Orthopraxy: Cultivating Compassion Beyond Rote Rituals, by Osmund Agbo

Not too long ago, I encountered a man at my workplace who thoroughly tested the boundaries of my patience with religion. Let’s simply refer to him as Sam for the sake of this essay.

Sam is a man with an unwavering commitment to religious observances. He devoted countless hours to prayer, adhered diligently to worship rituals, and was a regular attendee at church. His conversations were ceaselessly filled with expressions of how crucial his faith was to him.  But that’s where Sam’s Christianity begins and ends.

Beneath the veneer of piety, Sam harbored convictions that were inherently racist and bigoted. He openly displayed disdain for those who held differing views, using his religious principles as a questionable justification for promoting prejudice. In situations where his intervention could have preserved his neighbors’ lives, it appeared that Sam was inept at dispensing any form of assistance. Unfortunately, encounters with individuals like Sam are not uncommon—they exist among us.

In the United States, a prevalent source of regional pride exists among southerners, who often identify themselves as staunch conservatives and guardians of Christian values. Many proudly reside in the so-called Bible Belt, drawing a stark contrast between their beliefs and what they perceive as the more liberal, morally lax tendencies of northerners. However, a historical paradox emerges when delving into the annals of the American Civil War.

It’s intriguing to note that those same Bible-clutching southerners, proudly upholding their Christian values, found themselves entangled in the Confederate Army during the brutal conflict. This army fought vehemently against their compatriots in the North, not for an abstract principle of conservatism, but to preserve the legacy of slavery. In essence, individuals who professed love for God were actively engaged in actions that sought to confine God’s children to perpetual slavery.

This historical irony echoes the sentiments of Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian nationalist leader, who astutely observed, “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Gandhi’s words, reflective of the paradoxical actions witnessed during the American Civil War, highlight a dissonance between professed Christian values and the action. Similarly, this phenomenon extends to certain followers of other faiths who profess love for God but unleash terror upon fellow human beings in the guise of defending their religious beliefs.

Religion, for many, is a deeply personal and spiritual journey, often intertwined with rituals, prayers, and adherence to sacred texts. However, the true essence of religious practice which goes way beyond mere observance of rituals to encompass a profound commitment to ethical living and compassionate actions, is lost to so many. 

This essay is about “Orthopraxy,” the right conduct within a religious framework, examining the dichotomy between ritualistic devotion and genuine kindness through the cautionary tale of Sam.

The anecdote of the devout man who diligently attends religious services raises questions about the correlation between religious fervor and moral character. The contrast reveals the emptiness of faith divorced from benevolent actions.

Many religious traditions emphasize the intrinsic connection between faith and good works, resonating with the Bible’s sentiment against faith devoid of deeds. Authentic religiosity is reflected not just in places of worship or sacred texts but in everyday interactions and choices.
Orthopraxy underscores the significance of ethical conduct in religious life, insisting that true religious commitment manifests in deeds promoting justice, compassion, and harmony. It challenges the notion that ritualistic observance alone suffices for a fulfilling religious life.

The overly pious man serves as a cautionary archetype, urging us to scrutinize our religious practices. Does our devotion extend beyond rituals into interactions with others? In the vast landscape of religious leadership, the adage “Too many chiefs, not enough Indians” finds resonance, revealing a surplus of ministers, but only a few genuinely dedicated to doing God’s work.

In the Bible, James 2:26 emphasizes that faith without works is dead, criticizing those who profess faith but fail to demonstrate it through tangible acts of goodness and kindness.

Embracing orthopraxy bridges the gap between faith and action, transforming religious convictions into a powerful force for positive change in the world.

Osmund Agbo is the author of ‘Black Grit, White Knuckles: The Philosophy of Black Renaissance