Over 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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).
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.
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.