An Old Russian Dissident and the Black Ghana Man

Today I was listening to one of my favourite podcasts and I was reminded of the old prophetic voice of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and how right he was about Western culture all those decades ago. One of his most famous lines is that the dividing line between good and evil does run between peoples and countries but within every person’s heart. Here was a man who spent time as a captive in the frozen hell of the old soviet gulag but refused to identify the other as the problem. I do not know very well his religious beliefs but his recognition of the human problem, not the problem with some humans, is thoroughly Christian. Solzhenitsyn understood sin was the problem.

I believe it was Malcolm Muggeridge who said that sin is the most empirically verifiable human reality yet the most intellectually resisted. Sin is such an ugly, unsettling word but it is so appropriate in understanding our predicament. The Ghanaian national predicament also needs the sin diagnosis but not in the usual way your average street preacher would put it. It is a common thing to have the “obibini” black, Ghana man complaint. It usually goes like there is something within the makeup of the average Ghanaian/African that makes it impossible for us to succeed, where success is measured by the prosperity of the West. We then go on to say there is something in their constitution, either mental or even biological, which makes them just prone to get things right. During a couple of conversations I’d have with a friend of mine not too long ago I realised how wrong that entire narrative was.

As a great lover of football, the FIFA corruption scandal that rocked the world, was an event that forcefully brought home what the real problem was. Here was a thoroughly European man, Sepp Blatter, behaving precisely like a typical corrupt African leader. Mr Blatter’s behaviour thoroughly showed that given the right opportunities people will behave immorally. The only difference is that the West has had ideas and time to develop social structures to prevent the manifestation of certain human corruptions. In spite of the prosperity that makes the eyes of the average Ghanaian glisten, the West has its own problems too. If given the right conditions we do show our moral depravity, it is actually not a “black man” or a “Ghana man” issue but a human sin problem. The great usefulness of the concept of sin in this case is that it paints a stark picture of reality and it is uncompromisingly democratic. We are equally sinners. It isn’t that Westerners are superior to us or the other way around. Once we see the problem for what it is, a deep and terrible aspect of the human condition, it can then be addressed properly. It isn’t necessarily giving up Ghanaian ways of doing things or assimilating western ways, but first rethinking what it means to be human, what then should a person do to flourish before we ask how this impacts our “Ghanaian-ness” in all of its disparate aspects.

In essence we have collectively been making the wrong analysis by looking superficially at what appears to be the problem instead of what actually is the problem. Instead of a total repudiation of who we are I am equally not advocating an extreme nationalism where by everything made in Ghana is automatically good. One of the criticisms of post-colonial Pan-Africanism I have is that it says everything African is good which is manifestly untrue. We need an honest evaluation of ourselves. Being human is a noble, excellent thing but it doesn’t negate the awful paradox of the capacity and tendencies for evil, even great evil, lies within each one of us. The human condition is fundamentally and fatally flawed. It is like a great beauty terribly marred. Doubly horrifying knowing what it ought to be and how far it has fallen from it. As a nation we constantly debate how tinkering with our social, political and economic structures will produce the prosperity we so desperately crave. Yes the problem is systemic but not one of organizational policy and implementation but rather the condition of each person’s heart.

Of course our various systems matter immensely but they ultimately rest on the behaviour and actions of people. When we look at many of the major issues that have plagued this country since independence like corruption, bribery, theft and mismanagement of state resources, lawlessness, negligence, cronyism, nepotism, deception etc., are essentially moral problems. Corruption literally costs us billions of cedis each year. There is truly a price we pay as a people for immorality. Not only have our leaders been guilty of this but as a people we have colluded with them. Even the church has failed to recognise that the dividing line between the success and the failure of the nation has been a moral one, which lies within the heart of every ordinary citizen as choices are made every moment between good and evil.

The truth is that when it comes to our nation, it is virtue that will save it. It is not merely being law abiding but having a strong sense and conviction in the practical value doing of what is good, right and just. Unless we have genuine love and compassion for the poor and the disadvantaged, we will never be invested as a society, not least our leaders, in truly combating these social evils with an aim to win. If we do not overcome the baser, selfish desires of the human heart, as a nation we will not see prosperity.

As I earlier said, though it is an uncomfortable sin is a very useful term in understanding the human condition. No other worldview presents a starker representation of this horrible reality of the human heart than the Christian worldview. The church needs to be bold and recover its voice in speaking truth to power, even when it means testifying again those in authority. The church needs to regain its prophetic voice and declare that as a nation we have failed because we have sinned as a society. I am not saying that God has cursed us with a biblical plague but I am simply pointing out we cannot flourish as a people when we are constantly cheating and disregarding one another, worst of all saying it is all OK. Above all political, economic and social strategy, Ghana needs good biblical repentance, turning away from it historic sins to a renewed life guided by mercy and justice. It is only then that our prayers for divine favour will be heard.

Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people. – Proverbs 14:34 ESV

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