Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Spirituality in Liberia

Weather: Sunny, warm and low humidity Monday the 4th. A wonderful day. Temps in the mid 80's during the day, low 70's overnight. Rainy and overcast Tuesday the 5th. High temps in the mid 70's, upper 60's overnight. Rainfall Tuesday about an inch.

Even after more than two years in this land and feeling adjusted to “Liberian normal,” we still live with a constant awareness of how different West Africa is from North America. The climate, the post-war culture, the way people treat each other, the sense of time, the views on family and business—all are daily reminders that this area of the world operates under a different set of rules than in the West. We have not, however, talked much about the spirituality/faith systems of Liberians, even though Renita and I believe faith is the most important factor in any human being’s life. What lies at the core of our values, what we actually trust to be most important in life, determines all of our actions every day. It has taken us this long to sort through the rhetoric of faith which exists here to get a sense of spirituality in Liberia.

People who study people tell us that between 40 and 60% percent of Liberians say they are Christians, about 15% say they are Muslim, and between 25% and 45% say they have “traditional beliefs.” In Liberia, traditional beliefs include participation in "secret societies," the conviction that the invisible world is very active with powerful beings and ghosts, and that certain people can, among other things, make people sick, change themselves into animals, and perform miracles that defy the laws of nature. Traditional beliefs come with their own set of prescribed rituals and symbolic behaviors, every bit as sacred, complex and—to an outsider—incomprehensible as any Christian or Muslim ritual.

What we have found is that these traditional beliefs permeate all other faith systems, including Christian. In Foster Town, it is completely typical for our Christian friends, including pastors, to be part of a "secret society," to believe they can be cursed or hexed by witches, to believe that when a person is sick or dies it could be the result of an enemy. Many seem to believe this spiritual reality is far more active and powerful than their stated Christian beliefs, and most of the time they speak of it with fear.

One of our Christian friends here is a Liberian who talks about this socio-spiritual phenomenon. He says, “Christianity in Liberia is a mile wide and a half inch deep.” He means on the surface, it seems everyone is a Christian. Christian phraseology is universal, churches are everywhere, and every other taxi cab has a Christian slogan painted across its bumper. But underneath professions of Christian faith, there lies a foundational and more strongly held conviction that real spiritual power lies beyond, in another realm. Scratch the surface of a Liberian Christian (or Muslim,) and you get a “traditional spiritualist.”

This is not unique to Liberia or West Africa. Christianity in America is wide but shallow too. Scratch the surface of most Western Christians, and you get something else as well. Americans are as full of easy rhetoric as anybody in West Africa.

The difference is in the specifics of our respective “traditional beliefs.” The traditional beliefs of the North American Christian are entrenched in the empirical world: they are rationistic, materialistic and decidedly non-spiritual. Most Americans don't really believe the spirit world has much to do with daily life. For Liberians on the other hand, the unseen world is full of power and mystery in the here and now. Professing Liberians may not believe any more than American Christians in the power of Christ, but, unlike Americans, they do understand power of the unseen. And we have learned from them.

The challenge for Renita and I is to figure out how to use this deep certainty in the unseen world as a starting point to bring about a more integrated understanding of this Christ who rules over all spiritual forces and powers in the universe. We wish our friends to know the One who “even the demons obey.” We wish our friends to know how unnecessary it is to fear the spiritual forces of this world. We have from them a glimpse of the power of spiritual reality, our hope is to return to them a glimpse of the power of ultimate reality: the love of God through Jesus Christ.