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I Am Because We Are (April 13, 2018)

A wonderful image came across my facebook feed last week, showing 21 African children sitting in a circle on a grassy field. They sat side by side, their feet touching as they pointed into the centre, the soles of their feet forming an almost perfect circle.

That circle was what caught my eye almost immediately. It’s an arresting image.

Underneath the picture was this text: “An anthropologist proposed a game to the kids in an African tribe. He put a basket full of fruit near a tree and told them that whoever got there first won the sweet fruits. When he gave them the signal to run, they all took each other’s hands and ran together, then sat in a circle enjoying their treats. When he asked them why they chose to run as a group when they could have had more fruit individually, one child spoke up and said, ‘Ubuntu! How can one of us be happy if all the other ones are sad?’

“Ubuntu in the Xhosa culture means, ‘I am because we are.’”

I suspect that this concept is foreign to most of us. In fact, I believe most of us simply cannot understand this kind of behavior, this kind of community solidarity.

We are defined in this culture, mostly, by competition. All around us, we are influenced to get ahead no matter the cost. Our society prizes Achievement, Appearance and Affluence above all else. If we are successful, if we are good–looking, if we are wealthy, then we’ve got the good life. We’ve made it!

As a result, writes spiritual writer Thomas Moore, “the great malady of our time … is ‘loss of soul’. When we neglect our soul … it appears symptomatically in obsessions, addictions, violence, and loss of meaning…” He continues, “We yearn for entertainment, power, intimacy, sexual fulfillment, and material things, and we think we can find these things if we discover the right relationship or the right job, the right church or the right therapy. But without soul, whatever we find will be unsatisfying, for what we truly long for is the soul…” (Care of the Soul)

Soul has to do with how we make community with other people.

I remember some 25 years ago I was talking to a church worker who lived and worked among the poor people in Nicaragua. Joe told me about a man named Enrique who had made friends with a wealthy American. When the American died, he left Enrique $10,000 in his will.

It was a crisis for Enrique. In his eyes as a poor peasant, it was a fortune. He could be free to do whatever he wanted to do. But he also realized that to accept this bequest would isolate him from his community. Other people in the village would no longer relate to him as a neighbour. He would be “the rich man”. He would become the patrón. The result of that would be a loss of his community.

That’s why Enrique refused the bequest.

When Joe told that story in a group, the people were confused. How could Enrique give up what for him was a fortune? A windfall like that would have allowed him to better his life.

We just don’t get it. We don’t understand that sense of community. We don’t get Ubuntu. Desmond Tutu, former Archbishop of Capetown, describes it this way: “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours. We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘A person is a person through other persons.’”

We have lost that deep sense of community. We hold up the rugged, solitary individual as a model for how to live.

As a result, there are many people who think that the key question about Christian faith is, “Do you know where you will end up after you die?” As if that is the central question in Scripture and the primary concern of the Creator. It is not.

Part of the difficulty in correcting this skewed perception is the English language itself. When we read the word “you”, our default is to read it in the singular. You, a person, an individual. But the word “you” is also plural. It means you all. Y’all. All y’all. “You” refers to a group of people, a community.

In Greek (the language of the New Testament), there are different forms for the singular and the plural form of the pronoun “you.” The vast majority of Biblical references are in the plural. The Bible is a library of books about community. It is about a people living together, sharing the wealth of the universe, living with hope and compassion and grace. Together.

But our default in the West is to read it as singular. As a result, we miss out on life lived in community.

Rev. Yme Woensdregt