This is the first of a 2 part series of posts on the phenomenon of unbiblical understandings of “grace” that permeates Ghanaian Christianity.
Readers of my blog will notice that I have a problem with the way Ghanaian cultural Christianity uses the term “grace”. The hegemony that this term “grace” holds here (which I consider a distortion of what the bible actually means by the word “grace”) is encapsulated in the almost required response amongst cultural Christians to the simple greeting “How are you?”. If one answers with “by the grace of God I’m fine”, then one is considered a well brought-up Ghanaian Christian. If not, you might be required to bring your parents over for questioning on the kind of “upbringing” you were given.
But as I delve more into reading about the beliefs, culture and history of the Old Testament (a culture scholars refer to as the Ancient Near East i.e. ancient Israel and their Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Canaanite and Hittite neighbours), the greater the similarities I find between these beliefs and those of traditional and even modern Ghanaian culture. It has caused me to reflect a lot on things I have heard since I was old enough to process my culture around me, and increasingly I’m coming to a very important conclusion – long before the modern abuses of “grace” came along, our traditional orthodox churches failed to challenge the worldview of retributive justice that existed in our African cultures (and most other cultures worldwide), and that failure is coming back to bite us really hard in the ass in this modern, fast-paced, individualistic and pluralistic world. And for those reading this who may not be Ghanaian, in Ghana we use the term “orthodox churches” to refer not to either Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox churches, but rather to the churches founded by European missionary efforts i.e. the Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, AME, Roman Catholic etc who dominated the landscape before the rise of Pentecostalism and its junior brother – Charismatism.
Now, let me explain myself.
Retributive Justice in the Old Testament
Scholars point out that in the Ancient Near Eastern world, many people believed the gods to be intricately involved in the affairs of men, especially in their fortunes or misfortunes. The right worship of the gods (aka righteousness) led to the receipt of blessings from them. Consequently, it was also assumed that misfortune was as a result of the anger of the god(s) due to a failure in worshiping the gods or doing their bidding, whether one knew what one’s failure was or not. Hence, scholars use the term “retributive justice” to mean the following beliefs .
The god(s) reward righteous behaviour with blessings of material prosperity.
The corollary was this – misfortune could only be explained as resulting from the anger of the god(s) at one’s personal or inherited “unrighteous” behaviour.
This belief was also dominant amongst the people of Israel as expressed towards Yahweh, and is reflected in the Old Testament. The Psalms are full of passages about the Lord blessing the righteous and punishing the wicked, and this whole post will be taken up with examples if I attempt to give them.
However, some authors within the Old Testament began to question Yahweh about why the wicked were rather being blessed instead of the righteous. Many Psalms (like Ps 94) question God for allowing the wicked to rather prosper, calling on him to punish them immediately. The author of Ps 73 consoles himself about Yahweh’s eventual punishment of the wicked in the long run, even if not immediately.
The book of Proverbs is especially guilty of preaching the “righteous will always be blessed” mantra, leading to the notion that one can only be blessed with material prosperity if God explicitly gives it to you. No actual effort of yours counts towards this.
“The blessing of the Lord brings wealth, without painful toil for it.” (Prov 10:22)
Thankfully, other wisdom books like the book of Job, Lamentations and Ecclesiastes were written to counter this simplistic thinking by the people of Israel. Sadly they seem to have made little impact in changing their minds about retributive justice, and even in the New Testament, Jesus’s disciples ask questions which reflect such thinking in John’s Gospel.
“His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” (Jn 9:2)
Enter Traditional Ghanaian Determinism
Many Ghanaians, including many well educated pastors and church leaders, have a deterministic view of life, drenched in traditional African notions of destiny. Traditionally Ghanaians express a belief in their god(s) already determining their destiny (“hyebre” in the Twi language), with the notion that if one doesn’t stray from the path that has been laid out for you by the god(s) (by correctly and constantly worshipping the god(s) and obeying their commands), then one will reach this destiny – which most of the time is hoped to be a materially prosperous one. If one’s life is turning out to be difficult, the best one can do is to plead with their god(s) to “change their destiny” (“sesa me hyebre” in the Twi language), so that at some point in the near future, prosperity will be their portion. Because one is not in control of one’s destiny, it presupposes that one is at the mercy of one’s god(s). The choice to give you a “good” destiny is in the hands of the god(s), and therefore it is a gift to you if one receives a “good” destiny. The Twi term for being gifted something one doesn’t deserve (or isn’t in control of) is “adom”, and that is how the word “grace” in the bible is translated in Twi bibles – “adom”. Hence, if one is doing materially well, has bought a new car, has gotten married or is generally alive and not dead, one must acknowledge the god(s) for this by saying “eye Nyame Adom” i.e. “it is by God’s grace”. A well brought up Ghanaian, when commended for some good fortune, is expected to say “it is by grace oh, not my doing”. Hence, the Ghanaian cultural expectation of the response “I’m fine by God’s grace” to the simple question of “How are you?” .
Now, do you see where I’m going with this? Do you see the similarities between this way of traditional Ghanaian thinking and those of retributive justice as evident in some parts of the bible? And do you see how our European missionaries and their Ghanaian counterparts who took over from them have failed to see where they are reading the bible with Ghanaian cultural eyes and assuming that it lines up with their pre-existing beliefs, despite both Old and (especially) New Testament evidence to the contrary?
The Effects of this Syncretism
Because these Ancient Near Eastern beliefs reflected in especially the Old Testament are quite compatible with this traditional Ghanaian (and largely African) worldview, Christianity, despite all it’s positive achievements in Ghana, has also had a very dark side in the Ghanaian experience. Here are some of its effects.
It is very difficult to question the source of a church member’s riches in a Ghanaian church. Because the bible expresses God’s desire for righteous people to be materially prosperous, and because of passages like Prov 10:22 quoted above, it is assumed that God must have given the person these riches. Hence, God’s will has been confused with God’s causation.
Because God is assumed to have actively caused people to become materially rich, it is not surprising for people who have gained wealth through all sorts of nefarious and illegal means to be immediately elevated to positions of huge influence in our churches, and to be treated specially. This may not necessarily be due to an attempt to benefit from their riches, but an inherent assumption that this person must be a “righteous” person to be that “blessed” by God.
Given the above 2 effects, church leaders typically resign themselves to benefiting from such “blessed” people for the benefit that their wealth will bring to the church’s ABCs – attendance, buildings and cash. Afterall, God has already placed their “stamp” on such people, so who are they to ask questions but just to “tap into such blessings”.
Listening to Ghanaian gospel music, one can see how it has become saturated with “Eye Adom” (it’s by grace) and “Hyebre” (destiny) and “Nhyira” (material prosperity). These sound deceptively biblical, but are purely based on a traditional Ghanaian worldview than by the worldview defined by Jesus and especially the New Testament.
Traditionally, Western Christianity has been guilty of “spiritualizing” the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says “Blessed are the poor” (Lk 6:20) instead of usual “blessed are the rich” of retributive justice, by a flawed interpretation of Matthew’s version “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Mt 5:3). By his declaration that “the kingdom of God is at hand”, Jesus turns the retributive justice principle on its head, urging the church communities to take active steps in elevating the poor from their status, which one sees in the book of Acts and the life of the New Testament and early church. However, “Blessed are the poor” taken literally, sounds totally against every fibre within the bone of our traditional Ghanaian “God must bless me” worldview.
These deterministic beliefs undermine the need for hardwork. Despite all our lip service about the importance of hard work, we preach and act as if hard work isn’t necessary to material prosperity. Using passages like Prov 10:22, we keep our people in church for so many hours, engaged in myriads of “church programmes” because that is the means by which we show our “righteousness”. Coupled with giving to the church, this is preached as the means by which God will “bless” us. Given that 70% of Ghanaians are Christians, is it surprising that we as a nation remain poor?
Ghanaian Christians live with a very huge cognitive dissonance. Despite all their “good worship” of God, our nation continues to wallow in poverty. We keep quoting the portions of scripture that tell us that being righteous will lead to us being materially prosperous, whiles the Japanese, Chinese, Indians etc who largely don’t even care about Christianity are living much better lives in terms of material prosperity than we do, and are giving us loans and grants. Confront church leaders with this, and they’ll give you some flimsy reasons, just like the people of the OT when it comes to why the wicked prosper.
The Seeds Have Always Been There
The only reason why our “orthodox” Christian churches were a bit reserved in their endorsement of materialism (as compared to the modern Charismatic movement and it’s love affair with Word of Faith teachings) was because they had a much larger focus on saving souls from hell to heaven. Now that the seeds of syncretism that they planted regarding an incorrect view of divine determinism and “grace” are being taken advantage of by these prosperity preachers, leading to a loss of church membership, our “orthodox churches” are beginning to sound more and more like their Word of Faith counterparts.
In the next post, I will explain how the Ghanaian Charismatic church (which has largely imbibed Word of Faith teaching so much it’s difficult to find a non-WOF Charismatic church in Ghana) is hammering the word “grace” out of all proportion in the pursuit of material wealth.