Monday, June 27, 2016

Give Me That Old Time Religion


Sunday began with a trip to church. One would be hard pressed to find a story more filled with contradiction, ambiguity, confusion then the role of religion in the catastrophe known as Colonialism. When relationships begin based on money and power, everything gets twisted and the effects echo down for centuries. And not all of them are necessarily “bad,” but they sure are strange if you step back and think about it.

Imagine a ship of West Africans arriving in England, planting their flag and claiming the country as their own. Well, sure there are people already living there, but that’s just a minor inconvenience. They simply will have to obey the West African laws and worship a god and gods who are black. And everyone will be required to dance and drum in church. The new story about Jesus is that he is the incarnation of evil and everyone who worships him will be punished, the churches burned, the Bibles confiscated.

Of course, we would find that intolerable, but just reverse the players above and that’s precisely what happened throughout the British Empire. The conquerors come first seeking gold and then the missionaries quickly follow with their god of a different skin color and their story from a different time and place and “convert the natives” by any means necessary. And because we mortals seem to need some contact with a world beyond or behind this one, some omnipotent power beyond our own, some reason to gather together in community in worship (not to mention social pressure, punishment and violence to complete the “conversion”), Christianity takes root in Ghana and other West African countries. (And Islam, the other monotheistic religion convinced their god is the true one, in the northern parts of these countries.)

So today in Ghana, there is the black and white and all shades of grey in-between. There are the Catholics who follow the European model of the Mass, but with drums and bells and movement accompanying the singing. There are the Pentecosts who have a Gospel electric band and three-hour services assuring everyone that they’ll burn in hell for their lustful thoughts and denounce traditional African dances as the work of the devil. There are Christian sects that ban dancing and drumming altogether. There are the traditional religions that draw deeply from the traditional dances and music and often include trance to have the gods directly speak to the community. There are Ghanaians who worship both sides of the line, going to a Catholic Mass in the morning and a traditional ceremony in the afternoon. It’s a wild and crazy ride.

I still find it so weird that folks in Ghana or Korea or India worship a blond-haired blue-eyed man (the English model) who himself was certainly a black-haired and darker-complexioned Middle Eastern Jew, but as a I said, things get strange when money and power are the guiding principles of cultural exchange. On the other side of the equation, the missionaries also brought schools and hospitals and a story that somewhat unified different ethnic groups in Ghana to help create a national identity above and beyond a regional one.

Religion’s role in the slave trade also is a fascinating (and again, shameful) story that explains a lot of the music and culture that followed, from Brazil to Cuba to the American South to Harlem. But I’ll save that for another time.

As for the storyline, we went from church to the lovely garden of a hotel shaded by palm trees for lunch. With 20 out of us dropping in unannounced, we knew it would be a challenge for the kitchen so we all ordered the same thing, jolof rice and chicken. After two hours of amiable talk, we began to wonder when the food might come. I helped fill in the next half hour with all the jokes I keep in my back pocket and a folk tale about a banquet where people kept waiting for their food. When it did finally come, it was delivered three plates at a time, with a pause before the next three. So in the next half hour, we ate in canon. Everyone found the chicken leg quite tough and we realized later that they had probably just killed the chicken and the muscles were still quite tight. So our three-hour plus meal made for a cute traveler’s story, but also was mostly a pleasure. It was Sunday, we had nothing else on the schedule, why not just sit in a lovely spot and talk and enjoy the slight breeze?

Tomorrow it’s back to the class schedule. Dancing without dogma, singing without sin, playing without penance, the old time religion fused with the new thought that Spirit is best without the names and stories that divide and conquer.

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