sanctity of the human person. The counter-argument that if life is so scared, then it must be saved, and that science is one of the wondrous creations of the Almighty is pushed away with the dogmatic insistence on the limitations of science.
During World War II, and the Korean war, Jehovah Witnesses were targeted and victimised for refusing to bear arms and kill, for refusing to worship man and country. Thousands of them willingly surrendered their lives in the face of persecution. Others went underground but they stuck by their faith. Pages of Awake!, the celebrated Jehovah Witness publication, and easily one of the best written magazines in the English language, is regularly decorated with tales about the heroism and courage of the group's adherents. Here in Nigeria, there have been cases involving Jehovah Witnesses in schools and other establishments. The strongest defence for the members is their right to the freedoms of belief, worship and association, and their right not to be discriminated against on all of these accounts.
A faith-based argument is difficult to win. No amount of logic can make a man who constructs his life in spiritual and extra-terrestial terms change his mind. In the Middle East, suicide bombers and terrorists sign up in the game of death because they believe that they are fighting a worthy cause, to be rewarded with a rousing reception by 21 virgins in the world beyond! Nobody has ever seen these virgins. Nobody has ever returned to confirm that the myth is true. But many lives have been lost to this powerful myth. And as long as this survives, the likes of Osama bin Laden would always find new recruits. Religious fundamentalism has been responsible for as many deaths in the world as hunger and disease. It is not for nothing that it shares the same properties with both. Religious fundamentalists are forever hungry for something that they themselves cannot exactly define. Their faith is like a disease in need of treatment.
To cite one or two more examples, there are religious groups in Nigeria whose members are vegetarians. There are others whose members do not wear shoes, or jewellery, and believe this, there are persons who do not watch television, because they insist it is the devil's box, and they will all willingly quote passages from the Holy Books to defend their position. Pope Xystus 1 once wrote that "the man without faith is a walking corpse". But what of when faith amounts to a form of suicide? Was Benjamin Franklin not saying the exact truth when he commented that "in the affairs of this world, men are saved, not by faith, but by the want of it" (1758). Omokunle would not agree. His position in this circumstance can be traced to II Corinthians 5:7 where we are told that "we walk by faith, not by sight." Omokunle has lost his sight, he is in danger of losing his life, but his faith is strong and he stands by it. His kind of faith is what William Wordsworth defines in Intimations of Immortality as "the faith that looks through death" (1807). Omokunle is looking through death, armed with his faith.
But I suppose we cannot advise Omokunle to change his mind. We may call on members of his family to intervene, but that may not force him to accept blood transfusion. We cannot even advise his doctors to go against his wish, and find a way of doing their job. If he were to discover the truth later, the objective would still be defeated. Thomas Hobbes understood this dilemma perfectly well when he wrote in Leviathan that "faith is a gift of God which man can neither give nor take away by promise of rewards or menaces of torture." (1651). Is it not surprising that there are even persons in this society today who do not use any form of hospital medication when they are ill?
They claim that they are children of God who cannot come to any harm, and so instead of using properly prescribed drugs, they invest their faith in holy water and anointing oil which I am told can cure anything! There are all kinds of persons driving on our highways today who drive dangerously, inside vehicles that are a threat to human civilisation, and yet they announce to whoever cares to listen: "I am covered by the blood of Jesus". Faith can be blind and dangerous. A few years ago, a fellow at the University of Ibadan zoo wanted to re-enact the story of Daniel and the Lion's Den. He walked into the lion's cage, waving his Holy Book, speaking in tongues and pretending to be having a conversation with a lion. He did not live to tell the story.
The threat of dogma should be of interest to institutions of society. The Omokunle case deserves our attention. His fellow Jehovah Witnesses would be glad that a man of faith is standing up like the biblical Job in the hour of tribulation; they will praise his courage, admire his example. The Chief Matron of the Opthalmic ward of the Ilorin Teaching Hospital has asked us to pray for Mr and Mrs Omokunle. They deserve not only our prayers, but support. They remind us forcefully of the dilemma of our lives, of the pain of living in the midst of danger and uncertainty. If the couple survive (and we are praying for them), their lives have already been altered forever. This is why their plight is a test of faith for all of us as Nigerians.
But can hospitals go to court to obtain a restraining order against a patient who, in their consideration is attempting suicide? Can government intervene and insist that a man must be given the best treatment that will save his life, in spite of his religion? In certain countries, Sweden for example, a man or woman is allowed to die if he so wishes. Can our own doctors here also function occasionally as Doctors of death? In the case of blood transfusion, are there options that can be explored and do our hospitals have the capacity to carry out surgical operations without a drop of blood? Is there laser surgery in Nigeria or such other advanced medical technologies that are less intrusive of an individual's privacy?
Is there a way in which a balance can be sought in the Omokunle case? Can he be taken abroad, and the bullets removed, without a drop of blood? These are issues and challenges that should be tested: every experience must lead society to think more forcefully about the complexities of contemporary living. In Mark v: 34, the Lord Jesus Christ told a woman of infirmity: "daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole; go in peace, and be whole of thy plague". Is this the miracle that Omokunle seeks? May be not. J. A. Froude had written in his A Plea for the Free Discussion of Theological Difficulties (1863), and I have no reason to disagree, that "we cannot live on probabilities. The faith in which we can live bravely and die in peace must be a certainty so far as it professes to be a faith at all, or it is nothing."