Kneeling Differently, Standing Together
Beyond Coexistence of Christianity and Islam in Ghana
It’s 3:42 am, pouring outside, and I hear the sounds of Islamic prayers. Years ago that would have driven me crazy — probably one year ago that would have driven me crazy.
My wife suggested I bring ear plugs on my travels so I can block out the sounds and sleep peacefully. She uses them with me to … ugh … help her sleep better (not at all because I snore). But it doesn’t sound foreign anymore; it actually sounds beautiful. Many of us may not know that Arabic and Hebrew both share a common ancestry and as I dived into the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, this language, reminiscent of the sounds of my faith’s ancestry, are becoming harmonic. These seemingly strange sounding Arabic words are akin to a British accent to American ears.
Here in the northern region amid an incredibly large Muslim population, there is also a smaller yet significant Christian population. Uniquely (perhaps only to me, but maybe not) as the sounds of our two ancient languages live harmoniously, so do the people here. However it’s not as we often see (or wish to see) in America, but it’s in a way that vividly exhibits what I believe my UofC ministry advisor so often tried to help my cohort realize. It’s a way in which each group brings all of itself to the forefront of community — including even their doctrines of heaven and hell — fully to the table, and yet they choose to not only coexist but cooperate in life together.
I have spoken with a Pentecostal pastor, catholic priests, Presbyterian Pastors, traditional Chiefs, politicians, government workers, and lay people at the coast and farthest regions of the country so far and I’ve been astonished at my findings.
A Pentecostal pastor who provides bread several times during Ramadan for the mosque. A Presbyterian church that paints a mosque because the outside is in disrepair. A Muslim man visiting a Christian pastor who has a healing ministry. An imam who intercedes and publicly speaks out against radical Islam because it will not only result in Muslims killing Muslims, but Muslims killing Christians. A doctor who names his 100% free clinic Shekhina because the Hebrew word reflects a unique historical intersection between the sons of Abraham: Ishmael and Isaac. And each faith group fully embraces its own standards of exclusivity and doctrine while still living in complete unity with each other. I don’t know how many Americans can fully comprehend this.
On the one hand, we have an extreme pluralism that suggests we give up those things which separate us and lay down, or at least rethink, our doctrinal standards. Consider the topics: who goes to heaven, who goes to hell, who is righteous, who isn’t, sexual orientation, abortion, social gospel, and probably a few more anyone can think of. In my work, these are continual issues that divide and separate us, and find their way into politics. Secular and theological viewpoints are continually discussed in churches, mosques, and synagogues from the perspectives of who is right and who is wrong. I’m seeing the same thing here in Ghana yet an affirmation to live with each other at the same time in a form of “proactive community affirming the communal identity of everyone.”
Eboo Patel in his acclaimed “Acts of Faith” (location 92, Kindle version) shares:
One hundred years ago, the great African American scholar W. E. B. Du Bois famously said, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” I believe that the twenty-first century will be shaped by the question of the faith line.
I agree, to an extent. (However, I believe race continues as an issue, albeit realized a bit differently from DuBois’s time.)
Patel continues his conversation speaking about a unique form of religious existence that “is neither mere coexistence nor forced consensus. It is a form of proactive cooperation that affirms the identity of the constituent communities while emphasizing that the well-being of each and all depends on the health of the whole. It is the belief that the common good is best served when each community has a chance to make its unique contribution.” It really feels and sounds like that belief of common good is what I’m witnessing here.
There is a truly unique way in which Muslims, Christians, and even the traditional African Religious, all live together without sacrificing anything — even in preaching. Naturally the question arises as to how this occurs? I think it’s because of a statement my guide in the capital center shared during my first week in Ghana: “Christianity has penetrated our hearts and minds, but not penetrated our bones. Our bones are African.” Christianity has become the backdrop through which one sees and interacts with the world for both self and nature, but it is acted out in a theatrical company and set that is fully African. People are both fully Christian and fully African, complete with their culture, traditions, and heritage in a way that they do not have to lose themselves like we often do. Christianity has not eradicated their heritage but rather has coalesced with it.
That’s not to say that everything from traditional life has been accepted, for some things have been left. Just today as I was talking to a catholic priest in Kumasi about this very issue. He shared that immediate eradication of evils done by way of traditional religion had to give way to forgiveness and grace. For others, it is in letting go of traditions like the honoring of libations, or observing the omnipotence of ancestors. Yet even when those traditional elements are laid down, there is still a distinctly African flavor of Christian (and Islamic) experience witnessed. And I’ve heard the same testimonies from those of Islamic faith, too. So it is a common bonding agent of “African culture” that binds those of different faiths here in this country (Ghana). And it is seen in liturgy, in worship, in architecture, in decoration, in prayer, in the spoken message, and in the dress of the people.
Somewhere along the way, here in America we created a strange construct called “Christian culture.” I don’t think that thing exists. Over the years I’ve heard: “vote the Christian choice,” “make the Christian choice,” “dress the Christian way,” “listen to the Christian music,” and, once while playing saxophone for a praise group at a church in Virginia I was told by a minister of music to “play in a Christian scale and holy manner.” American Christian culture too often (intentionally and unintentionally) conveys a majority demographic, conservative, right wing, upper-middle-class socioeconomic status, “western”, and “first-world” Christianity perspective. The argument often continues that Christ comes before culture and everything else. I believe that is an incomplete truth.
Perhaps stated another way, Christ comes with culture, and while He (Jesus — yes, I believe in Him-) does challenge us to discern what is best and not so best culturally, He does not force us to abandon culture and heritage, as many of our missionaries and pastors from the past — distant and not so distant — have done. One can look through the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles and see how uniquely the message of Christ and impartation of the Holy Spirit was revealed to the Jewish, Samaritan, and the Gentile populations of the early church. In these chapters, we also see Peter struggling with understanding how his faith can operate in these new contexts and cultures, particularly in respect to the Gentiles. I firmly believe Christianity is a faith that allows one’s culture and heritage to flow fully underneath, nourishing as if it were an unseen river producing an amazing crop of worship, prayer, liturgy, and justice uniquely realized across the globe. In Ghana, that underground stream sources both Christianity and Islam, enabling them to live in a constant togetherness. They are not divided by their faith, but rather unified by their heritage.
That considered, it makes sense why it is difficult in our country to achieve that togetherness. What is the common culture and heritage of a land prized for its capacity to serve as a melting pot (or rather, in my opinion, a tossed salad) of traditions, cultures, and heritages. We’ve an intricate system of cisterns, wells, and in some cases underground canals that connect a few, but no unified flowing river that undergirds us all. So the challenge of togetherness is a much more difficult road for us to traverse.
The togetherness I’m seeing here is what my ministry director was intending. I’m starting to get it. It’s a unique existence where I am fully at the table with my culture, my faith, and my doctrines fully represented, while still being fully different. This is the essence of what being “in the world yet not of it means”. I don’t think it’s as separatist a notion as I’ve learned from some of my Christian brothers and sisters over the years.
Some in the faith may think I’m losing myself (or maybe watering down the faith) but I truly don’t think so. I think this is exactly the opposite. If we’ve been looking at our faith in the same spot all our lives, it can be quite easy to think how the world is and should look. For the first time in my life, I’m seeing a radical faith here in Ghana — complete with more preachers, evangelists, healers, prophets and church services, and Islamic prayer calls than you could ever imagine. Yet, it’s a faith that fully lives in cohesion with a unifying culture and heritage.