One of the typically abused texts that Ghanaian Christians are quick to quote when their favourite pastor/prophet/bishop etc is under criticism is Ps 105:15
“Do not touch my anointed ones, do my prophets no harm” (Ps 105:15).
But are we sure we understand this verse?
What Ghanaian Christianity Means By This Phrase
This has become a blanket statement to prevent any form of questioning of the teaching or practice of church leaders. It’s usage is particularly very dominant in certain circles of Christianity, who limit all their experience and knowledge of Christianity through the lens of their beloved preachers. Any criticism of such preachers therefore elicits not a welcome ear to listen and think through the accusation/critique, but a knee jerk reaction to defend such beloved preachers/prophets, even to possibly naming the critique as a “heretic” or “unspiritual person”. And this is further worsened by such preachers also intentionally exploiting the above verse as a means to defend themselves, leading their followers to assume that that is the proper way to understand this verse.
What The Phrase Means in Context
This is probably the easiest abuse of the bible to detect, yet the dominance of this abuse simply amazes me. This is because one can see what the author of the Psalm is talking about by simply reading the whole Psalm 105 from beginning. The Psalm begins by calling Israel to give thanks to God for what he has done for them.
“Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name, make known among the nations what he has done” (v 1)
The author then proceeds to state the exact things that Yahweh has actually done for them.
“Remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced, you his servants, the descendants of Abraham, his chosen ones, the children of Jacob … He remembers his covenant forever, the promise he made, for a thousand generations, the covenant he made with Abraham, ‘To you I will give the land of Canaan as the portion you will inherit’ … When they were but few in number, few indeed, and strangers in it … He allowed no one to oppress them; for their sake he rebuked kings; ‘Do not touch my anointed ones, do my prophets no harm’ ”(v5-15).
It is obvious from the above (paying attention to the portions I’ve boldened) that the Psalmist is talking about how Yahweh protected HIS CHOSEN PEOPLE from harm whiles they travelled from Egypt to Canaan, so that they may obtain God’s promise of ENTERING THE LAND OF CANAAN. In the process, God actually defeats both Og, king of Bashan and Sihon, king of the Amorites just to get his way. These are the “kings” he rebuked (as well as Pharaoh of course). The theme of Yahweh defeating Og king of Bashan and Sihon king of the Amorites is repeated in many Psalms (Ps 139;135;68) as well as the rest of the Old Testament, and is told to remind the people of ancient Israel how God had led them to “the land”. Even before the reading of the Ten Commandments to the people in Deuteronomy, it is preceded with reminding the people of God how he took them from Egypt, defeated Sihon king of the Amorites, Og king of Bashan before bringing them to conquer Canaan (Deut 2,3).
Therefore the reference to “anointed one” and “prophets” here is but a reference to the nation Israel.
Obviously the above cannot be used to defend only certain preachers, simply because it doesn’t even refer to them. But as usual, many Christians like to mine the Old Testament to justify what they are bent on doing without first understanding the Old Testament on it’s own terms as a document that records the history and stories of God’s relationship with his chosen people. And when the OT is read only for its “mining” or allegorical value, these are the kind of results we get (an example is the “seven to one” misinterpretation that occurred recently from one of the leading Ghanaian preachers). So having done the correct thing above, let us then indulge the “miners” of the OT and apply the text properly.
If the church is Israel expanded, then this passage is specifically talking about us all as God’s anointed and God’s prophets. None of us is more anointed than the other. The only anointed one is Jesus Christ (which is what Christ means i.e. the anointed one), and we are all anointed because we are a part of his body. In the same way the passage is talking about the nation Israel, let’s be minded to speak of the church as God’s anointed and prophets, and let’s stop giving our favourite preachers/prophets/bishops the free pass to move from being people who are tasked with preparing us for works of service to people who are performing a show for us which we have to accept whether we like it or yes because “they are the anointed” and we are the mere mortals.
If we truly are serious about doing this, we can start the process by simply refusing to refer to such men as “anointed”. How hard can that be? Will a few sacred cows be lost by doing so?
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.
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?
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.
I know that this is a provocative headline, and I have no qualms in putting it this way. I’m forced to pause my next post in the series “Understanding the NT from the OT” because certain recent events seem to have conspired to put this post on a higher priority.
I have at least traveled to or lived in 4 European countries for various short times. And in all that time, I’ve always noticed something that saddened me – the blatant disregard (and sometimes downright ignorance) of Christianity. I remember climbing up a small hill to go into the magnificent Lincoln Cathedral opposite the Lincoln Castle, one of the most majestic medieval church buildings in the UK (and for about 2 centuries, the world’s tallest building in the world). I remember a trip with my friend Gerhard to the Frauenkirche Cathedral, one of the landmarks of the city of Munich (in fact a lot of gifts from Munich feature a picture of that church with it’s 2 beautiful domes, and by law no building within the area can be taller than Frauenkirche’s domes). Whenever I visit these places, I’m struck by the beauty and meticulousness of the work, but I’m also saddened by what they have become today – tourist attractions during the weekdays, and attended by only a few old men and women on Sundays who were probably born into the church and have no other place to meet their old friends. Today Christians in Europe are in the minority, and a small one at that. In the US, the same is happening, though the rate of decline is slower. The interesting thing though is that survey after survey has shown that the majority of people still believe in God, they just don’t believe in the church as an agent of his anymore.
Therefore the people who brought us Christianity are now in need of evangelism. I know that our leading men of God do travel and therefore know of the receding numbers of Christians in these places, but I wonder how many of them have done any analysis of the problem and strategized on how they and their church may act to prevent this inevitable decline that will come. Because if we sit here thinking that we are fine, I can confidently tell you that we are heading in the same direction in Africa and Ghana in particular (you can call that statement whatever you want, and quote me anywhere as well).
This state of affairs in the West has now lead to a resurgence of interest in a particular kind of Christianity which has been in the minority for a very long time in the hopes of learning lessons from them on how to live faithfully as a witness to a world that no longer believes in the church. I’m currently on the last chapter of “The Naked Anabaptist – The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith” by Stewart Murray. Last week, New Testament scholar Scott McKnight posted on Anabaptism here (he self identifies as one, though he’s not in any of their congregations). Other evangelical and emergent church thought leaders have identified with or stated that there are huge lessons to learn from Anabaptism to navigate this difficult time for Western Christianity (Brian McLaren, Frank Viola, Greg Boyd, David Fitch, Alan Hirsch, Howard A. Snyder, Shane Clairborne, etc. etc.).
The question therefore is who were/are the Anabaptists, and what lessons could the church in the West have learnt from them to prevent this drastic decline, or the Ghanaian church learn from them so we don’t have only 20% Christian population in Ghana in the next 50 years, mostly populated by old men and women from our generation?
A Short Historical Survey
Before the 16th century in Europe, everyone was or assumed to be 1) A Christian 2) Could only attend the Roman Catholic church. However, in 1517 the German priest and academic, Martin Luther, posted a document on a church door in Wittenburg (called the 95 Theses) , criticizing some of the practices of the Roman Catholic, and thence began the struggle for the soul of the church in what is now called the Protestant Reformation (or simply the Reformation). This struggle spread all across Europe due to the recent invention of the printing press and the ability to quickly circulate subversive printed material easily (including copies of the Bible, previously only available to priests). In Switzerland, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli picked up the fire of rebellion and spread it, and when the dust finally settled Europe had been split between Roman Catholic cities or countries, and Protestant cities or countries.
However, some of the followers of the Protestants, began initially criticizing Ulrich Zwingli for certain beliefs that they felt that the reformation should have also placed on high priority. This new protest spread again back to Martin Luther’s Germany, and the group of people in this protest are those referred to as the Anabaptists. Their fellow Christians in the Catholic and Protestant camps however couldn’t understand them, and so feared their impact that Martin Luther, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwignli themselves are on record for ordering the execution of these Anabaptist “heretics”. As Stewart Murray records, the Catholics did so by burning at the stake, and the Protestants did so by drowning or decaptitation. Fearing for their lives, most Anabaptists fled from mainline Europe into the US, and those who remained went underground and lived their Christian lives in the quiet, for the last 500 years.
What were they protesting about that the Protestant church didn’t want to listen to (and mostly haven’t listened to since then)? And how is that related to the decline in Western Christianity, or ours? Well, it will surprise you that these are not any far fetched accusations, but it’s implementation and prioritization is where the meat is. Here are some of them
Jesus Is Not Only To Be Worshiped, But Also To Be Followed
One of the cardinal characteristics of Anabaptism was an insistence on discipleship. To them being a Christian meant one was turning away from the world and it’s standards, and living by following Jesus. Not only was Jesus the saviour, he must be followed as an example, teacher and friend. The Anabaptists accused their contemporaries of reducing Jesus to just some remote Lord which people go to worship on a Sunday morning, but who has no impact on the rest of the 6 days of the week left. As a result, they placed a very high premium on how they can follow Jesus in every situation, and the Gospels (Mathew, Mark, Luke, John) was their beloved yardstick, as opposed to the Protestants who loved to quote and debate Paul’s epistles (with much misunderstanding, as today’s knowledge is showing).
In fact this insistence of theirs on whole life transformation by following Jesus, not just worshiping him was evident even to their enemies. Hear Franz Agricola, a 16th century Roman Catholic priest express his befuddlement:
“As concerns their outward public life they are irreproachable. No lying, deception, swearing, strife, harsh language, no intemperate eating and drinking, no outward personal display is found among them, but humility, patience, uprightness, neatness, honesty, temperance, straightforwardness in such measure that one would suppose that they had the Holy Spirit of God”
Of course they had the Holy Spirit in them, he just couldn’t believe it of such “heretics”.
The Church Was Where the Action Was
The Anabaptists believed that the church must be a community of disciples, a place of friendship, a place of accountability and a place where everyone was allowed to speak what the Spirit of God had put on their hearts, as per 1 Cor 14:26. To them church wasn’t just a place for people to come and watch the showmen (musicians and preachers) perform a show and go home to live their lives as they pleased. Church was the place where they ate together, encouraged one another, struggled together, helped one another, learned from each other, queried those that needed to be queried and corrected. It was the place to display a foretaste of the kingdom of God to the rest of the world around them.
The bible was primarily supposed to be read, shared and interpreted by the church together, preventing one person’s personal interpretation from dominating the community. Leadership was not hierarchical, leadership was multiple and accountable to each other, not just to one “founder/head pastor/general overseer”. Teaching in the church was to be multi-voiced, so that others could also share their thoughts on the subject, ask questions or bring in something totally different, allowing the Holy Spirit the opportunity to interject whenever he so desired.
Because of this high level of commitment that was required of each disciple, one had to declare their intent to be submissive to these requirements through the action of baptism (and not the saying of a “sinner’s prayer”). This is where the Anabaptists gained their names from (the word means “re-baptize”). Both the Roman Catholics and the Protestants baptized babies because everyone was assumed to be a Christian. But Anabaptists insisted that being Christian was a conscious choice one had to make because of the commitments involved, and decried any attempt to force people to be Christians by birth through the practice of pedo-baptism (“child baptism”). We have the Anabaptists to thank today for sowing the early seeds that led to our modern insistence on freedom of religion and association at a time when such freedom was frowned upon at the pain of death.
In contrast, the Protestant/Roman Catholic churches seemed the Anabaptists to be just a voluntary association of the saved. People were born into the church, and there was very little insistence on discipleship – on following Jesus and not just worshiping him. Church activities were dominated by the “clergy”, and all that the rest of the church did was just to follow their lead. There was very little concern for the needs of members, and therefore comparatively poverty abounded much more in those churches as compared to the harassed and persecuted Anabaptist churches. To the annoyance of his accusers, when Menno Simons, one of the Anabaptist leaders was arrested and accused of insisting that all Christians must forcibly share their goods (based on Acts 2), he corrected them by saying that it was supposed to be voluntary, and that though they (the Anabaptists) have been able to do this to reduce poverty amongst them, the same could not be said of the churches of his richer accusers who had much more access to money.
The Church’s Constant Desire for Wealth, Status and Power is a Snare
The Anabaptists decried any attempt to use the church in support of the state’s agenda, and refused to be just another department of the state’s governmental arms. To them, the church was called to be a witness of the fallenness of human governments, and so they totally rejected any loyalty to any political leader. Theirs was supposed to be a counter-cultural community of people who were good news to the poor, the powerless and the persecuted (as per Jesus in Luke 4:16-21), and who were willing to die in defense of the lives and well-being of others. They refused to focus their energies on being the dispensers and enforcers of moral platitudes to the rest of the world, but rather focused on their communities being the light, showing the alternative way of being human beings in any society.
Again the same could not be said of their Protestant/Roman Catholic brethren, who are on record all throughout history of compromising the witness of Jesus by aligning themselves with one political institution or the other, even against their own fellow Christians at home or abroad. One of the means by which they did this was by finding support for their activities from their flawed interpretation and application of the Old Testament, which is where they could find examples from the kings of Israel and the prophets who prophesied to them. They tended to forget that the Church was now the expanded Israel, and that it’s king was already declared (Jesus Christ) and that prophecy must be targeted at improving and correcting the church, not the world.
As for the desire for wealth and the display of it – culminating in the accumulation of wealth by the church institutions and the use of such wealth in such beautiful buildings as the Lincoln Cathedral that I mentioned above, it is evident for all to see. It is on record that in centuries before the Reformation, when a certain king of France was abducted and ransom was demanded, the treasury of France (a whole country) was so broke at the time they had to fall on the mercies of the Roman Catholic church to be able to pay the ransom. Now that is what I call wealth – and yet the poverty in medieval Europe was phenomenal.
Spirituality and Economics are Inter-connected
I’ve said enough about wealth already in the context of the church as an organisation. In the individual context as well, the Anabaptists insisted that a person’s attitude to personal wealth reflected on a person’s attitude to Jesus. To them, Christians needed to place a high priority on helping others, not accumulating wealth. They placed high premium on the sermon on the mount in this regards, so they might help bring relief to others.
Their accusers on the other hand encouraged the hording of wealth, mostly because the church institutions (not the church members) would then be able to benefit from it through “tithe” and all sorts of cajoling on “giving” to extract money to run it’s agenda of further display of wealth. To soothe their consciences, passages like the sermon on the mount were either spiritualized, or placed on a pedestal for when Jesus returns.
There are more accusations I could give than these, but I’m running out of space already. Suffice it to say that the Protestant/Roman Catholic brothers in the 16th century persisted in the activities of which the Radical Reformation (Anabaptists) protested about in Europe, and we see the end results today. Economic and intellectual empowerment meant that people began to ask serious questions of the church in Europe, and it didn’t seem to have the answers to these questions. Most people saw through the hypocrisy and a departure began which still continues today.
Anabaptism was itself not perfect (after all, they are also human beings), but throughout history it has been very difficult to accuse them of not desiring to pursue Jesus authentically, with their life, their wealth and ultimately their blood. Even if you disagree with their methods, their conviction was palpable.
I shook my head when the head of the Presbyterian church in Ghana (a historically Protestant church) was lamenting the abundance of Christianity but persistence of corruption. Maybe he needs to learn from the mistakes of his own tradition, as pointed out by the Anabaptists.
Because a time will come when many will see through the hypocrisy, and that will be our death knell. As a neo-Anabaptist, I implore the church to learn from history because as the famous Spanish philosopher George Santayana said
“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” – Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás, known as George Santayana
Christianity has existed and thrived for the past 2000 year since Jesus death in many shapes and forms. And in that period it has striven to achieve God’s purposes for humanity with very little understanding of the people to whom God first gave the commission to be his people (some of which has been intentional, but also because we simply didn’t have the tools for such understanding in the past). But since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1946, further scholarly study of these scrolls has shed great light on the elder brother of Christianity i.e. the form(s) of Judaism that existed during Jesus’ lifetime, and is helping us understand Jesus even better. So I want to begin a series of posts that will shed much more light on how this knowledge is being brought from the scholarly field to strengthen the church and its obedience to Jesus Christ. We will focus on 3 thematic beliefs of Judaism: creational monotheism, election and eschatology and will draw parallels between these beliefs and how they should be the bedrock of Christianity.
One of the core beliefs of Judaism which modern Christians now take for granted, but which was a very serious issue in Jesus time was the belief in only one God – YHWH. This was in opposition to other nations that surrounded them, who believed in other gods (like Baal) and some who belived in more than one god. For example the Greeks and Romans had a god of war (Ares/Mars), a god of travel and trade(Hermes/Mercury), a god of the sea (Poseidon/Neptune) and one who was the king of all gods (Zeus/Jupiter). This is where monotheism comes in – a belief in one supreme being only, summed up in Deutoronomy 6:4 – “Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God, the Lord is one” encapsulated in the most important Jewish prayer – the Shema.
Not only was YHWH the only god, he was the god who both created the world and was still in charge of it and ordering it’s activities (here comes his “creational” nature). This is why the Psalms are so full of praises not only of how God created the world, but the fact that he was still actively involved in it, nourishing and tending it, and giving every creature food in its season (eg Ps 104). This was in opposition to other nations who believed their gods to be busy doing their own thing and not caring about the people or their suffering (e.g. the Greeks believed the gods lived in Olympus and cared little for the people, so they better fend for themselves. Interestingly this is very similar to how western culture now see God today – a vacant landlord at best).
And because YHWH created everything, Judaism believed he cannot be represented by an image, because he created the wood, stone or clay that one may use to create a symbol of him. Therefore the Jews never believed in creating any idols which could be worshiped. In contrast, other nations who had different gods for different issues/concepts of the world, created images to model who and what kind of god they were (e.g Ares/Mars with his shield, helmet etc. representing war).
Thirdly, because YHWH created the world, he cared about every little bit of it, and even when evil seemed to be thriving for a while (whether through human activity or spiritual activity), YHWH will bring justice to this world and restore it to order. The Psalms speak in many places of God’s justice for this reason (Ps 72).
Note that to the rest of their neighbours, these believes were diametrically opposite what they believed, and caused some offense. But wait till we talk of the greater offense next.
Judaism believed that YHWH was not just the only god, but more importantly, Israel’s god. Yes, he was the god of the whole world (because he created the whole world of course), but YHWH had chosen them for a special purpose, through their father Abraham. In Genesis 12, 15 and 17 YHWH had made many promises to their father Abraham about his special relationship with him and his descendants, that through Abraham the world may be blessed. This notion of election of Israel as God’s special people was further strengthened and solidified in the minds of Jews by God’s might works in saving them from Egypt, crossing the Red Sea, protecting a whole nation as they moved in the desert and went past or through other nations (which could and did attempt to destroy them) for 40 years, and bring them to Canaan – the exact land promised to their father Abraham. The Christian traditions who speak of “promises of God” may need to pay much more attention to what they actually mean, not what we’ve turned it into – name it and claim it statements.
This belief in their election out of all nations not only runs through the Old Testament, but is the background to a lot of what Jesus and the Apostles says in the New Testament. Modern Christianity doesn’t appreciate how ingrained such a belief can be in a nation and people, when they and their forefathers experienced and passed on all these stories to them. But we can begin to see the impact of this belief by simply comparing the impact of 400 years of slavery on both Africans in the diaspora, and native Africa, vis-a-vis poverty, deprivation and injustice. This sense of identity and election was further re-invigorated by the continuous observance of their festivals, most glorious of which was the Passover and the rites that each individual family was supposed to perform in celebration of it
YHWH sealed his relationship with them by making a covenant with them – not as individual people, but as a nation. He gave them the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) that they may observe their part of the covenant even as he remains faithful to his.
It is worth noting at this point that this covenant above is predicated by the fact that YHWH had a special relationship with their forefathers, not because the nation Israel itself was any more special. In fact, I dare use the word “grace” to describe YHWH’s election of Israel – because he loved them and their ancestors. This is well stated here.
Deut 7:6-8 “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand …”
Other relevant passages are Deut 10:15;14:2 and Isaiah 41:8-9.
Therefore the giving of the Torah (what Christians refer to as “the Law”) by YHWH was a means of ensuring two things 1) that the nation Israel stayed faithful in the relationship with him 2) that the rest of the world may see and be drawn the the God of Israel. This is further captured here
Deut 4:6-7 “Observe them [the Torah] carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’. What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him?”
Deut 5:1-3 “Hear, Israel, the decrees and laws I declare in your hearing today. Learn them and be sure to follow them … it was not with our ancestors that the Lord made this covenant, but with us …”
This brings into serious question the traditional negative light in which Protestant Christianity has spoken of Torah and Judaism in general. To most Jewish scholars, Protestant Christians have always accusing them of the wrong thing, because the Torah also stated clearly that their election was by favour (I prefer to use that rather than grace) i.e. by virtue of YHWH’s love for their fathers, and not by their own doing. To them, they way we Christians claim our salvation by the love and mercy of YHWH and not by our “works”, but insist that every Christian must follow and obey Jesus, is the same way they also view their relationship to YHWH and to Torah.
A last note is to be made here. It will be observed throughout books like Deuteronomy that YHWH’s election of Israel was a corporate choosing. His covenant was with Israel, yet it was important that every Tom, Dick and Harry observe the Torah not just for personal benefit sake, but because doing so meant that God’s promises for his nation Israel through their ancestors, will indeed come to pass. Moses further explains need for individual obedience so the corporate goal will be achieved in Deut 29:19-21.
Again, another challenge is thrown to modern Christianity, which places the individual’s “salvation” and personal desires above the corporate intent that God has had for his faithful Israel – Jesus and his church – an intent which as Paul says in the Ephesian epistle was “before the foundation of the world”. In fact I draw a direct parallel here from Deut 4:6-7 about how Israel’s observance of Torah will lead to the other nations seeing the wisdom of God, and Paul’s statements in Eph 3:10 about how the many fold wisdom of God will be made known through the church.
Election therefore meant that Israel were YHWH’s special people, and the rest of the world was not. This obviously infuriated every nation around them, and Israel didn’t stop reminding them everyday, as again explicit in the Psalms and throughout the OT. Even when things were not going too well for them, their election was one thing that they never forgot.
Eschatology is a big word that Jews used to refer to things that will happen at the end of this age (not at the end of the world as is commonly translated).
Moses had set before them the blessings and the curses that will attend them if they observe or break the covenant with God in Deut. 28. I know Christians love quoting the blessings part, but if we are going to be a people who take God’s word seriously, we need to pay attention to the curses as well. Because one will observe that the most disastrous of the curses was exile – their enemies will defeat them and carry them away. And as if Moses knew that they were going to fail in the task of being obedient to YHWH through the Torah, in Deut. 30 he assures them that “when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and all your soul … then the Lord will restore your fortunes … and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you.” (Deut. 30:2-3).
He even goes further to say that “the Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descandants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live”(Deut. 30:6). Do we see where Paul got this from? “A man is a Jew if he is one inwardly .. and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code” (Romans 2:28-29)
Further on God gave further prophecies about how he intended for his own appointed king to be the carrier of his vision of Israel being a blessing to the world and the world coming under the authority of Israel. These he expounded to David through the prophet Samuel (2 Sam 7), and became known as the expectation of the coming of “the kingdom of YHWH”.
Thirdly there was there were some questions of human nature and the world they lived in that didn’t make sense. If YHWH was the one who created a good world, why does he allow evil to exist (i.e. both human sin and natural disasters)? Why does the wicked sometimes flourish, and the righteous perish? Why do seemingly innocent people die from earthquakes, typhoons etc?
The answers they came up with were that because YHWH is a righteous God, he will not abandon his creation to be overtaken by evil, and will one day return to restore this world into the good nature he intended. This hope of God remaking this world to correct what evil has brought into it is what is typically captured by the term “new creation” by both Judaism/early Christianity. These kinds of hopes are littered throughout the Psalms and prophets.
Later on, when the exile did happen, the prophets began to not only prophecy the return of Israel back from exile as stated by Moses, they also prophecied that this return will be accompanied by the announcement of the “kingdom of YHWH” and his work in bringing judgement to the world, so he can cleanse the world and bring in his new creation. Isaiah expounds it better, by saying that God will make a new heaven and new earth (Isaiah 65:17;66:22).
It is based on this that Revelations says not only will he make the new heaven and new earth, but God will bring his dwelling place (heaven) and mix it with our dwelling place (earth) into one (Rev 21;1-4).
These 3 themes: creational monotheism, election and eschatology are the main themes that drive everything else in the Bible, both Old Testment and New. As a result, they led to the creation, adoption and attachment to certain symbols, and we will look at those symbols in Part 2.
I’m sure by now that the news of the death of Komla Dumor has reached far and wide across the length and breadth of Ghana. The grief at such a young promising journalist’s demise has been palpable, and the eulogies have already been flowing thick and fast from the 4 corners of the earth. I myself find it hard to take, for having achieved what he did in Ghana and was achieving at the BBC, I looked forward to even greater heights of achievement from him. But alas, death has it’s own plans, and we will mourn his departure.
But I do not write this not to eulogize him, for many who are better qualified to do so already have. I write this reluctantly, knowing that I had a long list of other things I had been planning to write on, but certain reactions from some Christians to Komla’s death have foisted this need on me. The matter is made worse by the fact that this is not the first time I’m noticing this behaviour.
The Faith Framework
Over the past few 5 decades or more, a certain wind of teaching has become ingrained in the mindset of Christians, which never quite existed in the mainstream of Christian history before the last 100 years. That wind of teaching has taught us certain ideas about faith, and how a Christian’s “success” in life is determined by how strong their faith is. As a result, the one who has the right kind of faith would never see suffering come their way, or will simply ride roughshod over it.
This teaching says that what one needs is to look through the bible like a treasure hunter in search of what it calls “the promises of God” and claim them for oneself. Inevitably enough, these promises always seem to center on health, wealth and prosperity. The key to receiving these “promises” is the measure of your faith. If your faith is “strong” or “high” enough, then you will indeed receive it. And if at the end of the day one doesn’t receive such “promises”, then there could only be 3 conclusions – first, most likely you have not exercised enough faith; second, that there is some secret sin in your life preventing you from receiving such a promise; third, that the devil or his agent(s) are working against you. This kind of faith leaves no room for questions, nor for tension. It claims to know all the answers and reduces everything into a person’s individual ability to make it work for them.
This framework of faith has become the defacto means by which a lot of Ghanaian Christians, especially those of the Charismatic fold, interpret everything that happens in this world. To such Christians then, it is very easy to associate someone like Komla Dumor’s meteoric rise to fame only in the scheme of God having prospered him. Such Christianity therefore always measures people by their earthly achievements, but fail miserably at the most important measure of both the OT and the NT – character development.
In their pursuit of such achievements, they ride roughshod over people (mostly poorer people), and take very little notice as to how they treat their fellow human, despite all that both Jesus and Paul says about how we treat others. Trust me, I know this failing, because I know many people who live by this framework, from family to friends, whose behaviour as Christians I sometimes shake my head woefully about.
And therefore the death of a “prospered” or “blessed” person like Komla is very, very hard for such a faith framework to swallow, since it leaves very little room for God to do what he desires to do, or for the fact that we human beings are not in control of this world. Having associated Komla’s rise to fame with “God’s promises of blessings and prosperity”, they then have to answer the question of why such a person will suffer cardiac arrest at age 41 and die. The only answer that this faith framework can produce is exactly what Mr Duncan Williams can produce – “this is not of God”, i.e. answer number 3.
The question one asks then is that in 2000 years of Christianity, has it always been the case that the Christians who warm the church pews regularly every Sunday, read the bible (or their pastor’s devotional) and pray 5 times a day, give their tithe faithfully (mostly without asking for an account of it’s usage) and holds hands and sings kumbaya with their fellow Christians lives to a ripe old age of 41 (sorry, 90) and has all the material blessings in the world?
Wow, what has Bill Gates been smoking all this while that’s keeping him alive and on top of the world’s rich list, when he’s not demonstrated any Christian belief? Or has he received some charms and amulets from the devil? What about the other billionaires in the Forbes rich list, who don’t even care a hoot about a church building, much less the message that emanates from it. Why are they still alive? They must be dead by now. This framework of faith expects it, even demands it if I dare say.
What about Keith Green, that wonderful Christian musician who sang the great song “There is a Redeemer” we used to sing a lot more when we were young in church, yet died at 29? What about Murray M’Cheyne, who also died at 29 himself, and yet did such wonderful missionary work in Palestine for the Church of Scotland? Did they not have faith? Were they not serving God? Were they smoking the wrong stuff (not Bill Gates’ stuff I guess)? I could go on citing examples of great Christians who died seemingly unfulfilled, but I guess the point is obvious.
And Yet, There is Hope
And yet in recent times I’ve been reading up on the Psalms and the background behind them, and I can only admire more the faith of both Judaism and early Christianity each day (hopefully I’ll write more on this background in the coming weeks). For the Psalms reflect the constant tension, ranging from disappointment in God for his seeming disappearance from the scene to praise of him for his wondrous deeds. But the one thing that Israelites always kept to, again captured in the Psalms, was that YHWH was a faithful god, and will bring his promise of redeeming the world through the nation Israel to pass, even when a large number of them had died in the exile to Babylon and all hope seemed to be lost.
And this belief is what lead to the hope in the resurrection of the dead. I intend to write much more extensively on the hope of resurrection in the coming weeks (I just received another 800 page book on it, so I have no choice), but I’ll give a small bit of it here by saying that their means of dealing with death and with the injustice of the world was the theology of resurrection. It is the background to what Paul says in 1 Thess 4.
“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thess 4:13)
Why does Paul says the rest of mankind has no hope? It is because the Jewish/early Christian ideas about resurrection of the dead was unique to them. Neither Stoicism nor Epicureanism which were the dominant worldviews of Paul’s time had a good answer for the righteous dying, nor in fact did Judaism/Christianity. But the one thing that Judaism/Christianity had was hope – hope that God will remake the world and bring heaven and earth together, and will resurrect the righteous to joyous living in that new world, and the unfaithful to judgement. And that is the right framework within which faith must work. Not in faith that says “I can control the world by my level of belief”, but one that says “I will be faithful to God in pursing his kingdom and his righteousness, and he will provide, in this life or the next”. (Mt 6:33)
Death is painful. Death is cruel. Death is an enemy and not a friend. And yet death is a tool, both in the hands of the creator God, and at the disposal of the devil. Let us be busy in being faithful about the work of the master, that we might participate in the resurrection of the righteous. When death will come, how it will come and through whom it will come is secondary.
The question is whether we are busy about his kingdom, or busy about ours?
Komla Dumor, rest in the father’s bossom, until we meet on that day. I wonder if we’ll need news in that new world, but you’ve certainly given us your best in this one.
Three weeks ago I attended the funeral of a cousin of mine in my hometown Gbi Kledzo, one of the towns of the Gbi Traditional area whose capital, Hohoe is currently under seige by communal violence. But don’t worry, today’s post is not going to be about the raging violence. Someday I will have something to say about that, but the time is not today. I’m currently reading JH Yoder’s “Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community before the Watching World”, and his thoughts have resonated with something that bothered me at my hometown, and I can’t rest without writing these down. So here I am this evening, goaded on by Yoder to address the attitude of the church towards education and ultimately towards poverty alleviation.
I attended the Sunday memorial service for my cousin held at the local “branch” of one of the most influential churches in the Volta Region, and I did enjoy the vim and vigour with which members sang so many theologically sound and deep songs in worship of God. In spite of the conditions of poverty that abounded in their midst, their attitude of praise was indeed miles ahead of many mega churches, I must say. This church tradition’s music is something I do admire a lot theologically, but music does not make the kingdom; actions do. And I do have a lot of friends who are members of this church so I’m not mentioning names. The point however is that this problem really goes beyond this church I attended alone. And so, I digress.
In the sermon, the preacher urged the members to be faithful in giving their weekly donations towards the building/funding of a university being built by the leadership of the denomination, as God will indeed bless them in this wise. Of course he made the usual run-around about offering and tithes, but that is a moot point if you are familiar with my view on these matters. Though this was not the greatest sermon I’d ever heard in my life, that was my point of departure, and my deviously fertile mind began to ask questions.
Seriously? Given the levels of poverty in this town, how many members of this church can actually be able to pay for their children’s education all the way to the university level? How many children graduate from the local primary school and even advance to SHS? What is the quality of education being received by the children of these church members to be able to compete with their colleagues in the big cities? Are these church members by virtue of their contribution to the building of this university going to get free tuition if by some miracle their children are able to make it past JHS? Is the church more interested in the empire building antiques of having a university in it’s name, or are they actually concerned about breaking the vicious cycle of poverty through education?
I listen to the political elite spew all sorts of propaganda about education, from making SHS education free to increasing enrollment through increasing capitation grants and school feeding programs, and none of them is tackling the cold hard issue – the quality of our education, whether free or not, abundant or few is simply going down the tube. And yet it is a universally accepted fact that it is better to have a smaller number of highly skilled people who are able to turn around and create wealth for the lower skilled people to benefit from, than for everybody to be illiterate. At the pace at which the world is advancing today, we must invest in bringing higher quality education to our children to be able to compete, to be able to break the cycle of poverty that exists in our communities. Instead today, quality education is the preserve of the rich and middle class, and that is the end of the matter. As usual with politicians, they have simply lost the plot.
Top Down, or Bottom Up?
And so when I see our Archbishops, Moderators, Presidents, General Overseers etc busily competing with each other to also build universities so they can put their church’s name on it, I’m indeed saddened. Are we interested in dealing with the problems at the root, or do we want to continue with the superficial window dressing, all in the name of empire building? If we are, then we must not be tackling the problem from the top (university level where it is always the easiest to do and we can make the most money to continue feeding the church elite) but rather begin to focus on the weak foundations (which admittedly is harder to do and will cost us more in time and energy, but whose effectiveness is well proven). If not, then I wonder what difference there is between the church and the political structures of the day?
Because as Jesus showed in Lk 4:18-21, his coming is the source of good news to the poor, the oppressed, the destitute and the imprisoned. Our unfamiliarity with the history of the times of second Judaism clouds our ability to understand Jesus in these texts. For his coming was supposed to break the oppression that was being meted out by the rich Jew on his fellow Jew who was in debt and had sold himself into slavery to repay the debt. As Ex 21:1-11 and Lev 25 showed, after 6 years of service, no matter how high the debt, people were to be set free. And after 50 years, all property sold as a result of poverty is to returned to the poor. But then as it is today, the heart of the rich in this world has not been very open to obedience to the word of God regarding how to treat the poor, and it’s not about to change anytime in this age and in this worldly kingdom.
And so if Christ’s coming is good news to the poor, how is the church using education as a tool to uplift the poor? How is building a university good news to the poor and oppressed in the Kledzo church, when their children will never be able to progress academically to get there? And who says that until a person is able to attend the university, they don’t have enough education to make a change in society? As my sister Priscilla put it at our church meeting this morning, “if Jesus is the head and we are the body, then we the body act out what the head has thought up. If not, we have become dysfunctional, and might end up in a mental institution, or at worst in the mortuary.”
And so I draw on a familiar story around me to make the point as to the Church’s ineffectiveness and lack of imagination when it comes to being the bearer of good news; I refer to the ability of someone from Norway to make millions from his business and give back to society not by donating to charities unknown or giving to the corrupt politicians in the government of Ghana to fill their pockets, but actually building a school to train software entrepreneurs in Africa. I refer to Jorn Lyseggen and to the Meltwater Enterprieneural School of Technology model only because here is a person attempting to deal with problems the hard way, but definitely the more effective way. In this particular circumstance as the popular saying goes, he has been more Catholic than the Pope, an effort worth commending.
The church has the greatest capacity to bring change in EACH COMMUNITY in which it is found, if it is minded to be faithful to its king and to his kingdom agenda. This is why Jesus said he will build his church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it. The kingdom of God is amongst us, and we must not collect people to fill up our pews only to build empires to fill up the elite leadership’s egos of importance. The Messianic age has already began now and the violent enter it by force (Mt 11:12) – we must not tell the poor to wait till they go to heaven to experience it. That theology is totally pagan (i.e. Greek) and has no Jewish underpinnings whatsoever.
Are we building up those whom God made in his own image and has rescued with his own blood, or are we creating empires for self-glorification?