Warnings from the West (Part II)

There is a lesson for a neo-Christianized nation like Ghana in America’s recent political upheaval. First of all, there are important religious parallels between Ghana and the U.S. Mind you these are general overarching similarities. There are also important differences. The biggest resembltraance is Christianity enjoyed cultural dominance in both secular pluralistic states. This is no longer the case in the U.S but we must take note that Ghanaian secularism and American secularism are very distinct from one another. Our respective political histories influence our cultures today. Both nations were former British colonies but the history of their respective founding and independence are very different. For one native people and their indigenous cultures remained in Ghana. Therefore the cultural syncretism we have in Ghana is that somehow Christian values are consistent with pre-existing traditional values because Christian ethics promotes the best in society. This is similar to what many Christian American’s believe but we must keep in view the origin and form of Ghanaian conservatism is not the same as American conservatism.

In both forms of conservatism, Christianity is culturally dominant and is deemed as good for the society. It fosters a kind of religious patriotism. There is a similar sentiment among Ghanaian and American Christians about the exceptionality of their respective nations. It makes your country not only the theological centre of the world but divinely chosen as well. If you have the numbers and you think it is self-evident Christianity is good for everyone’s health, it is not difficult to make the leap to your nation being divinely appointed. In Christianity where you have stories of Israel as God’s chosen people it makes it easier to appropriate that status for yourself. It is unsurprising that many Christians here and in the States are religiously pro-Israel, no matter what they do. Though Ghanaian believers may not be able to financially support the state of Israel, they completely support them morally and spiritually. Part of this religious exceptionalism is due to the exceptional nature of each nation’s founding.

“The greatest nation on earth” is historically unique. It is a nation made of diverse immigrants. The great American experiment of E Pluribus Unum is still ongoing even though it faces great challenges some of which are truly unprecedented in world history. Ghana is the Black Star of Africa. The first sub-Saharan country to gain independence in 1957. At that time it was trailblazing in Africa with so much potential to be the best Africa had to offer. Unlike the US we did not prosperously move on to economic, political and cultural dominance globally or even in our own corner of Africa. From the get go we have largely failed over and over again. Yet the rise and dominance of Christianity in Ghana has afforded many people hope that God can still make something out of this nation. The Nkrumahist “Black Star of Africa” mentality stubbornly persists and in my estimation has carried over, albeit in a revised form, into a popular theology of the nation. It is not uncommon for Ghanaians to compare their nation to biblical Israel as they see in some regard to be spiritually chosen by God. In the local Charismatic community there are a lot prophetic murmurings that Ghana is the nation to lead Africa into a new age of prosperity but first spiritual renewal must occur. With this in mind, as well inhabiting a culturally “Christian” environment, the Ghanaian church essentially has the sentiments if not a loose cultural form Christendom.

The problem with Christendom is not only that it failed in Europe, it was not what God intended. I fully understand why Christians went along with Constantine. After being marginalized from the very beginning, to now gain political power was a singular opportunity that was very difficult to decline. I am a firm believer that Christian faith should not be politically enforced, formally or informally in any society. I am not saying we should not involve ourselves in politics but rather through dialogue, debate, advocacy and modelling the change we want to see in society, we should convince the public to accept our views. The Church should not institutionally wield political power. Even if she does have the opportunity she should resist the temptation. Power is a good thing but the church was not made to have political power, particularly state-backed power. The Church can and must partner with the State to do good and perform justice but when we are in bed with the powers that be, we inadvertently fall prey to the trappings of power. This is exactly what happened in post-Constantine Christianity. We cannot effectively challenge the State when it goes wrong when we are in an unholy alliance with them. The early Christians were pro-governance, largely regardless of the form it took, but they were not necessarily in support of everything the government did. Revelation for instance is a stinging critique of the Roman Empire. Speaking truth to power was the Christian vocation and to do that the Church cannot be unequally yoked to the State. Jesus taught his disciples that they were going to do power the other way round,

And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. – Luke 22:25-27 ESV

After saying these things Jesus went to the cross. He saw his crucifixion as the sacrifice that would save them from the shadow of God’s judgment through the power of Rome if they believed in him. As Caiaphas unwittingly said, only one man needed to die for the whole nation. Unfortunately Jesus’ warnings, like the prophets before him, largely fell on deaf ears as he lamented,

For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry? – Luke 23:31 ESV

As he predicted a few decades later the Temple was destroyed and Jerusalem fell to the power of Rome. Even in a setting where religious and political identity could not be as easily separated as it is today Jesus’ exhorted his people not to use political power which manifested in military action. He rather taught repentance, that from the heart the nation should take a new direction of rededication to the spirit of the scriptures. This meant the forgiveness of their enemies, domestic and foreign so to speak, as God had also forgiven them according to his great mercy. There is a tendency for God’s people to takes God’s kingdom into their own hands in an attempt to fulfil God’s will. Jerusalem and Rome are clear examples that is not the way to go. It may initially bring prosperity and stability but it comes with a long term debilitating cost.

The Protestant Reformation was only the beginning of the end of Christendom. In many ways Europe has still never recovered from. It was a revolutionary response to the gross excesses of the Vatican. Protestants have themselves ironically suffered from the failed attempt to create their own protestant states. Faith in the God of Jesus in Christ in those same European states is fast dwindling. In another ironic twist it is the missionary zeal of African immigrants that is helping revive the faith of the nations who first preached the Gospel to them. The largest church in Europe is pastored by a Nigerian. In the US it is much better yet Christian faith is still in decline under the totalizing onslaught of militant secularism and boundless pluralism. Another consequence of Christendom is that in India the second most populous country on earth, Christianity has struggled to gain a strong foothold because it is hard for Indians to dissociate it from the old British Empire and its oppressions.

The thing with Christendom or a cultural form of it anyway, is that it gives believers a false sense of security. The central symbols of Christendom seemed impregnable as the institutional Church’s viewpoint coloured every aspect of life. Christendom looked like it would never fall but it went the way of all earthly empires. Christian values which were the pillars of Western are constantly being attacked. Within just a generation things can drastically change. Ghanaian cultural Christianity may be dominant but that may not always be the case. Sometimes the calm is truly the precursor to the storm. Yet there are always signs and omens in the cultural atmosphere. Unfortunately we seem to distinctly lack Arthur Schlesinger’s “mystic prophets of the absolute” to read these portents, the ever vigilante preachers and champions of Christian values. None of our prominent prophets are even talking about this, a cardinal sign that Ghanaian Christianity is spiritually comatose. Sometimes they see a possible threat from Islam but for me nominal Christianity is the real danger. Apathy in the Church is an insidious evil which like a cancer will cripple us from within. We have so many prophets, peddlers of the spectacular to a desperate clientele, but we lack genuine prophetic voices who can truly read the times and see where Church and the country is heading. They lack the depth to discern how the culture is changing and evolving. Who will then will warn us if unparalleled revolution is before us?

I have already talked about my love for apologetics. What I noticed about it as a discipline is that it is essentially a late response to a decline in faith. It is assumes a defensive stance especially in the context of the American culture wars. Whether it is too little too late remains to be seen but most Christian apologists will tell you the signs were there. Yet most believers slept blissfully unaware of the seismic social changes that were on the horizon. Similarly in Ghana we are comfortably Christian, in a way even more so than Western believers were a generation ago. There is a common attitude in Ghana that we all know God. People often say “even God doesn’t like…” or some other iteration of what God supposedly wants. These non-biblical assumptions among other things shows a general complacency when it comes to Christianity. Beyond an unscrutinised public profession of faith, not being averse to attending church, knowledge of a few Sunday school memory verses and doing your best not to be a bad person, there is really nothing more to being Christian in this country.

The Ghanaian church warmly accommodates nominal Christianity. I suppose it is better than not being a Christian at all but I seriously wonder if there is any practical difference. Yes, we do push for commitment but to the denomination and not necessarily the Faith. Instead of thinking of ourselves as a Christian nation we should rather see ourselves as a country with a lot of nominal Christians. Perhaps, if the figures were probed deeper we would see the real picture. The high levels of corruption that plague the country are a massive indicator we are only culturally Christian. Ethics is an integral part of Christian faith so if we were as devout as the numbers seem to suggest then corruption should not be seen to this extent. Our cavalier attitude towards certain moral values and sometimes outright moral failure, especially among church leaders and church goers, constitutes a serious challenge to Christianity. Even among some very devout believers, such things make them question Christianity. What about those who do not believe?

What if a serious concerted intellectual challenge was mounted against Christianity in Ghana? There is more than enough evidence to make a case against the privileged position of the Ghanaian church. I fear that we are left ridiculously exposed to such an attack. A possible scenario would be the scandal of occultism happening in one of Ghana’s flagship secondary schools, Wesley Girls, which happened some months ago. I posted an article on the problem with both the public and the schools administration response to the issue. Essentially the administration of the confiscated the alleged occult book, which turned out to be actually sectarian, because it was in conflict with the Methodist sensibilities of school authorities. Though I do not support the doctrines espoused in the book at the centre of the controversy, as an organization under the authority of a division of a democratic state, I questioned whether the school had any right to do what it did. Even if it was occult as long as it does violate any law of the land, like it or not, it is a constitutionally protected expression of religious freedom. After all traditional religion is inherently occultic yet it is cheerfully represented at state functions.

Even though Christianity is culturally dominant Ghana is a secular state. Yes, the actions of the school were lauded by the public and parents were calling on the Ghana Education Service to do more but is it constitutional defensible. Imagine if someone took such a case court? I am no lawyer but it seems to me the schools would be in trouble. There have been landmark cases in the US that have gone against Christian values largely because believers have failed to properly appreciate what it means to have a secular government. If legal action was taken in that regard it may not cause an immediate change but it could serve as a precedent for more challenges in the future. Antichristian organizations are often willing to back these moves in developing nations as we have witnessed or at least had indication of in some African countries. I am not sure of the form future challenges might take but I am sure the Ghanaian Church needs to be on guard. Perhaps, we will not face intellectual or legal opposition like in Europe and North America did but I do not think Ghanaian Christianity is robust enough to withstand an organized challenge.

Nominal Christianity, that is faith by birth and not choice, in nations of European heritage could ultimately could not with stand a vigorous challenge. Perhaps, that is what precisely the Ghanaian church needs. A crisis, a shaking to its core so only what is true remains. It may be immediately uncomfortable but in the long run the Faith will be strengthened. Whatever be the case we should not automatically assume Christianity will always enjoy its privileged cultural status. In the Majority World where Christianity is on the rise we must learn from what happened in Europe and is happening in America. The presumption that Christianity’s influence is an intractable given is a lie. Let us not repeat their mistakes. We must remember we are not of this world therefore we should always have the mind-set of the marginalized. We are outsiders and we should never aspire to be insiders. We should be in the world but not of it. We should never get too comfortable.

⇐Part I

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