Feature Article of Saturday, 25 August 2012

Columnist: Ofori-Atta, Eric

What The World’s Religions Can Teach Our Political Parties In Ghana

Recent events in Mali give us a lot of food for thought, especially since we are going to the polls at the end of the year to select a party to govern the country for the next four years. Governance is serious business and political parties take the electoral process very seriously, too seriously some might say. The days before the announcement of electoral results are always tense-filled moments as violence is always a real possibility. Sometimes the results are disputed, plunging the country into civil war as happened in Cote d’Ivoire recently. At other times, sanity prevails, the loser concedes defeat and the country heaves a huge sigh of relief as happened in Ghana in December 2008. This has made the months and weeks preceding the declaration of election results quite an uncertain one and in this tense atmosphere, does religion, the world’s religions, have anything to say to our political parties and the rest of us to help us through the process? I believe so.

Science, Justice Holmes has said, makes major contributions to minor needs whereas religion deals with things that matter most, however small its successes. Anyone who has paid even a little bit of attention to the religions of the world cannot fail to see the wisdom inherent in these ancient traditions. No wonder some like the religions scholar, Huston Smith have called them “our great wisdom traditions”, whereas others like Ninian Smart prefer to see religions as part of the wider arena of the history of ideas and practices that have influenced human beings and the world in which we live. In this short essay, I want to speak of two lessons that the religions of the world can teach our political parties in Ghana, lessons if well imbibed, could go a long way to helping the political process in this country.

First of all, virtually every major religion speaks of selflessness (some even arguing that the concept of the self is an illusion). What these religions have latched on to is the fact that the self, whether individual or communal, is too small to be the focus of any sustained attention and whenever individuals or organisations fail to see this truth, the results can be disastrous. An illustration from the business world will clarify the point. From WorldCom to Enron to the biscuit factory in Ghana that was closed down for using contaminated flour to manufacture biscuits, one thing is clear – they were all thinking about private interests and not the societal interest. The major problem with the electoral process is the way it is seen by political parties as an arena of intense competition, which then makes it quite dangerous. The exclusive nature of power, whether perceived or real, leads to unhealthy competition, which could further lead to violence. The winner of an election becomes a very powerful force by virtue of the influence it wields through policy-making decisions and also the control and distribution of the wealth of the nation and with the discovery of oil in Ghana, the stakes are even higher. As Huston Smith notes, “From the competitiveness of these goods to their precariousness is a short step. As other people want them too, who knows when success will change hands?” The winner-takes-all mentality means that the greatest evil in an election is to be the loser and who wants to suffer? From Burundi to Kenya to Cote d’Ivoire to DR Congo, many lives have been lost in post-election violence just to ease the ‘suffering’ of losers. In fact researchers Higashijima and Toyoda found

evidence supporting their hypothesis that “… losers of an election are more likely to be motivated to overturn the results by violence if those results threaten their vital interests.” They therefore advocate some kind of a political solution but at least the realisation has dawned that elections may be a necessary prerequisite for democracy but it is not a sufficient one. Interestingly enough, one of the major reasons for pushing competitive democratic elections on so-called developing nations by the international community was the reduction of strife and peaceful resolution of conflicts. Was that overly optimistic and perhaps naïve? What do the various religions have to contribute to make the electoral process work better?

Let me start with Hinduism. If I were to attempt a summary of Hinduism (an extremely difficult task) it would be this: human beings suffer from finitude. We want infinite being, infinite knowledge and infinite joy but there is something that holds us back from achieving these goals. What we need therefore is liberation from this finitude so that the divinity in us can be unleashed. The finitude that restricts our joy can be put under three categories – physical pain, frustration from not having our desires met and boredom but let me stick with the second one since it speaks to the issue at hand. As one scholar noted, “From forty onwards, only the shallow man, or the coward, or the liar can help admitting to himself that by far the greater part of this life is made up of suffering.” Anyone who has been around for a while cannot fail to realise that disappointments are a part of life. We wanted our football team to win the game but then a penalty was missed and the game was lost. We wrote the exam confident of coming out with flying colours but the results came out and we had failed. For political parties, they pour all their resources and energies into an election in the hope of victory but the results turn out to be something very different. How do we deal with such disappointments? By beating up our opponents? Hinduism’s solution is to expand the consciousness by seeing things as a whole, from a cosmic perspective rather than from an individualistic perspective. Having a God’s eye-view of humanity, as Smith notes, “… makes one objective towards oneself, accepting failure as on a par with success in the stupendous human drama of yes and no, positive and negative, push and pull … How could one feel disappointed at one’s own defeat if one experienced the victor’s joy as also one’s own.” Judaism, the religion of the Jews, concurs. The Talmud helps us to understand that when the Rabbis meet to debate some aspect of scripture, the objective is not to win an argument but to understand what God has said or at least to come as close to it as possible. Even though the majority view carries the day, minority views are not discarded and a page from the Talmud shows different, sometimes even contradictory interpretations of the same scripture. The Talmud is an invitation to enter the world of debate, to wrestle with God so to speak, and this is taken so seriously that if in a debate one person seems to be losing, the person who seems to be winning can help the losing partner with a point to help that person bounce back so the debate can continue. The message from the world of religions to our political parties seems to be this: ‘Life is not about you. Elections are not about winners or losers. There is something greater and bigger than you or your party which you should never lose sight of and that is the good of Ghana. You have a party because of the people and you cannot sacrifice the people to maintain your party’. This calls for an examination of the motives of our various political parties. A simple question each party should ask is, “Why do we want power?” If the reason is to develop the country (whatever that means) then we should be happy if we lose to a party with better policies that can do better than what we projected or can do equally as well. Now this does not mean that we should condone cheating and close our eyes to election irregularities but I suppose the point the world religions would want to make is that when parties begin to develop a God’s eye-view, even cheating and election rigging would give way to transparency.

The second and probably more important lesson that the religions of the world can teach our political parties is the fact that human beings are spiritual beings living in a material universe and the fulfillment of our material needs does not necessarily guarantee a meaningful life. Jesus Christ put it very powerfully when he said that human beings shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism left all the riches of the world at the age of 29, to seek enlightenment, esteeming spiritual riches of greater value than all the comforts and wealth of this world. There is a ‘beyond’ in every human being that cannot be satisfied with material prosperity. The book of Ecclesiastes tells us that God has put eternity in the hearts of human beings and the church Father, St. Augustine said it all when he said that God has made us for himself and our hearts are restless until they find their resting place in him. Empirically, this is very easy to sustain. The happiest people in the world are not in the richest countries and if by the waving of some magic wand, we wake up in the morning to discover that Ghana has the GDP of the US, Canada and the UK combined, all the potholes on our streets gone, Adenta has water all year round etc., it would not mark the end of our problems, as much of the so-called developed world has discovered. The psychologist David Myers makes this point very powerfully when he states, “Having solved the question of how to make a living, having surrounded ourselves with once unthinkable luxuries – air-conditioned comfort, CD quality sound, and fresh fruit year round – we are left to wonder why we live. Why run this rat race? What’s the point? Why care about anything or anyone beyond myself”. Salvation does not come from political parties and both the electorate and the parties themselves should realise that a party may promise heaven but it will not even be able to deliver the moon. Even if a party is able to fulfill all the material expectations of the electorate, it will still fall short because the deepest needs of human beings are spiritual and therefore can never be fulfilled by political parties. Our political parties and indeed the electorate as a whole, would do well to heed the advice of Amitai Etzioni that “… secular bodies of values, have not been able to deal with questions of ultimate values, with the meaning of life and death, with the meaning of our very existence … There may be no other reliable source for understanding the human condition and for understanding the meaning of one’s suffering than in the spiritual realm, and within it, religion.” In this regard, the stance of religion or the religious person is a prophetic one but also one of tension and as noted by the theologian Craig Gay, in one sense we will insist “… that people be treated with great care socially, economically, and politically” while at the same time “… refusing to pledge allegiance to any of the ideologies that promise to do just this.”

This is an election year and as usual, our politicians and political parties, in a bid to win power, will be making all kinds of lofty promises. One just hopes that when they mount the political platforms, they will be guided by the knowledge that even the best political party can never satisfy the deepest aspirations of the human being. That is the preserve of God.

Let me close this piece with a Jewish parable. A preacher went about a certain town preaching without much success. After a while, a little boy came to him and asked him why he kept on preaching even though no one was listening to him. The preacher responded, “At first when I started preaching I thought I could change them but then I realised I couldn’t but if I am still shouting and preaching, it is to keep myself from becoming like them.” Maybe our political parties will listen and make some changes, maybe they won’t but if we should keep shouting it will be because we want to keep ourselves from the belief that our destiny lies in the hands of any particular political party.

Eric Ofori-Atta

Ghana Christian University College Amrahia