Inter religious conferences of today have revealed close parallels in religious experiences despite the different terms that express them. At a deeper level they are now seen as epiphanies of the transcendent for which we use the word God (of many names).
Ubuntu is a term from South African philosophy which basically means “humanity”, ‘I am because we are who we are’, or ‘A person is a person through other persons., or ’What hurts you hurts me’. Bishop Tutu wrote: ’A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belong to a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated, tortured, oppressed’. Ubuntu is good. Individualism separates us from others (and the earth) whereas Ubuntu speaks of our interconnectedness and interdependence. What we do affects the whole.
Modern science underscores the truth of the last statement. We thought we were independent of the ocean and the forests and all natural creatures, free to use them, exploit them, destroy them as we please. We are paying an enormous price in discovering what we do affects the whole – as someone has said ‘When a butterfly flutters its wings the air over the ocean is disturbed’. Science is forcing us to revise our concept of God in Christ combining heaven and earth, matter and spirit as one that cannot be separated. All life in all its forms and substances, the entire universe, our daily existence, what is seen and what is unseen is penetrated, generated and held together by the grace, power, wisdom and love of God.
One wonders what a difference it would have made if Ubuntu’s deep affirmation of the connectedness of all human beings had been understood, explored and accepted by the early white settlers and missionaries. Influenced by Western intellectual development, individualism and Christian teaching did they come believing they were bringing something superior to the darkened mind of the indigenous people? Did something similar take place in the Western expansion into North and South America? (Had I been informed of Ubuntu it would have had an impact on my early ministry in S.A.)
Remembering Bishop Tutu’s definition of Ubuntu isn’t Jesus a perfect example? Religion for Jesus was all about relationships. He was always open and available to others. He exercised grace to everyone in speech and action. He was concerned about their well-being and health, ready to identify with and defend those who were being unjustly treated. He recognized our connectedness and saw no difference between Samaritan, Roman or Jew. Each were children of the One Father of all. He ‘so loved the world’ – its people and the earth with all its creatures bound together as one revelation, or incarnation of the Father.
Ubuntu’s sense of relatedness could become a source of healing in our divided society. The effects of the loss of this spirit among indigenous Africans in South Africa, is seen in the corruption, greed, service failure, self-gratification and preoccupation plaguing our society, disrupting good governance and polluting our politics. So much divides us today we forget who we really are – God’s creation. A person is a person through other persons, so you become a mirror in which I see myself; pain, sorrow and joy wear the same face regardless of social status, colour, race or creed. We are connected at a deeper, invisible level.
Why cannot the spirit of Ubuntu bring about a badly needed revolution in our parliament, government and the social and economic fabric of our nation? Jesus taught Ubuntu, ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself’. When modern technology shrinks the world abolishing all boundaries who becomes our neighbour? Ubuntu could promote a uniting consciousness aligned to God’s uniting influence through his Spirit. The effect that could have on our polarized, multi-ethnic society is immeasurable and would be of benefit to all. It could become the mystic element of what Julian of Norwich called ‘oneing’ by which the life of all people exist; as she said ‘In the sight of God, all human are ‘oned’, and one person is all people’. We achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others and caring for those around us. God binds us together in ways invisible to the eye.
‘Grace is what God does to keep all things he has made in love and alive – forever’ (Ruhr). What if Ubuntu is part of that grace? It will affect how we see the other person and how we relate to them, connect with them, satisfying our need for a sense of belonging.