Religion, Ethics, Character and the African Story

Guest Columnists

Religion is a system of beliefs and practices anchored on those beliefs, passed down generation-after-generation from a source or sources widely acknowledged by the adherents. Conclusions on morality derive from the creeds that have been handed down as sacred and unamendable doctrines. A way of life, therefore, that may be considered strange, weird, nonsensical, and outright “uncivilized” by outsiders of a religion may be held unto by the adherents with such conviction and tenacity that defy even threats of death. Religious beliefs need not be written down on paper; those writings on the heart of the believers could be so indelible and fresh. Conduct that originates from religious convictions is usually instigated by either fear of retributions against infraction of the religious statutes (both in the mortal life and in eternity) or desire for material and spiritual reward by the deity. This sharply marks the difference between ethics and religion.

Ethics constitute all conduct and behaviors that are meant to fetch and sustain order, good neighborliness, personal wellbeing and prosperity, and self-improvement opportunities for members of a society. Those behaviors are motivated, not necessarily by expectation of reward in the after-life but by a desire to make people happy and to derive self-protection and - satisfaction. While religion provides avenues for atonement and quick re-integration into the core membership, ethics frown at the “hypocrisy of religion.” In fact, some people kill, oppress, and dehumanize others in the name of religion while others place little emphasis on morality or deeds of kindness, professing that “grace covers all sins.” And many religious folks who make claims to “morality” show little or no respect for either human life or human dignity. They oppress and discriminate on the basis of gender, race or religious affiliation.

Is there conflict then between religion and ethics? Do culture and environment not affect both or rather the perceptions of both? Recently, I received a mail from a white American who described himself as an “American white Christian male.” He wrote:

“I am an American white Christian male that loves my Christian brothers whatever the color of their skin. And although the ubiquitous sinful nature of man is omnipresent throughout all races and cultures, I can’t help but notice the distinct acceptance of immoral traits such as the disregard of human life and sexual immorality that is so commonplace in the black culture. Reports of lawlessness that come from the African continent differ very little from the news out of South Chicago.” What this fellows says is that he has observed certain behaviors of a set of people long enough to attach a character description to them. Is his perception correct or it is simply a myth? Answers will differ, and that is alright. He identifies “distinct acceptance” of “immoral traits” such as disregard of human life and sexual immorality   in the black culture.

Africans are deeply religious and superstitious; this cannot be disproved. From the traditional or cultural religions to foreign (adopted) religions, the African continent has been fed aplenty on the menu of religion. Churches, mosques and shrines adorn the streets and open spaces across the continent. People travel from one corner of Africa to another on religious missions and errands, and even go on religious pilgrimages beyond Africa. But what is the evidence on character? Bloodshed is on the increase, corruption in public and private life is rampant, lawlessness and impunity by constituted civil authorities are no more pretentious, and human affection is fast fading away. Perceptions are formed from observation. Those of us who are writers for public utility in Africa can hardly disagree that sometimes thoughts play on our heart, “Why do I bother to keep on writing; are my essays making any positive impact at all?”

I have cultivated an inquisitive disposition of reading comments of readers of news stories and opinion articles in Africa. I am almost always disappointed by the preponderance of gutter expressions and hate exhibited when a reader disagrees with the comments of another. Some curse in the name of God those they even don’t know, when they disagree with their comments. When a man (or woman) points out an unethical conduct in public office holders, which is detrimental to the order of society, it is not uncommon for a huge congregation of readers, for purely sectional reasons, to descend on the poor fellow, brandishing stinging excoriating vituperations without decorous restraint. But we are very religious, aren’t we?

“But pure religion and undefiled is this: to visit the orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep yourself undefiled by the world.” To me, this underscores genuine and practical religion—actions that protect and provide for the weak in society and that shield the religious from the corruption that is ingrained in the earth through intractable desires and sensual lusts. Anything outside of this is divorced from the good health of society, and constitutes terror to humanity. African politicians and politicians in other parts of the world should keep this fact in view.

When leaders of a nation lead in the abuse of the law, offence against due process, and violation of the mandate and will of the people, they expose themselves and their society to serious harm. So the question is appropriate: Why do Africans hold little respect for human life? A strong man is the one with tremendous self-control, which is pure self-love. Africans and their leaders need this kind of love in order to build a society where the law is applied to all irrespective of social status, where leaders don’t resort to destroying if power becomes elusive or control therefore is threatened. There is life after public office, and power is transient, then it migrates to another.

True leaders do not commend themselves; they leave that role to their masters—the people they serve. They do not score themselves and then present to their examiners the scorecard, for that would be insanity. The scorecard is handed to the student by the examiner. They do not demand for “unreserved apologies” when their people criticize their policies or perceived high-handedness; rather, they persuade and explain. That is what a servant does to his master. If African leaders are servants, then they should act accordingly. But if they are masters, then the continent is in grave danger; the leaders are now free from the ethical leash, wandering about and snarling at hapless citizens who face the confusion of being told they could choose their leaders and at the same time commanded to shut up! This is confusion.

Nigeria, the giant of Africa, enters a general elections season, and politicians and political leaders should accept that they cannot govern over corpses. The festival and harvest of deaths must end. Let the religious among them seek to be ethical, at least that may fetch respite for the often abused.

By Leonard Karshima Shilgba