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A Holy Man was once chased far from town by a crowd of a few thousand people, each of whom wanted something different from him:

Health. Purpose. Freedom. Signs. Wonders.

Touched by the weight of their need, he walked among them and healed as many as possible for as long as he could. But that only satisfied a part of the crowd. His apprentices grew concerned: the sun was setting, their location was remote, and, unless they left immediately, all the food sellers would be closed before anyone made it back home.

The Holy Man heard them out, balancing patience with impatience. Had they not heard this story before? He asked if they had any food they could share out, but all they had found was a small stash of bread and fish donated by a little boy:

Five loaves and two little fishes.

Though his apprentices were an often-bumbling bunch, he could tell they were being sincere. But he knew how unlikely it was that – in a crowd of thousands – the only person with any food was one boy. He knew what he had to do, but wished he didn’t: he wished they would all just believe. But people have a need for spectacle.

They need to be fed.

So, he had his apprentices each find a basket. Then he had them calm the crowd down, seating everyone in groups of fifty. And once they were the only ones left standing, he said a prayer of thanks; asking God to bless what the little boy had so selflessly shared. Then he broke each loaf and put a little food in each basket, asking his apprentices to make sure everyone received some. They stared at him, but he smiled and, having learned to trust that smile, they went.

And that’s when the miracle happened:

The baskets went around, those who lacked took and, inspired by the example of a selfless little boy, those who didn’t lack gave. And there was so much that each of the apprentices brought back a full basket. They marvelled, and the people – having each received what they needed – left.

And the Holy Man shook his head and smiled at how these events would end up being told.

Montie: a Time for Anger

“If this country collapses, we will start from the homes of those who say it should collapse. I’ve told you and God has also opened the way. These judges who are trying to put oxygen in the raging fire, I know all their houses. I know where the judges live in Accra here. I can show you. I know their quarters; the Supreme Court Judges. I also know the High Court Judges. If they dare, they should bring something, it will start in their residences, in their neighbourhoods…”

“When we finish them, then it’s over. Then we come and govern our country because they don’t wish this country well so they have to go. When we say farewell to them, then those of us who wish well for this country can hold on to the country and govern this country. So you, they should sit there and think because they are Supreme Court judges, they can do anything…”

For reasons I’m yet to understand, I have deep reserves of patience. I can end a year counting on one hand the number of times I’ve felt anger. It’s usually a brief feeling. My brain kicks in: “What’s the point? Let it go.” I usually do.

Last week was different. I spent parts of it trying to contain an anger in my chest, keeping it from crushing my lungs, wrapping itself around my throat, and choking me from within, on its way to my lips.

The Montie Affair

Last week, the Supreme Court found three men from the radio station ‘Montie FM’ – Salifu Maase, Godwin Ako Gunn & Alistair Tairo Nelson – guilty of contempt, sentencing them each to four months in prison and a hefty fine. They had threatened members of the Court with violence and death during a live broadcast (more or less thirty-four years to the day that the body out of which the ruling party was born infamously killed three high court judges).

In response to the court’s judgment, a petition has been created, asking President Mahama to pardon the trio through a constitutional provision that gives him the discretion to do so. It has apparently amassed thousands of signatures, including those of several high-profile ministers of state whose inclusion has raised many an eyebrow.

The arguments for freeing the Trio vary. While there is some consensus that the crime was indeed grave, there is also consensus that the four-month sentence was ‘harsh’ (strange: I understand it is not the maximum sentence for such crimes) and that the three should be freed, as ‘they have shown remorse’ (don’t most prisoners?) In an official statement, the NDC framed the judgment as an attack on free media and freedom of expression (something disputed by the Ghana Journalists Association).

I’ll say this:

One of the first things I was taught during my law degree was that the law does not exist in a vacuum. Just because the President has the constitutional right to exercise discretion doesn’t mean he should. Context is everything and there is a lot of context to sift through here. There are others far, far wisermore informed and wittier than me who make compelling counter-arguments and perspectives. I hope the President listens to those perspectives as much as he does the cacophony surrounding him.

Baring My Biases

I have long believed that the ancestors reserve some of the darkest corners of the underworld for radio presenters who place party politics above a love of country, especially during the election season. I have marveled at the recklessness of presenters and panelists on stations often owned by politicians or their financiers; at how regularly such pundits push hard-won press freedoms to their absolute limit – taking us to the brink of violence with them – with utter impunity.

In places where the opposition is limited or ineffective, journalism is incredibly important. To call it the Fourth Estate does not do it justice. Journalists are our defenders. They become our daily opposition: doing the research, asking the hard questions, holding power accountable, advocating for change, risking their lives to help us all see the truth through the smoke; giving us the information we need to make informed decisions. It is noble, underappreciated but important work. It is central to democracy.

I responded to the Supreme Court ruling on the Montie Trio with relief. Finally, someone was holding these pundits-pretending-to-be-journalists accountable in a manner within the boundaries of the law, in a way that the National Media Commission has (understandably) not been given the teeth to.

Anger and Empathy

“At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love… We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity will be transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force.”

These words – by Ernesto Ché Guevara – are ones I try to live by. Anger too is a moving force, but it moves in a different way. It can twist Love, subverting it and transmuting it into something unrecognizable. I have had difficulty fitting anger into my worldview.

Back when I was on Twitter, for example, there was a news story (I forget which one) that prompted me to go on a rant about anger being ‘unconstructive.’ It provoked a series of annoyed tweets from my friend, KinnaReads, who called me out for my ‘kumbaya’ position, reminding me (if I recall correctly) that anger has a place, whether it is constructive or not. We discussed it offline and I came to agree with her. I just didn’t see how to reconcile it with my worldview.

I believe in (impractical) things like empathy because the act of stepping into someone else’s shoes – however different they are from me or however we disagree – humanizes them/their position, which in turn helps me see the entire picture.

It leads me closer to Truth.

I’ve always presumed that anger is incompatible with love and empathy. Last Sunday however, I was reminded that it isn’t:

How Hill House Helped

After expressing my anger and dissonance to my Friends Meeting last Sunday, we discussed some perspectives that helped me to connect more than a few dots:

1. Empathy is cool, but it has to be complete

Much as I disagree with what they do, my inner pacficist forces me to empathize with the Montie Three. They are people too. They are afraid of jail. They have families. They are sorry. Etc etc. Empathy demands that I acknowledge that they spoke so passionately for a reason: the ongoing mess over the voters register – an important matter that should concern us all. Their frustrations clearly ran over.

That said, someone at Hill House who I have endless admiration for reminded me that my empathy should also extend to the judges whose lives were threatened. It should extend to their families. It should extend to Ghanaians who wish to live in a peacefully country that is not pushed to the brink in the name of party politics and the punditry of stations like Oman, Gold and Montie. Or Ghanaians who want to leave the dark days of killing judges behind. It should extend to the 13,000 or so remand prisoners who have been scooped up from our streets on suspicion of crimes and have since languished in jail waiting for one common trial – not even at the Supreme Court, mind you. It should extend to their families who haven’t seen or heard from them since.

2. Anger is a secondary emotion

Anger is usually a product of fear. So when you feel it, it is worth asking oneself what fear is behind your anger. For example, as a dear friend’s mother pointed out at the meeting, there is a fear in parts of the world that is resulting from all the various civil rights advances and the perception of being under attack. That fear has now become an anger that is threatening to undermine those liberties and advances.

My anger is the result of a fear that media impunity will result in our country plunging into chaos. It reminds me of Rwanda’s Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines: the station that catalysed the Rwandan genocide.

One’s response to such anger should always be to slow down: pause, think, reflect… and only then to react. If the Montie 3 had done this, they wouldn’t be in their predicament today. And we wouldn’t be facing yet another prospect of party politics being placed over the national interest.

3. Jesus and the Whip

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I always forget about John 2:15.

The anger itself isn’t a problem: it’s human. Divine too, apparently. The issue is perhaps what you do with your anger. Again, perhaps this is where the Trio slipped and as my good friend put it at the meeting, “punishing people is the price we pay for having standards.”

So what am I doing with my anger?

It’s made me think. I’ve shared it (first at the meeting now here). And I’m adding my voice to those calling on the President to not undermine the Supreme Court (it’ll be constitutional but, as I mentioned earlier, the law does not exist in a vacuum). I’m afraid I’m not his biggest fan, but that does not deny him my empathy too. I suspect that he needs as much pressure from everyone else as he has from that petition if he’s going to make a decision in all our best interests, and not just those of his party disciples.

Takashie is Our National Philosophy

The subject of dumsor came up briefly at our Friends meeting two Sundays ago.

I cannot remember the question she was responding to, but my fellow friend Edwina said something along the lines of:

“If you are sitting in dumsor and they are trying to tell you that there is no dumsor, why should you take anything they say seriously?”

I couldn’t agree more.

It is deeply depressing (and actually really insulting) when – in fear of its potential effect on their power – our leaders deny the very existence of our problems. Or try to get technical about them, playing word games… with words that we created.

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I’m not saying our government has done nothing towards ending the power crisis: things had improved until a month or two ago. I’ll do that rare thing and commend them for such small mercies.

However, when I am sitting in dumsor, don’t try and tell me that it is not dumsor. It’s bad enough that you haven’t solved our problem; don’t insult our intelligence/experience too. Just give us our dumsor schedule. You know: the one you won’t stick to anyway. Yes. That one.

politicans-and-diapers

We will be voting at the end of the year. I believe in actual choice, and I just don’t see enough difference between our two leading parties. Some – maybe – but little by way of genuine, inspirational, transformational leadership.

My dream candidate (another post for another day) would be a little more radical than Ghana is presently used to. For what should be obvious reasons, there are certain things he or she would ban senior government officials from access to, including:

  • The right to fly abroad for medical treatment
  • The right to educate their children abroad (before Masters degree level)
  • Generators
  • Water tanks
  • Motorcades to cut through traffic

I could go on.

I’m not saying politicians need to work for free, but we do need to find urgent ways of getting people to look at politics as public service and not some fast track route towards personal gain (or a way of repaying the massive debts our politicians incur in order to become politicians). And we need politicians who feel what we feel, and who put people over politics/money/resources as a result.

John-Mensah-Sarbah

Example: way back in the day, there was a general belief that the social value of land was more important than its commercial value (you know… the kind of thing South Africa’s Abahlali Basemjondolo are all about). That alone is as good an example of people being more important than money as any. But that’s only the beginning of this story.

When the British colonial government basically tried  (with the Crown Lands Bill of 1897) to claim all land they saw just ‘sitting there’ (ancestral/inherited lands) for the British Empire, Ghanaians were understandably horrified. Patriots including John Mensah Sarbah founded the Aboriginal Rights Protection Society to shut that nonsense down, partly by:

  1. Studying all proposed colonial measures
  2. Giving political education to the people
  3. Making the people understand the effect of these measures

Yet another example of putting people first.

After the Society campaigned successfully for the Bill to be rescinded, Sarbah refused to take any money for his role in their success, explaining that it was an honour to serve his people.

Now that’s leadership I can get behind.

Today we have a new national philosophy and it has little room for crazy ideas like public service and putting people first. It’s not Christianity: please. We might wear fine robes on Sundays, pray in loud tongues and such, but look around you: we are waaaaay too practical a people to actually practice such universally lauded religious principles as turning the other cheek or treating people the way we would have them treat us. Our society would look very different if we did.

No. Our real national philosophy is takashie: forcing our way ahead by any means necessary, often at the expense of others.

Where we have a choice between demonstrating a love of others or using takashie, the latter usually wins. Open your eyes and you’ll see examples, everywhere and every day. In little things. Like driving in traffic. In haggling prices. In (not) queuing. Etc, etc.

Each man/woman for him/herself and God for us all… and that’s the problem:

Takashie is an understandable response to the frustrations of living in Ghana. Nevertheless, our leaders come from among us. They are living reflections of what we really believe in: not as individuals, but as a society. If we each resort to daily takashie, why should we expect our leaders to – by some random miracle – do any different?

Sure: some countries are lucky enough to get officials who think differently and who help move their countries forward as a result. But that’s just it, isn’t it: luck. Such leaders are miracles.

Which makes our choice a tricky one: ‘Aben Wo Ha‘ vs. ‘Dabi Dabi 3by3 Yie‘.

Either we continue to get by on takashie, continue to produce more of the same leaders and vote them in with the expectation that they will suddenly and miraculously become benevolent (with enough competence to match that benevolence).

Or maybe we should all start thinking about our individual roles in changing the society out of which our leaders emerge.

 

 

The Stubbornness of Sugar

Once upon a time, there was a cake baked over centuries; its ingredients fusing in the heat to form a moist, rich, lush vanilla cake. It wasn’t perfect, but it tasted delicious to anyone with a taste for vanilla. To anyone with taste, really.

One day however, some people without a taste for vanilla came along and decided that the cake did not taste right. A somewhat privileged bunch, they demanded that all the cake’s brown sugar be extracted and replaced with white sugar.

Those who originally baked the cake were confused. The brown sugar had been mixed in with all the other ingredients a very long time ago. It formed part of the cake, and was infused throughout it. There was no real way to extract it.

The people without a taste for vanilla would not listen though. The cake obviously had something wrong with it, they figured. Otherwise it would taste like chocolate cake.

Obviously.

Eventually, they cut out a slice of the cake – somehow convincing themselves that this slice contained all (or enough of) the brown sugar – and they replaced it with a big wedge of chocolate cake.

At first, the chocolate wedge looked a little awkward. It was somewhat shorter than the rest of the cake and – although it slotted relatively neatly into the cake – its diameter was a little too wide.

Neither did it address the continued existence of brown sugar in the cake.

Nevertheless, the people without a taste for vanilla were happy. They were convinced that – while it was certainly not as good as a complete chocolate cake – the vanilla cake was now better than whatever it had been before.

After awhile, the people without a taste for vanilla left. And over time, the people with a taste for vanilla acquired a taste for chocolate. They tried to cut the wedge’s diameter a little and raise it (with additional chocolate slices) to the same height as the rest of the vanilla cake, so that it was all at least well-shaped.

As more time passed, they developed a distaste for the vanilla part of the cake, consuming more and more of the chocolate part, importing more and more replacement chocolate wedges. Some said that the vanilla cake with the chocolate wedge tasted more chocolate than chocolate cake and tried exporting it to the people without a taste for vanilla. They convinced themselves that they had made marble cake. Others described it as vanilla cake with chocolate layers.

While such cakes certainly (can) exist, these suggestions are sadly laughable to anyone with eyes to see.

Because – deny it though we might – the people do not have marble cake. Or vanilla cake with chocolate layers.

We have a vanilla cake with a (somewhat random) chocolate wedge in it
And the brown sugar is still very much in the cake
Affecting its taste far more than we care to admit.

Whether we like it or not.

Christ vs. Nkrumah

I became Christian again a couple of months back. Some of my closest friends have been horrified by my decision. I can actually see where they are coming from. From the outside looking in, Christianity often seems to have come a very long way away from the message of Love, empathy and compassion lived out by the Jew at the heart of it. Some of my friends see in Christianity inconsistency, weakness, and many of the more negative aspects of 1 Corinthians 13:

  • Hypocrisy
  • Intolerance
  • Arrogance
  • Resentfulness
  • Rudeness (or rater, condescension)
  • Impatience

When I put this to my Christian friends, the responses I get vary. Some are surprised, some are defensive, some are reflective. Others are jubilant: the world is supposed to hate you. As opposed to ‘… the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Chale.

I am personally drawn to Christ’s message (and example) of empathy, compassion and social justice. A gospel not of fear but of Love: reading the Word with ‘Love Lenses’ on and trying to live it out. Showing genuine Love in situations where our human nature compels us towards fear, ignorance, intolerance and hatred is the harder (much harder) but higher path. I find Jesus’ particular take on Love to be humbling, complex and deeply challenging. When I was not a Christian, it was people who showed this kind of Love who earned my admiration, and made me curious about faith again. I tried living a life of Love outside of faith, but I did not find it active enough. Works for some: not for me. Actively living Love within a community of people trying to do the same has in fact been more challenging. In trying to meet that challenge however, I feel a little closer to where my soul needs to be.

That’s just me.

For the Love of White Jesus

Some of my non-Christian friends feel that Christianity and ‘Africanness’ are inherently incompatible. Again, I see where they are coming from. Religion was indeed used as a tool to oppress Africa and continues to be used to keep us mentally enslaved. As Jomo Kenyatta put it: “When the Missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the Missionaries had the Bible. They taught how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.

My knowing this and yet choosing to become Christian has been baffling to some of my friends. One actually called my conversion a ‘betrayal’. Again, I empathize: religion too often remains the opium of the people. But that doesn’t mean it has to remain that way.

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I am an African, created as much in God’s image and with as much worth as any other person. My becoming Christian doesn’t mean that I suddenly believe in white saviors. Depictions of Jesus as white are European attempts to see God in their own image, much as Ethiopians depicted Jesus and the disciples as Ethiopian. There is no problem with this… until it becomes a tool of oppression. Which is unfortunately exactly what has happened.

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Colonialism taught Africa that it had nothing of cultural or religious value to contribute to the world. Children entering colonial schools were taught that the wisdom of their parents and ancestors was not wisdom at all, but mere superstition. Heavy emphasis was placed on the negative, fear-based aspects of our traditions, rather than those aspects of it that fostered community, empathy, balance with nature and the environment, and Love. Elsewhere in the world, pagan traditions (like Christmas) that ran too deep to be suppressed were subverted and absorbed into the Christian whole. We, on the other hand, were taught to demonize our own cultures & religions.

White: good. Black: bad.

As a general rule, we have been taught to be cultural absorbers rather than creators. Feel free to draw correlations between this and the fact that Ghanaians today import far more than we export.

The Funny Thing…

… is that I can actually see a bunch of compatibility between Christ’s message and African traditions like those of my Akan people:

  • Belief in the Divine
  • Belief in holistic living
  • Belief in community and social justice
  • Protection of the poor and others who live on social margins
  • Tolerance and absorption of the Other (e.g slave, stranger) into the social fabric
  • Respect for nature and the environment
  • The importance of women

… all of which introduce the intriguing idea that rather than getting rid of Christianity in Africa (which is – frankly – unlikely and ultimately unnecessary), encouraging people to be more Christian could actually bring us a lot closer to what our ancestors were getting right.

When I compare Akan concepts of community and social justice to East African Harambee & Ujamaa or the South African concept of Ubuntu, I cannot help but wonder why Christianity here has to be so steeped in self. The fact of the matter is that there is no single Christianity. However our many, many, many, many, many, many churches out here are often founded less on actual ideological differences than they are around the personality and style of the men who lead them. Just as Latin America has its liberation theology and America has its prosperity gospel of health and wealth, we do actually have a different way of life to offer.

Christianity started in Palestine as a fellowship; it moved to Greece and became a philosophy; it moved to Italy and became an institution; it moved to Europe and became a culture; it came to America and became an enterprise. Sam Pascoe (former chaplain to the US Senate)

The Nkrumah Thing

I randomly stumbled upon a Kwame Anthony Appiah TED talk yesterday in which he asserted that – strictly speaking – religion doesn’t exist. He explained that religion is not a separate ‘thing’ and he used the Ashanti as an example, explaining how religion was never distinct but was rather tied in with everything else; a holistic way of life; an understanding of the balance of things, our place within nature, etc.

Dr. Kwame Nkrumah had an understanding of this. He once wrote that “man is regarded in Africa as a primarily spiritual being“. Recognizing that we had inherited strands of Christianity and Islam, he called for a ‘consciencist’ integration of both of these into a unified African way of living. Instead, we seem to have chosen to keep them separate and somehow try to live each one out, paying lip service to both but not really making either one work.

… there needs to emerge an ideology which, genuinely catering for the needs of all, will take the place of the competing ideologies, and so reflect the dynamic unity of society, and be the guide to society’s continual progress.

Dr. Kwame Nkrumah

I humbly submit that – rather than showing contempt for the local/traditional – we should explore its above-mentioned parallels with our current faith as a means of better (and more honestly) understanding the way we are, and moving towards something more akin to the consciencist integration Nkrumah was talking about. Ultimately though, placing Jesus and the Love He requires of us back at the center of everything (and approaching our past/present with the honesty that a commitment to Christ demands of us) could help our society in many ways:

  • Continuity with the best aspects of our past instead of self hatred, dishonest denial or distortion of it
  • The return of the idea of the Commons/the Common Good
  • Social empathy and respect for people’s humanity
  • Deep respect for our fellow human beings as part of the Divine
  • Community and social justice
  • Custodianship of the environment
  • Appreciation of human diversity and solidarity
  • Peace and tolerance in an increasingly multicultural society
  • Love

Maybe. Can’t help but try.

This is why I will be starting a new category/tag here that I will call ‘Conciencist Christian’, in which I will write about some of the above with regards to our personal and national conversations. It’s a work in progress. Please feel free to join in.

Footnote (taken from http://www.religioustolerance.org/christ.htm)

A case can be made that Christianity did not start in Palestine. According to Acts 11, the followers of Jesus first started being called ‘Christians’ in Antioch. Also, the Romans imposed the name ‘Palestine’ on the Holy Land only circa 135 CE, long after most or all of the books of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) were written. Finally, the first followers of Yeshua of Nazareth, led by Jesus’ brother James the Just, considered themselves Jews, and as a new tradition within Judaism; not the followers of a new religion.

Faith & Forgiveness

I know many of my friends who will look at me with a side-eye for discussing my thoughts on God, but it is what it it is. I do believe in God, albeit not some bearded old white man looking benevolently upon us from on high. Here are three pieces I’ve written outlining a few things I believe.

This post is however a culmination of thoughts I’ve had over the years regarding my relationship with Christianity. Think of it as a new relationship with it.

Kobby vs. Christians

It was recently brought to my attention by someone dear to me that I speak with a degree of bitterness when it comes to Christianity.

I have heard this before: once or twice right here on this blog. But there was something different in the way in which she said it to me. She spoke in a tone devoid of the kind of self-righteousness, arrogance and judgment that made me leave Christianity behind in the first place.

She spoke with Love.

An Apology

I try to live my life guided by Love and when I am addressing Christians on this blog, I try to speak with Love. I do not apologize for my criticism of Christianity (especially here in Ghana): I humbly suggest that such criticism is both healthy and necessary. Who the cap fits, let them wear it. I do not always hit the mark however, and I would like to apologize to anyone who has ever been hurt by my tone.

Kobby the Christian

If I do feel bitterness towards Christianity, it is for two reasons: my experience of Christianity as a young believer and my observations of Christianity today as a not-quite-believer. Both are linked. I’ve spoken about my past before, but what I haven’t spoken on much is my own journey.

I was raised, baptized and confirmed Methodist, and I was what I would call a ‘cultural Christian’ by the time I was a teenager in Ghana. I talked the talk (said things like, ‘have a blessed day’), regularly attended church, prayed, fasted, sang in Joyful Way, attended Scripture Union, etc, etc.

All these things are things you cannot really avoid as a Ghanaian Christian though: society expects them from you. They do not require a genuine, deeper understanding of your faith. You are taught them since before Sunday School, all the way into your adulthood. I see many young people today engaged in such ‘Christian culture’. You see it all over their social media.

Those things do not Christians make though. At best, they are a foundation. A shaky one at that. Too many cultural Christians are not driven by the kind of Love that was so compelling that Jesus replaced the entire ten commandments with it. Rather, they wear their spirituality for all to see. It is something that they perform. Mostly in public. They judge. They are holier-than-thou. In short, they become the very Pharisees they were taught to despise.

Love is… HARD!

In my experience, Love is kind… but it is also difficult. It requires hard things of its advocates in real life situations. It requires you not to judge but to be tolerant of people who do not share your faith. Show them love and – who knows – they may actually come to faith. If not? That’s between them and God. It’s not for you to advocate against them, gossip about them, judge them or feel better than them. Who are you anyway? By the standards of Christian faith, your goodness is like a dirty rag in the eyes of God. I don’t care if you are even a pastor: who are you exactly to judge?

Love requires us to make peace with those who would argue with us. To not cheat in a society in which it is made very easy for people to have flings and affairs. It requires us to be kind to those who are unkind to us. Basically, it requires the practical application of everything in Galatians 5:22-23

‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.’

My foundations in faith were cultural. They were not personal. Yes, I prayed and such. But I hadn’t engaged with God as much as I thought. All those churchy things were for society. They were not for God. They were not even for me, really.

Leaving Faith Behind

In the end, I grew bitter about my experience of faith. My growing contempt for Christian hypocrisy lead me away from Christianity – from Christ – as a whole, especially as I started engaging with the world beyond faith. I discovered people of other faiths and what they believed and I realized that their faiths made sense too. Far beyond signs and wonders. I came to understand – for example – from a Jewish perspective why Jesus was not the Christ, in a way that no pastor had ever explained to me without putting a Christian spin on things without knowing it. I dated a Muslim girl I fell in love with because she was one of the warmest, most kind, most loving people I had ever met. I learned about her faith and I discovered that much of the hate-and-fear-fuelled things I had heard about Islam were gross simplifications.

Meanwhile, so many people told me that the problem was that I was going to the wrong church. So they would always invite me to their church. But in between the good, I would see the same things over and over. Judgment. Hypocrisy. Arrogance. Self-righteousness. Fear. Hate. Xenophobia. Again and again and again. Wrapped up in the clothes of faith and love.

Eventually, I attended Bible classes: such was the extent of my desire to return to faith. The Alpha course helped a little. The first time I attended, I met people who did not judge me for having doubts and for having some very troubling questions. Questions that asking in Ghana had people looking at me funny. About Paul. About original sin. About the Fall. About the translation of scripture. About books left out of the Bible. Et cetera. It helped a little. I decided to attend a second time. This time, I met judgment. People looking at me funny. I left and never looked back.

Finding Love

At that moment, I decided that I had been praying for years for clarity in my soul and I realized that I had been ignoring a message that I had been receiving again and again and again. All the people whose faiths I admired – Christian or otherwise – were defined by their capacity for Love, above and beyond that of the average man or woman on the street. The moment I decided to start living a life guided by the kind of Love that we instinctively know without reading books about it, I experienced peace. A real peace.

Returning to Faith

However, I always suspected that it would all eventually lead me back to faith. I don’t know why. I remember reading Brian McLaren’s ‘A New Kind of Christian‘ – given to me by a friend in Geneva – and feeling incredible excitement. Here was someone expressing my doubts and yet who had managed to stay within the fold. I devoured everything I could find online about things like the Emerging Church movement and the house church movement and so-called progressive Christianity:

  • A spiritual vitality and expressiveness, including participatory, arts-infused, and lively worship as well as a variety of spiritual rituals and practices such as meditation
  • Intellectual integrity including a willingness to question
  • An affirmation of human diversity
  • An affirmation of the Christian faith with a simultaneous sincere respect for other faiths
  • Strong ecological concerns and commitments

Yes, please: I’ll take two.

The Block

Ultimately however, I still could not describe myself as a Christian because I could not think of Jesus as ‘the way, the truth and the life’. I read ‘Mere Christianity’ and admired CS Lewis’ attempt, but found flaws in his lines of logic by chapter three. I have heard no argument that makes me feel that there is something inherently superior about Christianity as a religion to any other religion. After having actually engaged with them, I find it hard to take seriously any religion’s claim to exclusivity over the truth. Importantly however, I am committed to keeping an open mind, an open heart and open ears. I could be wrong.

So Why Engage?

Part of my continued engagement was because I missed two things about Christianity: ritual and communion. I don’t believe in being passive about what you believe in. Love in particular requires you to be active. This means being constantly reminded about it and challenged and such, and organized religion – at its best – has a great way of doing this. It keeps you on your toes. Or – at least – it can. The other thing it is great at is communion: connecting you with people with whom you share faith. Maybe its my Christian upbringing, maybe its human instinct, but I need these things. I miss them.

Ghana: Religious or Hypocritical?

By the time I moved back to Ghana from London, it became even more difficult to find a foothold on any kind of path back to faith again. Simply saying you do not go to church here is such taboo, much less asking the deep kind of questions I have. At least, it seems that way from the outside.

One thing that I humbly think needs to change in Ghana is how conservative we are about Christianity. I know there are those who would disagree and argue that ‘you can’t avoid the Cross’. The problem is that that is exactly what loads of people are doing here. Ghana is supposed to be the most religious country in the world. Yet – beyond church attendance – you cannot see it in our lives as a nation at all. Which suggests that we are the most hypocritical nation on earth. For me, I have always said that I will believe that Ghanaians are really imbibing faith when i see it on the road: when I see people drive in respect of the law and in respect of the dignity and humanity of their fellow man. No more blowing your horn as soon as the light turns green. No more forming third and fourth lanes. No cutting people off. No being on the road without a license. No hurling abuse at people. When we are so soaked in our beliefs that you can see it in the way we drive? Then we can talk about being religious beyond simply going to church.

There are so many different types of Christianity. And I don’t mean different kinds of churches all preaching what is ultimately the same conservative Christian message. I think it is very damning of us that the prosperity gospel is what we seem to have taken to rather than something as pro-poor as liberation theology. Both have their flaws but I don’t even see us critically engaging enough to discern something for ourselves. As Africans. At all. I intend to personally challenge this, especially if I find my way back to faith but even while I haven’t. I apologize in advance to anyone who may take offence, but I think it is the least I can do.

So Where Next?

A few of the things my friend told me – and the Love with which she told them to me (reminiscent of another friend of mine actually) – have helped me to course correct my journey. I have started discussions with people whose opinions I value whose faith I admire too. This new year, as part of a broader set of resolutions, I have decided on a few things:

  • A fresh start: I will recognize and shed the bitterness of my previous religious engagement.
  • Make more time for reflection, meditation and prayer.
  • Commune with fellow truthseekers.
  • Actively explore the Bible as imperfectly written but ultimately containing a Thread that I must find, pull out and follow
  • Read not around the Gospels but the Gospels themselves.
  • Give Paul a chance (this will be very hard)
  • Actively encourage critical engagement with faith in replacement of mere faith culture’ at Ashesi

Happy new year, everyone.

Sunday Advice to Ghanaian Christians From a Ghanaian Non-Christian

It has been my privilege to address college students all over the world, usually as one defending the Christian worldview. These events typically attract large numbers of atheists. I like that. I find talking to people who disagree with me much more stimulating than those gatherings that feel a bit too much like a political party convention…

… Christianity, when it is taken seriously, compels its adherents to engage the world, not retreat from it…

… Christians must be willing to listen to other perspectives while testing their own beliefs against them — above all, as the apostle Peter tells us, “with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15)

These are excerpts from Larry Alex Taunton’s article in The Atlantic last week, ‘Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity.

I’m dedicating it to all Christians (especially Ghanaian ones) who fail to engage with people who hold different beliefs than them in the name of not being ‘unevenly yoked’. I encourage you to read this article, think about it, read it again, share it with your friends and then actually start engaging with non-Christians the way that you are supposed to.

Question: when is the last time you engaged with non-believers at all, much less with “with gentleness and respect”?

I ask because I encounter too many (young) Ghanaian Christians who either:

a. Do not associate themselves at all with ‘sinners’ but rather mingle only with fellow Christians.

This really makes no sense to me. Jesus didn’t say anything about preaching to the converted. The article has this brilliant quote about how much you must hate someone if you think they are doomed to hell but you keep the message to yourself.

I actually heard an argument from one such Christian recently in which he criticized another Christian for ministering to prostitutes. This struck me as weird, seeing as Jesus himself rolled with prostitutes… and – for that matter – with all other manner of people deemed outcasts by society at the time (lepers and gentiles, for example). He did not roll with the holy people of his time: the Pharisees and Saducees that some Ghanaian Christians so easily vilify, casting the first stone without first looking at the log in their own eye.

Who are Ghana’s social outcasts today? People who are mentally-ill, homosexual, atheists, prostitutes… These are the people that Jesus would be engaging with if he was in Ghana today. He wouldn’t be up in church, giving sermons, preaching to the already-converted.

If Jesus not only rolled with but attracted social outcasts, then I don’t understand what your problem is.

Don’t presume: engage. Get to know why people believe what they believe. Don’t just assume they are lost, worldly souls. By the measure of your own faith, such thinking isn’t even Christian.

In my experience, however stupid someone’s actions may seem, it is always smart to assume that that person is not stupid but is doing what they do for some reason that seems logical to them. Working on that assumption, I work my way backwards and try to think what would compel me to think, say or do whatever it is that that person is thinking, saying or doing.

To my mind, that is what it means not to judge, and I honestly think that if more of us (Christian or not) tried it, Ghanaians would understand each other better and treat each other better. On the other hand, if you are treating people with intolerance and judgment – making them feel persecuted, silenced and judged by everyone around them – then you are creating what is ultimately a non-Christian society that does not reflect the principles of Love upon which the faith (especially The New Testament) is supposedly founded.

The other thing young Ghanaian Christians do (linked to all the above) is…

b. Try engaging with non-Christians, but with a sense of judgment.

My thoughts on this particular type of Christian are already well-documented.

I’m neither Christian nor Atheist, but I live in a country in which Christianity (and Christian culture) is regularly forced down my throat by people who ironically seem to think that they are the ones under attack. I think they believe this is because they have blindly imbibed the perspective of Christians in the West, where Christianity is under attack.

Ghanaian Christians don’t know how good they have it. Over here, Christians ‘run tings’. In fact, they run everything.

Literally.

You live in a country where there is little separation between church and State. No self-proclaimed atheist could ever run for Presidency here. Rather, our late President proudly described himself as a Christian and sought counsel from a Nigerian pastor. Pastors here have more posters than musicians and film stars combined. Religious issues become national issues here (and vice versa). You don’t need TV channels dedicated to Christian content, because half the content on national television is Christian content (especially on the national channel: GTV). Regular shops and stalls are named things like ‘My Redeemer Liveth Hair Salon’…

Don’t talk to me about being under attack from ‘the forces of secularism’. The forces of Christianity here are just as strong, if not stronger.

My point is that, if you are going to try and spread the Good News (and your faith dictates that you should), do so not only by understanding and grappling with your own faith (which is harder than some of you seem to think), but also by at least attempting to understand and grapple with other people’s ideas, faith and beliefs.

I have a vested interest in raising the standard of Christian attempts at conversion. Not only will it make my life easier, but it is actually fun and informative engaging with people who do not speak to you like you are somehow mildly slow.

If I am going to be forced to engage with Christianity on an almost day-to-day basis, I would prefer to be engaged by Christians who know what they are talking about, rather than by automatons who simply regurgitate Bible quotes without putting them in context; without being able to comprehend the idea that not everyone considers the Bible  the absolute truth; or without – at the very least – knowing as much about their own faith as an infidel like me.

Please read that article, people. It will help.