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A ‘Dialogue of Life’ Approach to Interfaith Peace in West Africa

By Nathan Samwini

Children in Ghana are being raised in a ‘dialogue of life’ that makes religious differences a source of friendship, not conflict. Photo: Jonathan Wiles

Children in Ghana are being raised in a ‘dialogue of life’ that makes religious differences a source of friendship, not conflict. Photo: Jonathan Wiles

A religious revolution has emerged in many local African communities and nations as a whole in the last one hundred years or so. Within the period, various religions have come to live in closer proximity with one another than they had during the previous century. African towns and cities now collaborate with churches and mosques and to a lesser extent traditional/primal religious activities.

Subsequently, at the present time, people of different faiths encounter one another more often in both structured and unstructured ways. For example, in many homes across Ghana and the Gambia, it is common to find followers of African indigenous religions, Christianity, and Islam –  with all the different groups of Christianity and Islam living together. By extension such relations are carried to the larger village or town community.

During child-naming, funeral celebrations and weddings for example, religious people of these varied faiths attend one another’s ceremonies without the question of religious affiliation. The main consideration is to share in the joy of either a neighbor’s childbirth or wedding or to share in the pain of the loss of a relative or a loved one. People of different faiths are also found together in such places as government establishments, educational institutions, business agencies, and at sporting activities.

In these countries, jobs and other public roles are open to all qualified persons irrespective of religious affiliation. It is common, for instance, to find a Catholic heading a Protestant institution and vice versa. In the same way Muslims head Christian institutions and vice-versa. The Ghana national sporting teams have Muslims and Christians in them and reports have it that, when they pray together and on the field, one can hardly tell who is a Muslim and who is not. The same scenario applies to the Gambia and other West African countries.

If religious people must find a way to live together in the same homes, small villages, or town communities and work or study together in other structured and unstructured ways, then a more holistic approach, a ‘dialogue of life’ is inevitably necessary in order to bring about total social cohesion for community and nation building.

Defining Dialogue of Life

Dialogue of life in simple terms entails coexisting peacefully with “the other” in spite of obvious religious differences. It also means being patient. In dialogue of life, people from different religious traditions live and interact in their everyday lives. Dialogue of life is a direct challenge to religious people, non-religious individuals, towns, and communities to accept one another no matter their differences in beliefs or practices.

It differs from interreligious dialogue, which often involves listening to one another about the content of each other’s faiths. Dialogue of life instead entails faith communities and individuals “sharing with openness” what God is doing in the life of his people. Dialogue of life, by virtue of primarily basing relations on blood or social ties, can lead to the dispelling of prejudice and engender mutual understanding. Dialogue of life is a means to challenge adherents of living faiths—such as Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims—to rise up and in witness to each other about what they believe and also to help each other to gain their dignity without oppression.

This mutual enrichment is vital for community development and peaceful co-existence. Douglas Sturm suggests that inter-religious dialogue is primarily concerned with answering the question, “How do we live our lives together?” Whereas formal dialogue consultations range from perspectives and attempts at answering the above question to assumptions that finding bridges between religious differences will facilitate answers, dialogue of life is “the already negotiated answer.”

Unlike interreligious dialogue which seeks, among other things to build understanding on similarities between the different faiths, dialogue of life does not necessarily look for similarities but seeks to bring peace even amidst acknowledged differences. The process thereby generates peaceful co-existence and enables people to promote spiritual and cultural values, which are found in the distinct outlooks of followers of the other religions. Peaceful co-existence leads to a growth in relationship through a process of mutuality that generates greater understanding and mutual enrichment. The end result is better relations between religions within the same community.

Dialogue of life is a form of “mission”. It is not “evangelism” or “da’ wa” (a call to Islam). Evangelism and da’wa intend to bring outsiders to the faith of Christianity or of Islam. Dialogue of life creates an atmosphere of peaceful co-existence. This is not because of any desire to do away with the Christian and Islamic responsibility to call outsiders to their faiths but for them to explore other ways to make plain the intentions of Christian and Muslim witness and service. These approaches have worked remarkably well in Ghana and the Gambia, and the results are that the two countries have not had any serious cases of religious conflicts.

A longer version of Professor Samwini’s paper, “The Need for and Importance of Dialogue of Life in Community Building: The Case of Selected West African Nations,” details the fruitful results dialogue of life brings to Ghana and Gambia. It also shows how the failure to embrace dialogue of life in two other West African countries, Niger and Nigeria, has condemned them to ongoing communal violence. For the longer paper, go to the Spring 2011 Journal of Interreligious Dialogue.