Monday, September 18, 2006
We meet for class in a classroom designated for the Calvin Program, lodged in the Institute for African Studies. The room just barely fits sixteen students and an instructor, but it contains an air conditioner, and reasonably comfortable seating, and it’s nice to have a space we can call our own.
In our “Justice and the Common Good” class we’ve been reading Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers” and thinking together about what it means to treat people with respect and dignity when we have deep cultural or philosophical differences. It’s been a perfect book to read in Ghana, as many of the examples focus specifically on Ghanaian customs and beliefs. Students find themselves talking through issues with their room mates, or with folks at church, and it has enriched our discussions enormously.
Disagreement about values does make cross-cultural discussions hard, especially when the values in question are religious ones. One of the interesting aspects of being in Ghana has been seeing the connections and parallels to the religious situation in the US. Like the US, Ghana is a religiously pluralistic society with a secular state structure. Its citizens are a mixture, mostly, of Christians, adherents to traditional religions, and Muslims. And much like the US, relationships between the various religious groups tend to be harmonious.
Where tensions and disagreements are most likely, in fact, is within religions, rather than across religious boundaries. Its fairly easy to accept that someone who is Islamic will disagre with me about some basic things. But it is much harder to make sense of how people can accept Christianity, and so share my values (seemingly) and yet disagree with me on basic issues. So many of the religious tensions here in Ghana occur between different groups within one religion, rather than across religious boundaries. Since Christianity is the dominant religion here in the Southern part of Ghana, most of the folks we interact with are Christian, and they often think quite differently than, say, your average Grand Rapids Christian Reformed-type of person. Some of the differences are just enjoyable—worship styles here are far more lively than most CRC churches, and the clapping rythms far more complex. Other differences are more difficult—we engaged in a fascinating discussion of the beliefs in witchcraft that are widespread here in Ghana, and came away uncertain how much Western and African minds can come to an understanding on a topic as difficult as this. And the papers here have been filled with discussions about a conference that the Government banned, a conference that was to be put on by a Gay and Lesbian group. Various religious groups here in Ghana banded together to encourage the government to ban it. Reading all the letters to the editors in the newspapers here, seeig how churches respond, and thinking about what it means for a secular state to protect rights of free association has been interesting and challenging.