Systemic Injustice and the Church

The nation is again in shock and outrage, this time over the murder of military officer, Captain Maxwell Adam Mahama. He was attacked, killed and his remains burnt by a lynch mob who mistook him for a thief during the deceased’s morning jog. He had actually been stationed in Diaso, a small town in the Central Region of Ghana, as part of an anti-galamsey task force. A few weeks ago I talked about how galamsey, illegal small scale mining, threatened to prevent ordinary Ghanaians from having affordable access to clean drinking water if it was not stopped immediately. It’s chilling how all sorts of evil are aggregating around that particular evil.

Apart from the young soldier who was killed being on the frontlines in the battle against the menace which has raised such a raucous public outcry, it is the visuals that has caused such a visceral public reaction. There is video footage and photo evidence of the brutal crime circulating on social media contrasted with pictures of the victim before his gruesome demise. There is a particular image of him which is so heart wrenching. It is a family picture of him with his wife and two young children. Everything about the picture is so idyllic; a young, handsome well-built man surrounded by his beautiful and happy family. The fact that he was robbed of this in doing something dutiful and patriotic over senseless mob violence has touched the Ghanaian public to the core. However, lynching and mob action is something that is all too common in our part of the world.

When you hear his story as a Ghanaian you are very well aware that you too could be a victim of vicious mob action, even if you innocent, over the pettiest theft accusation like stealing a phone. Recently, a woman who was accused of being a thief in Kumasi, the city where I live, was mercilessly beaten and raped in broad day light by a mob, and again the horrifying footage is in circulation. Many comment why some record these harrowing incidents and stand idly by why they happen. Don’t they have the presence of mind, the conscience, the basic humanity to do something about it? Public voyeurism is one of the more troubling elements of the fallen human condition made only worse by new technology to cultivate and expand this perverse appetite. However in truth, as a nation we are all passive spectators.

Whether it is galamsey or mob action, they have always been part of us and there has never been a concerted national effort in our 60-year history to drive them out. While we are caught in the furore of the moment, and rightly so, I can’t help but feel we are missing the bigger point or perhaps it is more appropriate to say we don’t want to face it. These instances as I have indicated and every Ghanaian knows are nowhere near isolated. There is a pattern, a pattern which indicates our nation is fundamentally broken and one of the systems that has failed is justice. In just the last two years there have been major public scandals that all point to massive system injustice. Whether it is the Anas Aremeyaw Anas exposé of endemic judicial corruption, the Montie 3 saga, or the NPP affiliated vigilante groups among other scandals show not just a legal failure but a societal failure. Those are only larger public manifestations of a deeper societal disease that runs in the very blood of what it means to be Ghanaian and is symptomatic of the human condition. We are an unjust people.

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

“Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.”

“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”

“Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.”

“There is no fear of God before their eyes.” – Romans 3:10-18 ESV

Let’s examine mob action for example. The reason why mobs take action is because they are well aware that when these issues are taken to court, justice can easily be subverted through bribe or bureaucracy. So they decide to take matters in their own hands. However, it is equally unjust to be a self-appointed judge and arbitrator. Even the guilty have rights. Yet even at the university, a setting I have lived in almost all my life, where the best young minds are educated, lynching happens as well. Not everyone in our society will participate but most people approve or passively accept that is the way things are. The mob mentality only can arise out of a society’s mind set which goes to show we are intrinsically an unjust society.

The systemic inequity and injustice that is part of our national identity is blatantly obvious yet somehow the institutional church promotes the lie that somehow Ghana is a righteous nation. There is spirit of Ghanaian exceptionalism, that somehow we are God’s special nation on the African continent and perhaps only second to Israel. I know that seems ridiculous but the Ghanaian Christian is aware, at least in charismatic settings, how Ghana is often couched theologically as an African Israel. The connection is actually made through the prosperity gospel which is very pervasive since it already matches the indigenous worldview. A crucial part of many variants of prosperity theology is Christian Zionism. Because they ground their theology on the Old Testament promises of material prosperity to ancient Israel to appropriate these blessings they see themselves and the nation as spiritual successors to biblical Israel. It is a full theology that is complete with a dispensationalist eschatology that has the modern state of Israel at the centre. (Daniel Hummel over at First Things magazine explores this fascinating connection between African Pentecostalism and global Christian Zionism.) As fundamentally flawed as I think dispensationalism and Christian Zionism are, I will grant them for the sake of the argument so we can assess what image of Israel the Ghanaian Church best resembles.

The consistent biblical picture of Israel is of a people with enormous, unparalleled divine privilege with a chequered history of periodically squandering and abusing their unique position. Yet they have a faithful God and Master who continues to honour the ancient promises he made to their forefathers even though their descendants are far from faithful. If anything Ghana resembles apostate Israel. If we consider ourselves as God’s elect people in the vain of Israel, then we are undoubtedly backslidden. In apostasy, systemic inequality and injustice were common complaints of the prophets from Jeremiah to Micah, Ezekiel to Malachi against the people of God, the very same things our nation is rife with.  Bribery, the subversion of justice, bullying and intimidation by the powerful, all things we regularly see today in Ghana, were common issues then. In the Old Testament God was constantly weary of fasting, prayer and offerings to him, going through the motions of religious worship, all the while disobeying him. If the God of the Bible is unchanging then I can confidently say he is also fed up with what we do in church pestering him for a blessing, crying that he should hear us, even though we do not listen to him. God said and continues to says, their lips honour me but their hearts are far away. He was so fed up with this empty ritual observance that he destroys the temple and sends his own people he rescued from slavery into exile. If we take these parallels seriously we would not see ourselves as a nation which has special divine favour but one over which divine judgment ominously looms. We are behaving precisely like the Gentile nations Israel was not to imitate but be a light to.

Now there are some Christians who do recognize that the nation needs to repent but the problem is they hold those revival meetings within the cloistered walls of their church. They do not oppose the wrong they see in their churches, homes, workplaces and communities. They are too preoccupied with private piety in ensuring their personal prosperity and an even more prosperous here after. They have got heaven on their mind, damning earth to be a preview of hell.

Continuing with the analogy of Israel our failure to watch is comparable to the bad shepherds of Ezekiel who were selfish and did not care for the sheep. We have abdicated our watching posts and have failed to be a prophetic voice to the culture. Ezekiel offers a scathing critique of Israelite leadership who had aided and abetted through their action or inaction, the systemic injustice among other sins the nation was guilty of. The prophet takes to task other prophets, the priests, elders and the royal court, all their leaders. Interestingly, the failure in spiritual leadership represented by the priest and prophets, was mirrored in the failure of their political leaders, represented by the elders and royalty. In Ghana the failures we see in the church’s own leadership is quite similar to the failure we see in leadership in society. The church has serious cultural power but we have taken our position and the privileges that come with it and abused them just like our political leaders. We do not disciple people to be a new sort of humanity that subverts the dominant social narrative of self-serving and apathy. We have not modelled an alternative community where truth, justice and equity rule. This is far more than social justice; it is about God’s just rule over the world.

One of the core revelations in scripture about God is that he is just. Moses says,

For I will proclaim the name of the LORD; ascribe greatness to our God!

“The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.” – Deuteronomy 32:3-4 ESV

David paints a comprehensive vision of divine justice in this Psalm.

But the LORD sits enthroned forever; he has established his throne for justice,

and he judges the world with righteousness; he judges the peoples with uprightness.

The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.

And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek you.

Sing praises to the LORD, who sits enthroned in Zion! Tell among the peoples his deeds!

For he who avenges blood is mindful of them; he does not forget the cry of the afflicted.

 – Psalm 9:7-12 ESV

There are many such Psalms, passages and instances in scripture that deal with the question of justice. Habakkuk famously confronts God over the injustice he sees done to the people by the Assyrians. Justice is nowhere near a peripheral concern in the Bible because God is a just king. Therefore, in representing this just God, justice became a major preoccupation of the prophets, which explains the divinely infused passion with which they decried the injustices of their day. We have failed to be a prophetic witness, a counter culture to the unjust Ghanaian way. As for our so-called public prophets, none of them resemble the biblical prophets who hungered for justice. When you look at the Beatitudes or his inaugural message in Luke 4, justice was a central to Jesus’ gospel proclamation. It is Jesus himself who said blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for justice. That statement was taken right out of the playbook of the prophets. It is a consistent theme that runs through the scriptures from Old to New.

The problem is we reduce righteousness into private moral absolution to secure a good afterlife. This is more like a pagan understanding of the idea than a fully biblical appraisal of it. Righteousness is a rich concept in scripture. It is primarily a justice word and we should not think of the former without the latter. Yes, it does involve moral behaviour and religious piety but it means so much more being rooted in events in the course of human affairs. It about something that happens in the real world of human activity.

As Paul elucidates in Romans, the cross is the ultimate act of justice, God’s own justice breaking into the world dismantling the power of the oppressor, freeing humans enslaved to the power of evil. When he then says in 2 Corinthians 5:21 that believers are the righteousness of God in the Messiah he is not merely talking about a lack of quilt. He says that in the context of God’s new creation project in the Messiah in which we have been incorporated. Being his righteousness therefore means participating in God’s programme of implementing his justice in the world. This part of his overarching agenda to restoring the world which he accomplished through Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross. The cross generates an ethic of self-sacrificing love, sharing, mercy, tenderness, truth, courage, faithfulness and all the qualities that are admonished in the epistles, through the power of the Spirit. Through these things the church becomes an alternative community that models and previews a renewed world in which God’s justice rules.

The Ghanaian church has failed to be this alternative. We have formed an unholy mix of church and culture and been complicit in the injustice done in the country. We are not showing a different way to be Ghanaian, a Ghanaian faithfully under the Lordship of Jesus. We are not showing a different way to be human, which being born again in the Messiah is all about. No when you read the New Testament with a bit of its background in the ancient Greco-Roman, you are quickly struck by how countercultural the church was. In the average Ghanaian church, we are not taught to be different. There are no real demands or any social cost to the version of culturally adulterated Christianity that is taught. There were probably pious church-goers in the mob that murdered the officer, a representative of God’s authority in the world. At the very least some were spectators. They are representative of us, the Ghanaian church, that has colluded with the world.

 

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