I first learned African concept of Ubuntu from a dear friend during my time as a graduate student at Clemson University. As clarification, we are not talking about the open source computer operation system by the same name – though quite interestingly it was designed with idea of what is mine is also ours, that we can create something better together. From what I was able to learn, it is also the fastest growing operating system in the world.
When I knew I was being called to preach on the ideology (not operating system) of Ubuntu. I texted my friend Jay asking him where I should start on this huge concept. He wrote, “Love others, love the journey, don’t conform to individualist culture, share a drink with all visitors, and make more food than you need in case someone comes over.” This, is Ubuntu.
Ubuntu has most of its root in African Traditions and was made popular and more accessible to Western audiences by Archbishop Desmund Tutu.
Ubuntu is a tricky worldview for those of us raised in the West. The idea that I am not actually a person without someone else, doesn’t make sense on the surface. I am proud of being independent. I am proud of being a Christian. These two identities cannot exist in the same place and time without understanding the interconnectivity of us all. There is no such thing as an isolated Christian.
In the scripture reading today, we are reminded of the Golden Rule – a stock standard in any Christian Education Curriculum. Love God, love your neighbor as you love yourself. This is seemingly a simple concept, yet here we are in a world more divided than united. We are divided by race, gender, age, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, and ability. You name it and we have found a way to separate ourselves.
Ubuntu theology calls us back to the teachings of Jesus in the Golden Rule. I am because we are: Love God. Love our neighbor. Love ourselves. When we break down the Golden Rule we can see its complex and simplistic beauty.
We could have long discussion about the nature and reality of God, as well as concept of love. What is important in the framework of Ubuntu is to not confuse ourselves with God. The language often used in Christian communities is about our personal relationship with God, our personal relationship with Jesus. When we view this relationship exclusively personal, we in turn, create a personal God.
We take the pieces that make sense to us, and love our own creation of God. A God in our image. Not us in God’s image. When we start believing in the God of our own creation it is easy to restrict access as we see fit. Therefore, we don’t have to love those we deem unlovable because our God isn’t in them. Who and what do we deem unlovable? Is that God’s declaration or is it us attempting to limit God?
God did not create us because God had to. God created us because God is abundant love.
Without a communal connection, as emphasized in Ubuntu, we lose perspective of God. We must not only love God in the privacy of our hearts, but we must unconditionally share this love in community, to be reminded that God is bigger than any one relationship. Love God.
Love Our Neighbor.
The idea of neighbor must expand to hold the differences abound in our world. As I begin my second year in seminary, I am often in conversations about the reality of the religious “other.” Figuring out who I am as a Christian in contrast to others is how I went about learning. It took a challenging course to realize how limiting this worldview was in my ministry. Figuring out who I am because of what someone else is NOT, leads to barriers. Figuring out who I am because of what someone else IS, leads to connection.
This summer I had the privilege to be a mentor at an interfaith youth camp. Both the participants and the mentors represented a wide range of faith traditions. Throughout the 8 day experience we attended Jumma or Friday prayers at the Mosque right down the road, attended Shabbat services, went to a Protestant Sunday Service, and visited a Hindu temple. Despite my years of professional and personal experience with interfaith dialogue, all but the Protestant Service, were new experiences for me. It had never crossed my mind to go in to an “other’s” place of worship. By physically joining my neighbor in their space, I was able to see and experience a side of my neighbor no book or TedTalk could teach me.
In the Hindu temple, they have a beautiful practice of offering gifts to the various manifestations of God. Hindus know that these gifts aren’t actually going to be consumed by God. Rather, the gifts are shared. When we were at the temple, a priest came up to one of the high school students and handed her a banana from Genish. He said, “Here – you need this.” How beautiful. A faith that gives its offerings directly to the community. That is Ubuntu at work.
I believe we have kidnapped the concept of neighbor and replaced it with “other.” When someone is “other” we don’t have to see them as a neighbor; we don’t even see them as human. I am not those “things.” I’m not Muslim. I’m not black. I’m not homeless. I’m not a war vet – these things are things that aren’t me. No. People are not things. There is nothing that some else is that I am not.
If we are to follow Ubuntu, we become a part of the puzzle. A unique piece of the connected fabric. Through Ubuntu we maintain our particularity without holding it above or setting it aside from anyone else. Rather, we make each other whole. There is no such thing as “other.” We are all neighbors. Love your neighbor.
This is the third element of the Golden Rule, as well as a part of Ubuntu. How we love and treat ourselves reflects within our communities. Honestly, this might be the hardest part of the Golden Rule and frankly, the part we don’t talk enough about in the Church.
A professor said in class this past year, “The Golden Rule can be really easy. If you barely love yourself, you barely love your neighbor.”
The idea of self-love or self-care, is honestly hard for me to embrace. Particularly as a woman, I was raised to serve and give to others. To always put other’s needs before my own. Taking time to myself is somehow selfish.
This past week, I went to get a massage. A fellow ministerial colleague remarked about how luxurious and lavish my choice was. I went to get a massage because I hurt my shoulder. Now, I’m pretty sure it was just from how I sleep – which is a dose of humility as I get older.
But taking care of myself is not selfish, or luxurious. We take our cars in for more regular maintenance than we do our own bodies, let alone our minds, or our spirits.
Taking care of myself not only makes me able to be my authentic self, it also makes me easier to be loved by others. As my boyfriend can attest, if I am tired or hungry I am not easy to love. To be a spiritual embodiment of Ubuntu we must engage in the process of being lovable.
And yes, self-care can cost money that often those who most need it, can’t spare. There needs to be a cultural shift in loving and creating our best selves so that I am well because we are all well.
Often when we are angry at our neighbor, it is because we see ourselves in our neighbor’s anger. We see the imperfections of others clearly, when we have the same ones. We must take the first step and love ourselves, flaws included, to break down this cycle of hostility.
Now there is a difference between self-love and self-absorption – a very fine line as we navigate the “selfie” generation. But if we take the time to become our best selves, not just promote an image of it – then we will truly live out the Golden Rule in the spirit of Ubuntu.
I have heard critiques of this part of the Golden Rule. Some call for the creation of the Platinum rule. That we should love each other the way each other wants to be treated. While I do not disagree with this twist, this concept is already in the Golden Rule – IF we pay attention to loving ourselves.
When we are our best selves we see others in a way that rare today. When we are as whole as we were created to be, we see our neighbor in pain, and respond as if it was our own. We respond through our neighbor’s eyes when they respond to ours. When we forgive ourselves, we forgive others. When we love ourselves, we love others. Love Yourself.
The Golden Rule. Love God. Love Your Neighbor. Love Yourself. Whether you are like Jay preparing more food than you need, crossing borders in to a neighbor’s space, or taking time for you – we are a part of each other.
I leave you with the words of Desmund Tutu:
“We say a person is a person through other persons. We don’t come fully formed into the world. We learn how to think, how to walk, how to speak, how to behave, indeed how to be human from other human beings, We need other human beings in order to be human. We are made for togetherness, we are made for family, for fellowship, to exist in a tender network of interdependence. That is why apartheid and all racism are so fundamentally evil for they declare that we are made for separation, for enmity, for alienation, and for apartness. Ubuntu enables reconciliation and forgiveness especially when hearts have been inflicted with such pain. This is how you have Ubuntu – you are, you are hospitable, you’re gentle, you’re compassionate and concerned. Go forth as a new doctor, conscious that everybody is to be recovered, reverenced as created in God’s image whether inner-city and rural areas – go form and demonstrate your Ubuntu, to care for them, to heal them, especially those who are despised, marginalized. Go forth to make the world a better place for you can make a difference. The task is daunting- of course, but it is our necessary struggle.”