When the Gratitude Idol Kills Christmas

When the Gratitude Idol Kills Christmas

It’s that time of the year again, when Ghanaian Christendom displays its true character. The billboards started popping up way back in November, some as far back as October, reminding the ignorant (and not so ignorant) of the most important even on Christendom’s calendar. You might be tempted to think I’m talking about 25th December – Christmas day. After all, Christianity throughout history chose that day to commemorate the birth of the founder of our religion – the person who we deem is the saviour of the world – Jesus Christ. But you would be wrong. Neither Christmas nor Easter is the most important day on the Ghanaian Christendom calendar. No, the most important day is 31st December, and I will explain to you why.

Ghanaian Culture in Times Past

Ghanaians by nature are a very grateful people, and being able to go through a calendar year without succumbing to death (or even misfortune) is one of the things that Ghanaians are most grateful for. Ghanaian cultures are mostly deterministic by nature – they generally believe that whatever good or bad happens to them is as a result of God’s (or the gods’) direct intervention in their lives, a concept I’ve written about previously here. This determinism has unfortunately become associated with the biblical concept of “grace”, and scripture is very easily twisted in support of this understanding of grace with tacit approval by many Ghanaians. In many ways, most Ghanaians will fit right into a Calvinistic view of the world. But I digress.

This gratitude for surviving a calendar year is so strong, that many of the Christmas songs of non-European origin (ie. local language songs) are actually more about celebrating the end of a year’s cycle than they are about Jesus or Christmas itself. A typical example that you will hear on Christmas day in Ghanaian churches of all shapes and colors.

Bronya oh, Bronya oh, Bronya oh, afe ato yen biom” – meaning “Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, a year has gone and come again”

In fact the most famous non-European song you will hear in church on Christmas day is again, about the New Year, not about Christmas.

Ye ma mo afe nhyia pa oh, ye ma mo afe nhyia pa … Papa embra, bone enko” meaning “We wish you a happy new year, we wish you a happy new year … may good come to us, may evil be far from us”.

I want to emphasize here that this was the pattern long before I became an adult, before billboards became a thing, whiles we were attending boring old churches Roman Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal churches. It seems that our attempts to contextualize into Ghanaian culture the celebration of Christmas via music always exhibited this character of gratitude for the yearly cycle more than an actual focus on celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. In fact, nothing prevents most of our local “Christmas” songs from being sung at Easter. I even reminded someone in my office the other day that those songs can as well be sung even when it comes to their personal birthdays. After-all, those songs aren’t about the birth of Jesus, but about a celebration of any 365 day cycle, and birthdays qualify perfectly.

General Christendom Attitudes to Church

Even looking beyond the Christmas period, if one were to ask many ordinary Christians why they go to church on Sunday, a large percentage will give you these standard answers.

  1. We go to church to thank God for the many things he has done for us (the “many things” are never actually defined, but assumed).

  2. Many are in hospital suffering from different ailments, and ‘by the grace of God’ I am healthy, so I must go to church to thank him for that.” (which presupposes that the person in hospital received no “grace” from God).

  3. Many are the plans of the ‘enemy’ against my life, and God has protected me from them, so I go to church to worship him for that” (which presupposes that those who may have died recently have been overcome by the “enemy”).

The favourite phrase by most Ghanaians to capture this notion of gratitude is “Ebenezer, thus far the Lord has brought us”, regurgitating words from the 1 Sam 7:12 of Israel’s defeating it’s Philistine enemies at Mizpah. By the way, if you haven’t noticed, Ebenezer is quite a popular name in Ghana.

All these should tell us to a very important truth about Christendom in Ghana.

At the heart of a large swathe of Ghanaian Christendom is not the kingdom of God breaking into this world and transforming it, but the kingdom of God being used as a tool of self-preservation.

This is easily couched in a sense of false humility – that whatever good things one has is from God, therefore one must always be in a posture of gratitude to God. This false humility leads to the elevation of a particular practice as the most important thing of all – the practice of singing songs of praise and worship to God, mostly centered around him keeping us “safe”, keeping us “alive” and keeping us “prosperous”. Just do a count of the number of Christian “worship” events held in the capital this year, and you’ll realize how important “worship” is to Ghanaian Christendom.

Whereas the Christianity that Jesus models for us is a Christianity that calls us as disciples to self-sacrifice for the benefit of the other, Ghanaian Christendom is about safety. Whereas Jesus calls his disciples to lose their lives in order to gain it, Ghanaian Christendom is about preserving it at all costs to their neighbour, couched nicely under the notion of “gratitude”. It covers these failures up with abundance of religion expressed in the form of gratuitous “worship” and “praises”, but very little action for the poor, the needy, the oppressed and the stranger.

The Aggravation: Charismatism

Despite the fact that this was the state of affairs of Christendom long before I was born, it managed to stay under the radar of Christian piousness for a long time. Many churches still managed to make the Christmas period a bit about celebrating Jesus’s birth, though the society barely felt the impact of such good news as the early church did. I remember my Pentecostal church used to have a potluck of sorts back when I was a child, but it quickly fell out of fashion in pursuit of even more church services in Christmas, couched as “conventions”. Many churches have always had a 31st night church event to commemorate the end of the year, but they were mostly low key events focused on church members simply gathering to express gratitude for the year.

However, the rise of Charismatism in Ghana, with televangelists jostling with each other to attract the largest crowds and establish their credentials as the biggest “men of God”, marked a significant turn of events. Many of these televangelists have resorted to tapping into the already flawed notions of gratitude as the foremost form of discipleship to organize larger and ever more grandiose 31st night “crossover”, “change over” etc services, making even small churches feel the need to pimp up their own events. TV and radio adverts simply use the right phrases of false gratitude, and Ghanaian Christians come running to pay their homage.

If you are seeing this advert, then it means you have survived 2017. Not everybody had this privilege. Therefore come to Tamale Sports Stadium on 31st December and let’s thank the Lord for how far he has brought us and pray to secure our blessings for 2018”.

The impression is created as if a person who doesn’t attend such services will be cursed in the coming year (or might even die before the midnight of 1st January) for being ungrateful. When one complains about these events and what they are turning into, the great excuse of “savings souls” that justifies every activity, expense and abuse is “31st night services are also a means to save souls”. As if God isn’t capable of saving souls on any other day.

The Cure

Whiles talking about this issue of how Ghanaian Christians treat Christmas and New Year celebrations with some friends just last week, I mentioned the Magnificat, the song recorded in Luke 1:46-56, that Mary sang when she was told she was pregnant with the saviour. These friends were surprised that the Gospels actually record a song in the mouth of Mary in response to the news about she carrying the saviour in her womb. That tells me the depth of failure of the church in telling the story of Jesus’s birth, even to its own members born and bred in Christendom.

And so, here is my recommended treatment for this disease of self-centered false humility masquerading as 31st night “worship” events, whiles totally snuffing the life out of celebrating the birth of the world’s saviour because we are more worried about reaching the end of the year and crossing into the next.

  1. Scrap or rewrite the local language songs sung during Christmas. They have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus.

  2. Write new songs focusing on the actual stories as recorded in the gospels regarding Jesus’s birth. There’s a reason why Jews came up with the Psalms. Because it’s a convenient way for them to tell and retell the history of Israel and God’s relationship in song form. If your church members do not know the song that Mary sang about Jesus’s birth (and yet you tell us you are a “bible-based” church), its because we are not learning about how God’s people taught their children to know him well. Make it hip or danceable if you need to, but write it from the Gospels.

  3. When we have birthday parties, we have shared meals. We bring friends together and eat and dance together. Christmas should be less about attending more church services to hear more boring sermons and more about eating together as church communities. It’s a birthday celebration, for the love of peace. How many of us want sermons on our birthdays? There will be challenges in putting it together, but it’s a learning ground for us to do it better, not to abandon it. Our current practices of celebrating Christmas are rather promoting individualism, not unity, and that is what the devil likes – division and selfishness.

  4. Re-evaluate our understanding of the Gospel. The Gospel is a declaration that Jesus is the world’s king, not Nana Akuffo-Addo, nor Donald Trump. Ponder why in Mary’s Magnificat she talks about this announcement meaning that Jesus will lift up the humble, feed the hungry being and bring the rulers down from their thrones. In what way is our Christmas celebration uplifting the downtrodden, whiles also confronting the powerful?

  5. Consider joining the rest of the church worldwide in the practice of Advent, which enables Christians to go through weeks of preparing for the birth of Jesus as a way to focus our minds on the kingdom of God.

  6. 31st December nights have become idols to Ghanaian Christendom. Relinquish it. If one still wants to use it, then turn it into a night of stock taking for the church community together, and not a praying station for individual prosperity and thanksgiving. Every blessed day is a 365 day cycle, and so is 31st December. Its a human tradition that has taken a life of it’s own. It needs to die, or be transformed into a tool for reflecting on the kingdom of God.

A certain wise man once said “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and everything else shall be added unto you”. Is your 31st December a night for seeking the kingdom of God – a kingdom of other-centered love and fellowship with one another for the benefit of the world – or is it a night to pursue religious self-centeredness in the name of  “gratitude” and “worship”?

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Ghanaian Charismatism and the Total Bastardization of “Grace”

This is the 2nd in a 2 part series of posts on the phenomenon of unbiblical understandings of “grace” that permeates Ghanaian Christianity. It follows from the first one, which is available here.

Walk into many Charismatic churches in Ghana, and do a survey of it’s church members. One will find that apart from the very young generation, most members of these churches were originally members of what are considered “orthodox churches” in Ghana – the churches founded by the missionary efforts of Europeans in the pre-colonial era. And though Charismatism began with an emphasis on the operation of the gifts of the spirit, it soon became infused with teachings originally from Kenneth Hagin and his cohorts – what is referred to as Word of Faith (WOF) teaching/prosperity teaching. In Ghana, I can confidently say that 90% of charismatic churches are now driven by WOF teaching, hence I hope I can be excused for not differentiating between WOF adherents and non-WOF charismatics in this post. In any case even those who aren’t WOF-inclined have some of the same seeds of divine determinism in them, and so will benefit from this critique.

Additional Ingredients

In addition to the seed of divine determinism that already flourishes in Ghanaian cultural Christianity, one more seed that has found fertile ground for the flourishing of these abuses of “grace” is the seed of individualism. Since Western Christianity had even before the Protestant Reformation, interpreted and preached the gospel as a call for each individual to save themselves from being thrown into hell fire and to rather gain a ticket to heaven, it had already been evident in the work of the missionaries to Ghana that Christianity was an individual walk with God. When this is mixed with the Ghanaian cultural deterministic perception that God has set out a “destiny” which is unique for each and every individual, you have an explosive mixture just waiting to be lighted up. And that is exactly what happened with growth in 3 things – urbanization, upward mobility and the arrival of the prosperity teaching, what I call the 3 horsemen.

The 3 Horsemen

Horseman 1 – Urbanization

Many people I’ve spoken to, including some people much older than me, speak of the sense of unity that existed in the orthodox church they used to attend back in the rural areas. They complain after moving to Accra, they experienced that even in a branch of the same denomination they attended here in the city, that sense of unity was no longer there, with everyone seeming to mind their own business. These friends bemoan this state of affairs, and pine for earlier days. What people like these fail to realize was that this sense of unity was always a false one that couldn’t last when transplanted into a new, more challenging environment – because this unity was based more on ethnic and cultural homogeneity than on a theological and practical outworking of what the New Testament means by unity. Once that sense of unity and care is lost, one begins to focus much more on oneself for survival. Enter horseman 2.

Horseman 2 – Upward Mobility

With no sense of real unity other than just showing up on church on a Sunday to perform the rituals and appease God (in the form of tithes and offerings), people naturally drifted into competition to show oneself as “moving forward” in life. Here, moving forward is defined as getting married if one was single, having children if one was married, having a better job and a nicer car than your fellow church member, probably owning one’s own home by 5-10 years of work. In recent times, becoming an entrepreneur has been added to this list. Enter the 3rd horseman.

Horseman 3 – Prosperity Teaching aka Motivational Teaching

Due to the de-prioritization of unity (which was already built on shaky grounds within orthodox churches anyway) and the elevation of individual achievement to the highest ideal, it is no surprise that the message of “name it claim it” and “everything is possible” sounded much more pleasing to cultural Christian ears than the boring old “clinging to the rugged cross”, hence Ghanaians moved across in droves. In recent times, the fashion is that almost every Charismatic pastor is also a “Motivational Preacher”. What they don’t realize is that one doesn’t even need to be a pastor to be a motivational preacher. All one needs is a bit of self-confidence to propound some 7 or 8 theories of success. Voila!! Of course they themselves need to show you that their teaching works to bring material prosperity, so it is near impossible to meet such preachers who look and live simple lives. Obviously that life is built off the back of their congregants, either via directly controlling the cash and exercising undue influence on its spending because they are the “founder” of the church, publishing books that are required reading by church members or have an appeal to a general audience in the “motivational speaking” genre but have nothing to do with the biblical gospel, or moving from office to office of richer congregants in the name of “praying” or “prophecying” for them, yet collecting monies for such “visits”.

What Has All This Got To Do With “Grace”?

I listen to a lot of snippets of sermons by many Charismatic preachers (unfortunately I don’t have a choice – almost every corner is filled with them in Accra so one can’t avoid them). And increasingly I hear the use of the term “grace” to speak of how God was going to bless church members with material wealth. Remember what we said in part 1 of this series? That Ghanaian cultural Christians have an already flawed understanding that God is a micromanager of lives who decides freely (“by grace”) who he was going to “curse” (typically the “wicked”) and who he was going to bless (typically the “righteous” ie one who does what a pastor/church defines as “righteous”) irrespective of hard work, access to opportunities and privilege? Well, these WOF preachers then play this false definition of God’s “grace”, by saying that God will “give more grace” (ie more good decisions) to those who desire to be materially prosperous. Of course, this “grace” always comes with a caveat – it’s given to those who have “faith”, i.e. those who show such “faith” by plenty prayer and profuse attendance of said pastor’s church programs and those who give monies to their church (called “sowing a seed”, “sowing into the man of God’s life”).

In the end, what these preachers mean by “grace” is exactly the opposite of what the New Testament means by “grace” – one does nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing – to deserve it. Not the number of tongues per minute, nor hours of prayer, nor hours of church attendance, nor amounts of money given to the church nor trees planted in the “man of God’s” life. Interestingly the one place where the New Testament uses the phrase “more grace” (according to the NIV translation) is the place that actually condemns selfishness and greed in the name of God.

When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God … But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: ‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.’” (Jas 4:3-6).

Edit: Just a few hours after publishing this blog, a friend sent me what I consider to be Exhibit A of the problem I’m addressing – from the “Grand Papa” of Ghanaian Charismatism – Duncan Williams

Grace: A Quick Reminder of Its Biblical Usage

I have said a lot in defining what grace means in a previous post, but let me restate it here in a quick fashion.

  1. The New Testament talks about “grace” in terms of Yahweh’s launching his kingdom by deciding to accept both Jews and Gentiles as part of his chosen people – his church – without asking anything from them ie requiring Gentiles to keep the law of Moses. Sadly, because our notions of the gospel are so individualized (getting a personal ticket to heaven), we don’t realize that when the NT talks about grace, it’s talking about how Yahweh maintains the promise he made to Abraham – just as he chose the Jews by grace, he will make that grace available to all others so that he will have one united people, irrespective of ethnic, social and cultural line. This is what Paul calls “the blessings of Abraham” (Gal 3:14). It is this critical understanding of grace that was not properly planted by our missionary churches, going way back to both the Roman Catholic and Protestant Reformers themselves, for which we are suffering today.

  2. The New Testament speaks of grace as the power to serve God faithfully in this kingdom agenda – the agenda of creating and sustaining one united people of God via bringing this good news to others, and creating disciples out of those who believe this news regarding how to submit to one another and to suffer for one another just as God himself suffered for us to show us the way. That is, grace empowers us to serve God and one another, led by the Spirit.

In short, grace is how you get into God’s chosen people, and how you stay and serve in God’s chosen people. It’s got nothing to do with one’s personal ambitions of wealth and prosperity, and everything to do with who one is in Christ, and how one is living by Christ’s own self-sacrificial example after one becomes part of his people. Grace is about reconciliation with God and one another, and sacrifice for one another once reconciled. Simple and short.

Conclusion: The Seeds of Deception Have Always Been Therefore

Human beings, due to our sinful nature, are always selfish, whether spiritually or materially. We are selfish for holiness, righteousness, peace and self-sufficiency as much as we are selfish for sin, wickedness, violence and greed. Jesus came to show up our selfishness for what it is and to reveal the number one character of God that confuses the wisdom of both Jews and Gentiles (1 Cor 1:18-25) – that God dying on the cross shows himself as the unselfish God who is willing to die even for his enemies.

And this leads to a very important point that many Ghanaian Christians, whether orthodox or Penteco-Charismatic, are missing. Christianity is not about going to heaven, nor material wealth. If your creator is a God who takes risks and suffers for the sake of his enemies, then being made in his image, one must also be seen all your life to be one who is making sacrifices for one’s fellow human. We choose to love not because we will be rewarded with heaven, but because that is the nature of the one in whose image we are made. Therefore, Christianity is a matter of discipleship in the way of the one who created us, not for reward, but because that’s what makes us truly human.

Whenever Christianity is posed in the form of determinism – that God is micromanaging the world and deciding to bless only those who do “right”, we make room for false teachers to come up with their own definition of “right” so we can selfishly appease God whiles they milk us dry. Whenever Christianity is posed as a reward scheme – that saying the “right prayer” or “living the holy life” automatically guarantees access to heaven, we produce people who are more interested in their own individual walk with God than those of their fellow human beings.

When spiritually-minded Ghanaian cultural Christianity got tired of waiting to go to heaven, it obviously chose the next best thing – grabbing all that we can on earth. May we not be overcome by this selfishness, whose seeds were planted by our orthodox churches, but whose fruits are now being harvested in the form of modern Penteco-Charismatism and its WOF champions.

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Discipleship and the Imago Dei

following-jesus

A few years ago I gave a presentation to young undergraduate Christian students on the importance of discipleship, which was then followed by multiple small groups to discuss the subject further. During this group session, somebody asked if a “disciple” is a higher level of Christian than a “believer”. I felt a bit devastated with the question, given all that we had said before, but I managed to clarify that to be a Christian was to be a disciple. But such levels of ignorance about discipleship amongst young educated minds who will in the future become leaders in Ghanaian churches and Christian communities made me realise that there really was a huge gap of understanding between what the New Testament expected of us, and what our churches were training us to be. Reflecting on J. Richard Middleton’s “The Liberating Image – Imago Dei in Genesis 1” brought home the centrality of discipleship to the whole enterprise of Christianity, evangelism and church. As i promised in my last post, its time to learn a thing or two from him.

Imago Dei in the Ancient Near East

One of the important reminders about reading the Old Testament is that there is the general scholarly consensus that it was edited and compiled during the exile. It thus exhibits certain tendencies to be critical of the ideologies that it was confronted with before and during the exile. And the 2 most dominant ideologies that it critiques are those of Mesopotamian ideologies (ie Assyria and Babylon, who ended up enslaving Northern Israel and Southern Israel respectively) as well as Egyptian ideologies which they inherited after the Exodus. Viewed in this light, Middleton points out how the idea of humans being created in the image of God would have developed to counter specifically the Mesopotamian ideas about humanity, seeing as Israel was exiled there for 70 years.

Middleton points out that in the Ancient Near East amongst whom Israel existed, almost all the dominant cultures viewed human beings as slaves of the gods, created to do the menial work that the gods didn’t want to do. However, there was a small but very important distinction amongst human beings. The Egyptians believed that their Pharaohs were gods (or incarnations of the gods), whiles Mesopotamians believed that their kings were humans, but were made in the image of their gods. Alongside these Mesopotamian kings, the priests, who served in the presence of the gods were also made in their image. This implied that every one else was just a slave of the gods via the gods’ appointed representative “images” ie the king and his priests. Given this status of a Mesopotamian king, to disregard the commandments of a king like Nebuchadnezer was to question not just the king, but Marduk himself, the primary deity of the Babylonians whom the king represented. You can understand why Shadrack, Meshack, Abednego and Daniel wouldn’t have been holding hands and singing kumbaya in Babylon, as recorded in the book of Daniel. Of course there were times Mesopotamian kings not only held their “image” status dear, but blurred the lines between being the image and being the god themselves, but that is of course the way of humans when power gets into their head.

Imago Dei in the Old Testament

However, the people of Israel tell a different story about human existence. Their story went like this.

  1. Yahweh, the Creator god, created all human beings in his image. All humans are of equal worth to Yahweh, meant to “rule over the earth”, not be slaves for the benefit of others made in his image.

  2. Being “made in Yahweh’s image”, each and every human being’s responsibility was to look a little bit like that of a previous group of people I have mentioned above who were made in the image of the gods in Mesopotamia – kings and priests. It is therefore not for fun that both Yahweh’s address to Israel after the exodus, and John of Patmos’ vision in the book of Revelation are aligned when they speak of Israel and the church respectively.

    Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” (Ex 19:5-6 NIV)

    And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”(Rev 5:9-10 NIV)

  3. The primary problem then would seem to be that humans have lost the sense of direction as to what god in whose image they were made. They therefore worship their own creation or themselves, and fail to live as Yahweh had designed them to live. Just as Eve got deceived by the serpent into thinking that the fruit of knowledge of good and evil was desirable for gaining wisdom” (Gen 3:6 NIV), humans craft their own “wisdom”, leaving behind the real source of wisdom – Yahweh himself. Hence the wisdom statement “the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of Wisdom” (Prov 9:10;Ps 111:10 NIV)

  4. And even when humans discern this god in whose image they were made (as Israel claimed to have discerned after the Exodus), they misunderstand understand his character and so do not reflect it properly. Speaking of Israel during the Exodus, Yahweh says:

    For forty years I loathed that generation, And said they are a people who err in their heart. And they do not know my ways” (Ps 95:10 NIV)

In short then, the key problem of human beings is not that they have failed some morality test that God set for Adam and Eve, but that they have rejected covenant relationship with the loving Creator god, Yahweh which will enable them to reflect his ways as image bearers upon this earth. This has lead to frustrations, inequality, poverty, violence and death. As NT Wright puts it in his book “The Day the Revolution Began”, the key problem of humanity is idolatory, leading to not being a true image bearer after the one in whose image we are made.

Once this conclusion hit me, being an avid reader of the Psalms and the prophets, I began to notice how stridently they criticize the “nations” aka Gentiles for not listening to Yahweh, and why Paul the apostle launches his epistle to the Romans with the standard Jewish criticism of this problem – the problem of idolatory leading to immorality.

Enter Jesus

Jesus enters the scene, and makes certain claims about his identity. The people of Israel think they know who Yahweh is, and what his character is like. But Jesus makes a scandalous claim – he is the embodiment of Yawheh, Israel’s God, and everything they previously knew about Yahweh, they knew in part. He had come to reveal Yahweh’s fullness. The Gospel of John puts the above scandalous statement pointedly.

No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (Jn 1:18 NIV)

John even puts these words in Jesus’s own mouth

Stop grumbling amongst yourselves”, Jesus answered … “No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father.” (Jn 6:43-46 NIV)

The author of Hebrews nails it down further

The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb 1:3 NIV)

It is important that Christians not miss the implication of the incarnation of God in Jesus. Since Yahweh desired that the human beings he has so loving created in his image will actually learn to “be his image” (not the image of Marduk, Enlil, Zeus, money, sex, power and a million other gods that can be named) and to properly represent his character and “ways” on this earth, he came in the flesh and showed us who he was like. And when he had finished showing us who Yahweh was like in the person of Jesus – that Yahweh was a loving God who was willing to sacrifice himself even to death for the ones whom he loved, including for his enemies – he made a simple statement that large swathes of Christianity have been avoiding for centuries on end.

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)

The implications are clear, if one is paying attention and not reading the Gospels as nice stories for Sunday school children.

  1. God has shown us his character and his ways in Jesus. To “worship” Yahweh then, is to “follow Jesus”.

  2. We who are created in his image are meant to follow in manifesting that character and way. There is a reason why the disciples were called “followers of The Way” (Ac 22:4).

  3. That way leads through the path of self-sacrifice and loss, and into eternal life both on this earth, and in the life to come.

  4. God himself takes upon himself defeats the powers of death and sin that enslave us from living as people made in his image by taking upon himself the punishment for our sins in the person of Jesus on the cross. We can now truly live as those made in his image.

The apostle Paul caps it off with a seminal statement about God’s goal for calling people into his church, using imago dei language of Genesis 1.

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29 NIV)

The Priority of Discipleship

The Christian life then, is centered around discipleship – following in the way of the one in whose image we were made. The Christian life is not about “saving souls” and giving them a ticket to heaven so they don’t go to hell. The Christian life is not about elevating “spiritual issues” over daily life ones. The Christian life is not about living in a constant state of “sin management”, as Dallas Willard puts it. All these are side issues that have clouded the real issue. The Christian life IS about being human on this beautiful earth that Yahweh, the Creator god intended for us to live, in anticipation of the new heaven and the new earth that he himself will bring to pass. In Jesus we see what it means to be human, because we see the character of him in whose image we were made. The church Father put it this way.

Christianity is an entirely new way of being human.”- Maximus the confessor,

And that is why Jesus reminded us of the 2 most important things in the world, what Scot McKnight calls “The Jesus Creed”. a) Worship the right God (Yahweh, as revealed by Jesus) and b) follow in that God’s ways (ie love your fellow human being as Yahweh does, for they are also created in Yahweh’s image, as you are).

The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mk 12:29)

Whenever we think discipleship is a side issue, whether in evangelism, apologetics, theology or running a church, we are indeed missing the heart of the matter.

Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequamur – The Lamb has conquered, let us follow Him

 

Of the Gitmo Ex-Detainees in Ghana – The Jesus Response

CT47pO8W4AUlTr3.jpg-largeOver the past few days, there’s been quite a brouhaha about a government of Ghana decision to accept from the US government some two Yemeni ex-detainees from the Guantanamo Bay prison. These two like many of the inmates held illegally by the US government in this particular prison, have never been given a fair trial and convicted of any illegal activity, but have been held for 14 years of their productive lives. It seems Ghanaians are peeved that the US government is using us to pay for it’s sins, suggesting that they should either be released to the US or go back to their home country Yemen.

On an ordinary day, this would have been one of the news items that I listen to and ignore because of the usual hot air in the media circles, but when not only the Ghana Christian Council (representing the Protestant community in Ghana) but also the Ghana Catholic Bishop’s Conference enter the fray with all manner of objections regarding how “dangerous” these people were and why the government of Ghana should give humanitarian aid to “terrorists” to rebuild their lives again, I as a Christian couldn’t sit in my corner and mind my own business again. I could disagree with the government for offering to let them stay in Ghana, but the decision had already been taken and they are already here. So the question that faces us as Christians is – what is the Christian response to this situation? But I’m afraid that the response of these 2 bodies smacks of anything but the response that Jesus would give to such a situation. So I’ll like to remind we the mere Christian mortals who sit on no councils about what it actually means to be a Christian, and how we are called to respond in such situations.

Listening To Jesus

There is a disease that has plagued the church of God for centuries and will continue to be with Christianity for a long time to come. That disease is called amnesia, and is signified by the fact that whenever the Christian body has found itself in need of guidance, we have tended not to look at Jesus’s own words, life and example to guide us. We have tended to resort to philosophical, intellectual, emotional, cultural or nationalistic resources to answer the complex problems of life, assuming that Jesus has no real answers to these problems. After all, he only cares about how our sins are forgiven so we go to heaven, and not really how we take our day to day decisions. This disease is not just a disease of the Ghanaian church, for the Ghanaian churches simply inherited this attitude from their founding Western churches. This disease is more than a thousand years old, so you can imagine how difficult it is to treat.

But I need to remind our august Christian bodies (and the larger Christian body in Ghana) that Jesus is not just a saviour from sins, he is Lord of every sphere of our lives, and it is to him we MUST first look to discern how to deal with any matter, even when his way is uncomfortable to us. And in this particular case, I must admit that Jesus’s way will be VERY UNCOMFORTABLE for our churches today. And yet he reminds us that if we will be his disciples, then we MUST carry our crosses and follow him to the same place of suffering as he went, which means we have no choice in this matter except the choice of the way of Jesus.

The Way Of Jesus

Many Christians have been sold a romanticized view of the life of Jesus as depicted in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). Even as adults, we still read the Gospels as the nice, docile, over-spiritualized stories that we were taught in Sunday school about Jesus’s life as one of wonder and miraculous deeds. But his was a life of great struggle with the social forces of his time, any of which would have considered him a traitor for not taking up their course or for ruffling feathers. Let me paint picture of what the socio-political landscape was so you see Jesus and his life in the Gospels for what it really was.

  1. The Roman empire, one of the most brutal empires ever on the face of the earth to this day, was ruling over Judea. Not only were Jews paying the temple tax of approx. 23% per year, they also had to pay taxes to Rome. The more a tax collector like Zacchaeus could collect, the more commission they got, and of course as normal greedy humans, they did not fail to abuse this, and made the Jews hate Rome even more.

  2. There was a raging feud between the Jews and their Samaritan half-brothers. The Samaritans claimed that their temple on Mt Gerizim was the right place to worship Yahweh, and the Jews said the temple on Mt Zion was the right place. According to the historian Flavius Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews, this actually led to the Samaritans desecrating the Jewish temple with human bones, to which the Jews, led by John Hyrcanus, retaliated by destroying the temple on Mt. Gerizim. As a result of this enmity then, no self-respecting 1st century Jew would have eaten from a bowl previously eaten in by a Samaritan.

  3. The Pharisaic party was on the prowl, making sure that everyone obeyed the laws of Moses (Torah). This wasn’t a simple matter of “gaining brownie points to go to heaven”. They believed that not obeying the laws of Moses is the reason why they were taken into exile in Babylon, and the reason why empires like the Greek and subsequently Roman ones were still ruling them. Keeping Torah therefore was to them the means to ensure that God will look favourably on them and come and deliver them from these oppressive empires.

  4. There were many people who felt that waiting for God to intervene to save them wasn’t enough. They needed to take their destiny into their own hands and fight the enemy, whoever the enemy was (Romans, Samaritans and fellow Jews who they thought were siding with an enemy etc). Such people were called “zealots”, because of their violent zealousness for their nation’s freedom. They are  akin to the modern Islamic extremists in every sense of the word, except the word “terrorist” was not in use at the time of writing the bible.

Now given this landscape, I’ll encourage us Christians to go back and read our Matthew, Mark, Luke and John again. Because Jesus’s life was nothing but radically opposed to all these sides, in the ff ways.

  1. On the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them (Mt 5:43-45). In the midst of all this violence and injustice perpetrated by Enemy Number 1 – the Roman empire – Jesus reminds his disciples that to truly “be the children of your Father in heaven” (v 45), we must learn to love our enemies. I don’t know what Jesus was smoking then, but since we have sworn to be his disciples, we either find what the brother was smoking and get high on it ourselves, or we take him seriously.

  2. Jesus, in his parable about the good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37), answers the question “who is my neighbour?” by telling a very uncomfortable story whose import was that not only those from our ethnic group are our neighbours, but even those who are considered beyond the pale – like their good old hated Samaritan half-brothers. To make matters worse, Jesus actually spent 2 days in Samaria, during which time he’d have broken all the rules about how Jews should relate to a Samaritan. (Jn 4:1-43)

  3. When the gatekeepers of socio-religious behaviour (the Pharisees) come to Jesus with a woman who had committed adultery and to whom they were ready to exact punishment exactly as Torah prescribed, Jesus’s statement that “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” totally disarms them, and they leave this woman alone. In this case she was actually guilty of her crimes (at least Jesus say she should “go and sin no more”), and yet mercy is the order of the day for Jesus (Jn 8:1-11).

  4. Jesus had none other than a “terrorist” as a disciple. Those who believe the KJV is the best thing since sliced bread will not notice this, since in the KJV his name is rendered “Simon the Canaanite”. But modern scholarship has debunked that translation as flawed, and therefore in newer bibles we get to know who he really was – “Simon the zealot” (Mt 4:10).

This was the kind of uncomfortable company that Jesus kept – terrorists, adulterers, greedy tax collectors and wine drinkers. This was very unsafe and unsavory company – the kind that your mother would give you a strong warning about. And just in case you thought Jesus could do this but didn’t require it of us, he goes and spoils the party for his disciples. After warning them that for his sake they will be arrested and “brought before governors and kings”, he tells them that “the student is not above the teacher … if the head of the house [Jesus] has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household [his disciples].(Mt 10)

I could go on and on and on with Jesus’s examples. I could remind us also of the socio-religous environment of the early church, especially as founded by a “former terrorist”, Paul the apostle, all over the Roman world. I could remind us of what the Roman historians recorded about the Christians in Rome who took in people with mysterious sicknesses which their society thought were contagious and deadly, but whom they loved and cared for till a large number of them recovered. They had no scientific knowledge then, and if it was our deadly ebola virus, they’d have died for seeking the welfare of others, but fear wasn’t their forte – love was.

Conclusion

The way of Jesus is not the way of the world. The governments of the world would sometimes do what is wrong and sometimes do what is right. Our cultures and societal structures can intentionally or unintentionally work to divide and sow seeds of discord and fear, instead of reconciliation and love. The early Christians knew that, which is why they realized themselves as the community in which the evils perpetuated by our governments, societies and cultures will be gradually reversed by the love of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit.

This is why they listened to Jesus and looked to his example, so they could discern when they needed to offer their support to a cause and when they needed to stand against their society and governments for supporting the wrong cause. This is why the Spirit of God was given – to lead the church in discernment so it will be obedient to God’s will, and not societal, political or governmental will, even when such leading will be considered “stupid”, “unpatriotic”,“wreckless” or “dangerous”. That is why Paul reminds us that For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). The cause of Christ is not a cause that will always make sense to Ghanaians and Ghanaian culture, and the earlier we Christians realize that, the better it will be for our discipleship to Jesus.

If the American church had looked to Jesus’s guidance instead of openly supporting their nation’s choice to go to war and kill millions of Arab people and destabilize the whole of the Middle East because of the lives of 3,000 Americans lost on September 11th 2001, maybe we wouldn’t be here debating whether we should accept just 2 Yemeni detainees who have not even been declared guilty by any court of competent jurisdiction. We would rather discern the way of Jesus in this matter – that it’s not about who caused what and why they were not returned to America or Yemen. Its about Jesus testing our claims to be his disciples by putting 2 lives before us who are asking for a chance to rebuild their lives after 14 years of being treated like animals, whether they are actually terrorists or not. If we are rather interested in to casting our stones at them like the Pharisees, maybe it’s because we are still sick of that disease that was unleashed centuries ago – that Constantinian disease that makes us forget what kind of king we serve – a king who died on the cross for his enemies.

The Crisis of Ghanaian Christianity: Lessons from Anabaptism and Beyond

prosperity-dummiesThere is a narrative that has somehow gained traction amongst Western Christians regarding Christianity in Africa. This narrative is that though the church may be declining in the West, it is actually doing well and growing rapidly in Africa and Asia. Well, I can only speak to the African side of the story. And from my vantage point, this narrative needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt when it comes to Africa, especially to West African countries like Ghana and Nigeria. I tend to find myself often amongst Christians who are concerned about the trajectory of Ghanaian Christianity in particular, but also something that is happening in parallel across other African countries with Christian populations. During such conversations, I inevitably hear the refrain – “the churches are not preaching salvation anymore”. This is because of the rise and rapid spread of the innocuous “prosperity gospel” in Ghanaian churches. It’s now on the TV via televangelists, in our so-called “gospel” music and in our pulpits. These friends then, pine for the days when the sermons from the pulpits were focused on “preaching the bible”, condemning sin and teaching us how to be better Christians (on an individual level); basically what Dallas Willard referred to as “sin-management”. I chose then to write this to help my good friends make sense of what the real problems are, and to help my readers not in Africa to better discern when they find themselves interacting with Christianity of an African origin.

I used to think that was the solution as well, but my Christian journey has led me to question not just the “prosperity gospelers”, but the “salvation preachers”. And this is not because I don’t believe in salvation anymore – far from that. My challenge to the salvation gospelers has been that their definition of salvation is too narrow, and has actually actively contributed to the rise of the prosperity gospelers. Let me explain.

Some 30 years ago, the landscape of churches in Ghana was dominated by Roman Catholic as well as churches of a Reformed theological leaning – Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Adventist, Anglican et al – which in Ghana are referred to quite confusingly as “orthodox churches” (whereas globally, Orthodox is used to refer to Eastern Orthodox churches like the Greek and Russian church etc, which have no footprint here in Ghana). At this time also, there was a budding number of Pentecostal churches, and a few charismatic ones. Let’s not forget the African Instituted Churches like the Mosama Disco Christo Church and the like. Most Christians desired to be associated with one of these well structured denominations.

The dominant theology of the Protestant ones among the above was the well known revivalist one of getting souls saved from sin. The regular mantra at crusades I attended was “Jesus is coming soon. You don’t know your destiny after your death. Come to Jesus and be saved, so you will also be with him in heaven when he returns or when you die” or something of the sort. The usual alter calls were made, people were saved and became church members, warming the pews and being taxed every Sunday for a church project or the other that had almost nothing to do with their daily lives and needs. A few of the poorer members of the churches did get some help once in a while, but this was not because there was a concerted effort of these churches to intentionally mitigate poverty, but because of the generosity of a few members who were approached. There was very little effort by the leadership to intentionally integrate the different classes of people that made it to these churches, so the usual social structures from which converts came continued to perpetuate themselves in these churches. But then these weren’t big issues, after all the church’s responsibility was to ensure the convert’s eternal destiny was secured. Being structurally heirarchical, leadership was dominantly more worried about how to get on the next rung of the ladder than what the real needs of the local church was. Embedded in this theology and practice was the subtle but deeply ingrained notion within Protestant Christianity that the gospel was about each individual’s salvation. And this individualism is what has and continues to be it’s weakness to this day.

This state of affairs is what most people with whom I speak on this matter refer to when they talk about churches “not preaching salvation anymore”. And this is what NT scholar Scot McKnight has to say on that yearning.

The revivalists sold us short at times in focusing so much on the past tense of salvation … as well as the future tense, eternal life – but not enough on the present: kingdom life in the church.”( Scot McKnight, A Fellowship of Differents).

Fast forward to 2015. Western individualism has seeped into Ghanaian culture, especially in the urban areas. The landscape is now littered with all sorts, shapes and sizes of churches. A lot of them have no denominational linkages, mostly founded by former leaders who have left the “orthodox” churches described above and who have unfortunately swallowed hook, line and sinker the “prosperity gospel”. Most of these claim a charismatic leaning. Instead of having a few denominational empires that one could at least identify and deal with, we now have a plethora of them, everybody wanting their piece of the pie of the overly religious and superstitious Ghanaian. Christianity has multiplied rapidly, but alongside it has been abuse, scriptural ignorance and bare-faced heresy, syncretism, and greed in the name of “the pastor must be rich to show that you can also be rich”. The segregation in our churches have also grown, with the poor going more to the charlatans running supposed “solution centers”, whiles the rich gather in their nice urban uber-church complexes. It’s now an open marketplace for membership to advance one’s empire. Whatever it is that these new churches claim to have been escaping from their “orthodox” ones, there really is no clear difference to see – maybe except that the leaders of these churches become richer overnight.

In the meantime, the “orthodox” churches are feeling the pinch of this “competition”, and are compromising on their more Reformedish theology to become more “relevant”, more “charismatic”. The words “success”, “breakthrough”, “miracles”, “prophetic”, “destiny” which used to be in the purview of the prosperity preachers, can now be heard on the lips (and seen on billboards) of an increasing number of “orthodox” churches. And this is causing some who would rather see these churches hold their ground – since they have been “hammering on sin and repentance” which is what we all need if we are going to make it to heaven – to have sleepless nights and pine for the days when the churches were “preaching salvation”. But alas, if concerned Ghanaian Christians are not willing to ask themselves the hard, long and uncomfortable questions (both theological and practical) and to take the decisions that need to follow it, then we are only doomed to the trajectory of “relevance” without faithfulness. As the musician Bono of U2 sang

You think it’s easier to put your finger on the trouble, when the trouble is you” ( U2, Troubles from the album Songs of Innocence).

So, being an Anabaptist in a sea of Christendom, I have a few lessons to share with my friends and readers who actually yearn for a better Christianity in Africa. Some of these lessons come from Anabaptist history and some from more recent, academic and critically acclaimed Christian thinkers on this crisis.

1The Problem Starts From Flawed Theology

I’m sorry to say this, but the first and foremost reason why we are in this situation is because of the long dormant flaws in Protestant theology, especially as practiced in Ghana. The prosperity gospelers have simply built on these flaws.

  1. A flawed understanding of the kingdom of God – For centuries, Protestant Christianity has associated anything Jesus said about the kingdom of God with the future of going to heaven. This has affected our understanding of the gospel, and hence our understanding of salvation. The fullness of biblical salvation involves past salvation (salvation from sins and spiritual slavery), ongoing salvation (salvation from personal, social, economic and political structures) and future salvation (life in the new heaven and the new earth).

  2. Sola Scriptura – The teaching that every Tom, Dick and Harry with a Bible in their language can properly interpret scripture with the help of the Holy Spirit has lead to abuse of scripture driven by ignorance and anti-intellectualism. I wince everyday as TV evangelists massacre the bible to support their “prosperity gospelling”, but Protestant friends are loathe to address this dogma which actually gives these people their lease of life.

  3. A fixation on heaven and hell – Due to the influence of Greek paganism on Christianity after the early apostles, Christians moved from the original Jewish and early Christian hope of New Heaven and New Earth and the need to care about what is happening on this earth, to caring only about saving souls from hell to heaven. This was further aggravated by the Protestant Reformation because it was rebelling against the Catholics for insisting that one needed to make indulgences to be guaranteed forgiveness of sins and a move from purgatory to heaven. This has left Protestant churches unable to take practical steps to make their local churches actually care for needs of members in the here and now, because after all “its all about going to heaven”.

  4. “Me” instead of “We” – As a result of these 3 defects above, the bible is read with an eye to personal benefit only. Embedded within centuries of Protestant teaching has been a focus on the individual. That, together with the obvious lack of care of our “orthodox” churches to the bread and butter issues of life on this earth, is what the prosperity gospelers have exploited to this day. They preach that God actually cares about your here and now, but the means to get it is via your individualist effort of “faith” (according to their own definition of it), abundance of prayer and church activities, and of course abundance of giving to them. Brilliant combination, don’t you think? According to Forbes, the richest clergy is actually in Nigeria, despite it’s monumental poverty rates. Which reminds me of a time in history when a Catholic bishop in France had more money than the state. And yet we claim to be children of a Reformation.

Sadly, the leading Christian thinkers who are pointing out these flaws embedded within Protestant Christianity itself are being attacked for pointing them out, especially by the gatekeepers of Reformed theology in America (Anabaptists have been saying that the Protestant Reformation wasn’t far reaching enough for the last 500 years, so we call dibs on this one and watch the Protestants duke it out). One of them, NT Wright, repeats some of the accusations against him below.

Any mud will do: you can suggest that some of us do not believe in Jesus’ atoning death; you can insinuate that we have no gospel to preach, nothing to say to a dying ‘enquirer’; you can declare that we are false shepherds leading the flock astray; you can accuse us of crypto-Catholicism or quasi-Platonic moral Idealism; anything rather than pay attention to the actual arguments, the refraining of debates, and above all to the texts themselves” (NT Wright – Paul and His Recent Interpreters)

2Leading to Flawed Community

Having sorted the theological problems out, here is one lesson that Anabaptism will like our fellow Protestant Christians to freely learn from them. After all, Anabaptists died the most for insisting that church should be separate from state, and should be a community of commitment and sharing with one another long before the modern separation between state and church became established norm. Until we learn to recognize local churches as the place to show in every locality, God’s ideal for the world of different people coming together despite class, social, cultural and economic differences and actively working to undermine those differences by caring and sharing with one another, individualism will reign, and prosperity gospelling, thriving on individualism, will continue to infect good Christianity.

This means some serious structural changes, from the way money goes to the bottomless pit at the top and never descends to the bottom, to what we do when we are gathered as a church. One of the ways in which Anabaptism was able to resist the death (both as threats and actual martyrdom) of their fellow Protestants and Catholics in the 16th century was the practice of caring for one another, which was sorely missing in the camp of their oppressors and was pointed out by Menno Simmons even when he was being tried by his opponents. Same as the early Christians. If our Ghanaian Protestant churches had been up and doing in this direction, people would have clearly seen through the deception of the prosperity gospellers from a mile away.

3Ending in Flawed Discipleship

The other lesson that Anabaptism will like to freely teach our Protestant brothers in Ghana is that the Christian life is one of following in the way of the master. A life spent in “worship” but not in following is a life that leads to exile, an exile that looks suspiciously like Judah’s captivity in Babylon. I see plenty declarations of “I want more of you, Jesus”, plenty “gospel” concerts and shows, plenty “all-night services”, plenty taxing of poor church members to build universities, majority of whose children stand no chance of even getting into Senior High School. Sadly, I see very little of serving one another, being good news to the poor in our midst (not some romantic far away location), treating the widows/widowers and unmarried amongst us like the fully human beings they are, making our homes open to people who are lower on the social ladder, eating with the “wrong” crowd on a regular basis, placing other’s needs above ours daily, being friends with the illiterate so the literate can teach them the bible instead of letting the charlatans twist it and abuse them and then wonder why they go to those churches.

Conclusion

As Anabaptists, we are also learning some ways in which we need to improve, after all till Jesus comes, the job will never be finished and no church is perfect. But it’s very hard to throw some accusations against Anabaptistim for good reason – Anabaptist strove to keep discipleship and community at the forefront, sometimes to the extreme. Things haven’t always been rosy, and we’ve also made our own mistakes. But what we also need is to be strengthened by this renewal in understanding Jesus not as defined by the 16th century European Christianity, but as a 1st century Jewish Messiah, yet a Messiah who is actually God himself.

So if Ghanaian “orthodox” Christianity and other church traditions (be they Pentecostal or Charismatic) have any chance of repelling the onslaught of prosperity gospelling that has so distorted the Christian witness here, then they really need to dig deep and radically reform. Because until then, the prosperity gospellers will continue to have their way, and to survive, they will end up having to join them.

I was glad I met for the first time some members of the Mennonite church in Ghana at the Good News Theological Seminary here in Accra 3 weeks ago. It was indeed a meeting of kindred spirits and I look forward to our further engagement with them as we seek to work towards a different kind of Ghanaian Christianity – a more Jesus looking one. And it reminds me of Stuart Murray.

Anabaptist writers, and others, have rejected the domestication of Jesus’ teaching. They have demonstrated how it applies to political, social and economic issues and that it is much more radical than Christendom’s commentators allowed.” (Stuart Murray, The Naked Anabaptist).

It is for these “others” that I thank God for these days. The likes of NT Wright, Scot McKnight, Richard Hayes, Howard Snyder, Stanley Hauerwas, Walter Wink, Donald Kraybill, Christopher J. H. Wright, Greg Boyd and other evangelical theologians who are pushing the envelope in challenging Protestant Christianity to be more faithful to its own New Testament.

I don’t need to talk about Anabaptism much nowadays. These guys, simply focusing on better exegesis of both the Old and New Testament itself, do the job quite well, though they are not Anabaptists themselves. And that can only be a good thing. That can only mean there is indeed hope for the church worldwide, Ghana included. For the Anabaptist hope is that the church worldwide will become more faithful to Jesus, whatever kind of church they are.

Unmasking Ghanaian Christianity – “Do Not Put Your Trust in Man”

Unmasking Ghanaian Christianity – “Do Not Put Your Trust in Man”

I’ve been meaning to do a series on common statements that Ghanaian Christians make on a day to day basis which have become accepted, but where what we actually mean by such statements are totally unrelated to how those phrases are used biblically, or a sheer abuse of the phrase for a parochial interest. I start off with one that is very popular among Ghanaian Christians, but which has a very negative effect on our ability to actually follow in the example of Jesus.

Twi: “Enfa wo were enhye nipa mu”

English: “Do not put your trust in man”

What Ghanaian Christianity Means By This Phrase

This is probably the most used and abused phrase by Ghanaian gospel musicians and preachers alike. It is typically meant to convey the idea that when one has a problem, it is useless to actually seek help and advise from any human being about it, including even one’s brethren in Christ.

This way of interpreting the above scriptural statement is further aggravated by the incidence of gossip that is so rife in many churches. As a result, church (in a lot of Christians’ experience) is no longer a safe place for one to find brethren who can be of help in one’s journey of faith and in whom one can confide. Finally, it has led many Ghanaians to anachronistically now put their faith in so called “men of God”, because they are the ones whom God listens to, so God can solve their problem.

In summary then, this phrase has come to mean simply “Everyone for himself, God for us all”. The Ghanaian Christian usage of this phrase is akin to a picture of many people gathered in a building and each person taking their own telephone line and making a call to God to tell them their personal problems. At the end of the day, we all say goodbye and we go home.

What The Phrase Means in Context

Ps 146:3 “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save”

Ps 118:8-9 “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in humans It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.”

Is 2:22 Stop trusting in mere humans,who have but a breath in their nostrils. Why hold them in esteem?

One of the easiest clues to what the authors meant is by asking why apart from skepticism about “trust in human beings”, they almost always add skepticism about trust in “princes”. This alone should sound the alarm bells that the authors of the Old Testament were not talking about refraining from telling your brother that you are hungry and broke.

You see, the people of Israel had a covenant relationship with Yahweh, which required that if they are faithful to their side of the covenant, Yahweh will remain faithful to his. One of the obligations of the covenant on Yahweh as captured in Torah (the books of Moses) was that he was to be the protector of that nation, in so far as the nation stayed faithful to him. This reciprocal relationship is what is captured in Deut 28-30, in what people sometimes describe as “blessings and curses” of the Law.

Yahweh in many ways forbid Israel from having a standing army, so that the people of Israel will rely on him to save them, not on their military might. A clear example of this is how Yahweh orders Gideon to reduce the size of his army by so using methods like asking them to drink water at a river and choosing those who did it right, etc etc. (Judges 6-7). But as usual the nation sometimes got scared when an enemy was at their gates, and some of their kings refused to rely on Yahweh for salvation, but to form alliances with other nations for their protection. The problem with such alliances was that since every nation in the Ancient Near East had it’s own god/gods, this presupposes that Israel was no longer relying on Yahweh but on the god of whatever nation they were looking up to, which was the functional equivalent of idolatory and sin. Therefore the prophets never ceased to criticize these alliances and the kings/leaders of Israel who forged them with their neighbours, warning that such alliances are an idolatrous breach of the covenant with Yahweh and will bring negative consequences. An example of such criticism is Is 30.

Is:30:1-2; “Woe to the obstinate children,” declares the Lord, “to those who carry out plans that are not mine, forming an alliance, but not by my Spirit, heaping sin upon sin; who go down to Egypt without consulting me; who look for help to Pharaoh’s protection, to Egypt’s shade for refuge.”

In context then, these warnings are to ensure that Israel should not abandon trust in Yahweh to defend them and to keep his promises, and has very little to do with listening to and helping one another.

So What?

If we are going to extrapolate what lessons this holds for us today, we should rather be realizing that God is questioning the Christian church’s and it’s membership’s faith in political institutions, rather than preventing us from sharing our concerns with one another in church.

Have we not noticed how Christians, even church leaders, feel so frustrated with government after government for not “fighting corruption” or “fixing the economy” or proposing to “solve dumsor in 3 months”? Have we not noticed our churches holding “thanksgiving services” (whatever that means) for our political parties et al? Is it not a sign that we have put our faith in “princes” and “human beings”, when we should be putting our faith in Jesus? Or is it because paying attention to Jesus actually means when times are hard we should actually be caring for our church members instead of asking more money from them and complaining that “the bad economy has affected our collections”?

Ironically, there’s a Ghanaian saying that “the one who sells his sickness finds a cure for it”. Can we go back to selling our sicknesses to one another as the New Testament shows, that we may be rid of this abuse of scripture and stop doing harm to the body of Christ?

On Christian Mission Schools and Discrimination

highschool

The whole Ghanaian nation woke up these past few days to controversy when the minority Muslim community in the country complained of being discriminated against in the Christian mission schools. They spoke of being forced to attend Christian worship services and devotions in these schools. There have been many reactions, some tempered and some bordering on pure disdain. On the one extreme, the Catholic Bishops conference has categorically told Muslim students to go elsewhere to receive their education if they don’t want to conform to their “campus rules”, whiles on the other end the small but increasing band of secularists in our country have taken advantage of this wind to call for a ban of any form of religious activity in the public square, going as far as to file a Supreme Court case to boot. Whiles we await what the Supreme Court will say, I have a few thoughts to share on the subject.

The Surface Issues

I attended a Christian mission school myself, Presbyterian Boys Secondary School (PRESEC), Legon to be exact. Even whiles a student , I had the sense that the worship services and devotional meetings were more a tool for exerting control over students with a little bit of religiousness attached to it than anything else. These occasions were used to dish out discipline to students, listen to a speech by our beloved headmaster JJ Asare, listen to school announcements, conduct on the spot roll-calls, listen to sermons, conduct dressing inspections and just about everything else in between. Especially during the weekends, students attended these gatherings more out of fear for whatever the school authorities/student prefects had in store for them than for the singing or sermonizing that went on. Of course some of us Christians enjoyed singing Presbyterian hymns and occasionally hearing Mr Dompreh or “Rabbi” the chaplain, deliver a good sermon, but truth be told it could have been done without all the show of bravado that preceded it. And this is what brings me to the crux of the opposition by the mission schools.

The primary basis of pushback by these mission schools is that these devotional meetings are a means to keep discipline in the schools. Therefore allowing Muslims or non-Christians the choice not to attend these events will lead to indiscipline since they will have an excuse to miss these events.

Secondly, giving grounds for other religions to have some breathing space in these institutions meant that these schools loose some part of their identity as a “Christian school”. PRESEC liked to refer to its students as “Christian gentlemen”, although it has always had a growing population of Muslim students. Having to publicly admit that not all are “Christian gentlemen” is a bigger blow to the institution’s identity than to anything else. Homogeneity always means easier control and well defined identity. Heterogeneity means more work and the possibility of tension, and who likes more work or tension?

But the truth of the matter is that the ground has been shifting under the feet of our Christian mission schools, and a lot of things have conspired to make it impossible for these schools to keep things going the old way. I believe that the express intention of the founders of these schools was not to serve the needs of only those of their denominations or religion, but to do a “social good” by making them open to all that could attend. In fact if this was not their stated goal, most of these schools would not have been granted the lands on which they are currently sited at such concessional rates by the traditional authorities who are custodians of land in Ghana. And this openness to admit everyone who qualifies is exactly their undoing.

Today, placement of students into these schools, just like every other school in Ghana is now by a computerized system, which only uses applicable gender and marks obtained at the BECE. As a result, any student can apply to be in any institution. In fact it is theoretically possible (though impossible in real terms) that all the slots for a particular mission school could be filled up by only non-Christian students. What then does one do? Still pretend one’s student population is Christian? Go all out to convert these students to Christianity?

So if the worry is about discipline and the loss of these events as a means of keeping students in line, why can’t we split these “devotions” into 2 phases? The first part can be compulsory for everyone, devoid of religious activity and focused on the day to day things that school authorities/student leadership wants to do to keep students updated or to ensure discipline, whiles the second part is left as a voluntary attendance for the Christians who want to attend. After all Christianity has been the religion that makes the most noise about true worship coming from the heart, not being forced. One may choose to then make space for other religious bodies to meet during that time elsewhere, or simply go back to their dorms/classrooms if no such arrangement has been made for them. And given the abundance of Christian denominations now, who says that a Neo-Anabaptist like me will feel comfortable being forced to recite a few “Hail Marys” if I had attended a  Catholic funded mission school? Heck, even amongst Christians, we still reserve the right to worship with those we feel we want to worship with, how much more between Christians and other religions?

The Real Undercurrents

The reaction of the mission schools is a clear symptom of Christendom at work. Christendom assumes that everyone under it’s influence is a Christian, and attempts to treat them as such. It focuses on imposing what it thinks is “right behavior” on people (in PRESEC it’s called “Presbyterian Discipline”), instead of being the example itself. Once Christianity became the dominant religion across Western culture through its adoption as a state religion by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, Christians – who were beforehand a minority and had learnt to live on the fringes of society – suddenly gained power which they previously didn’t have. This launched Christendom attitudes in full swing, whose vestiges we still experience today. Instead of making sure that people were willingly and truthfully following Jesus, even if that meant a smaller following, it exerted itself in “Christianizing” the culture, imposing it’s morals on a people who still held their allegiance to Constantine, not to King Jesus. Much Ghanaian Christianity rides auto-pilot in this Christendom mode by default, and needs to be reminded on a regular basis that our Messiah showed the way not by simply talking it, but by doing it and instructing us to follow, at the cost of our cultural, ethnic and social standing, and to learn to live at peace with those who don’t share our convictions, even if it means losing our lives.

Western culture is now coming out of Christendom, with lesser and lesser people subscribing to Christianity because of a number of many factors, not least of which is the church’s failure “to be the church” as Stanley Hauerwas puts it. Instead of being faithful to its mission to be the place where the disadvantaged, downtrodden, the widow, the fatherless and the stranger go to find refuge as a sign of the future kingdom to come (James 1:27), Christendom engages itself in either saving people for heaven, or engaging in “social justice” as a means to change culture, but very seldom as a means to change its own self. These mission schools represent such attempts to “change culture” through the “common good” of educational institutions, with some of these being built through taxing poor church members majority of whom will never benefit directly from these kinds of projects.

Personally it has been instrumental that this controversy has landed right in my reading of New Testament professor Scott McKnight’s book “Kingdom Conspiracy”, where he says

It is good to seek the common good, but not at the expense of personally surrendering to King Jesus. If the kingdom story is the true story, in fact, then there is no good for the common good until humans surrender to King Jesus” – Scott McKnight, Kingdom Conspiracy, Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church.

In so far as these mission schools were established not only for Christians, but for the “common good”, they have lost the power to be a true expression of the Christian principles, simply because not everyone who attends it is subject the King Jesus. So let’s move on, and make room for the presence of multiple religions in our mission schools. If we won’t give them space to worship, at least let’s not force them into false worship just to stroke our sensibilities and keep us happy.