Monday, February 7, 2011

Ubuntu and Love

If you attended Epiphany Explorations in Victoria, at First Met UC, a week ago, as I did, you may have heard Naomi Tutu, daughter of Desmond Tutu,  speaking about “ubuntu”.  Since hearing her I have been intrigued with how ubuntu enlightens Paul’s words about love in his first letter to the Corinthian church.  You know the text - love is patient, and kind, not envious, nor boastful, nor arrogant, nor rude... and love never ends.
Naomi began by reminding us that we are all Homosapiens, in this world, but we learn how to be human in the context of our culture, by watching the elders, and by being corrected when we are wrong.  This, she said, is the process of coming to ubuntu.  Ubuntu, as I understood her, acknowledges that a person is a person through other people.  She spoke of her childhood, and said that in her home and family the oldest child must remember that their personhood depends on their recognizing the personhood of those others who are younger... when all the children eat at the table sharing from one bowl of food.  If you demean someone else you demean your self.  She said this was evident in the home, but hard to see outside the family, in the real world in which she was growing up in South Africa.  Her parents would say, “You will come to see...”
This black South African girl, growing up under the oppression of Apartheid South Africa, came to realize that white South Africans were also oppressed - by their fear of losing their privilege.  
In Naomi’s culture, to say someone has ubuntu is the highest compliment, the highest estimation of a person.  Ubuntu is not about doing, it is more than that - ubuntu is about seeing and recognizing the humanity of others.  It is a way of being in relationships of mutual respect and acceptance.  She gave us an example of a program in US churches where homeless people are fed very well, but no one sits down with them to eat together, to share the meal.  The homeless who are fed do not feel seen, nor respected - in this offering of food, no one has ubuntu.
To have ubuntu means to be able to see the common humanity we share with all “others” - the ones who do not feel as we do, do not see the world as we do, don’t respect the same way we do, don’t care as we do.
When we look at another person or group of people who are evidently in some way different from us, and fail to really see them, fail to recognize that these others who we think are so different from us are actually basically like us, we let ourselves off the hook and fail to identify with them and we do not seek to know what their story really is - to hear their story from their own lips, in their words.  Ubuntu calls us to simply recognize that those whom we see as “other” and know are against us are actually as human as we are.
When Jesus was asked to name the greatest commandment, he said “Love...”  Love God, with everything you have and are, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.  And when he was asked who was his neighbor, he identified the one least likely to be considered - the one who would never even be seen - the Samaritan.  Ubuntu and love.
Love is not easy.  We want it to be, and we sometimes pretend it could be, if only...  But the truth is that love is a challenge.  I’ve read Paul’s words about love at many weddings.  And when I do, I always speak about the fact that after the wedding these two people will not magically melt into each other and become one.  They will, in fact, continue to be two strong individuals, with unique perspectives, and opinions, and wisdom, and ideas that have been shaped and formed and learned in their families of origin... and because of this they are going to need to take the time to listen to one another, to check for understanding, to express themselves clearly, and share how they are thinking and feeling - in short - to communicate openly, and honestly, and with mutual respect and caring.  This is true for all of us, in all our relationships.
Those Christians in that little church (probably a house church) in Corinth were very enthusiastic, and diligent, and opinionated, and certain that they were on the right track in this new faith - and that was getting them into trouble with one another!  They went into great detail in outlining life as a person of faith - and there were differences among them.  Paul was reminding them that the way of Jesus was the way of loving relationship.  And Paul went into great detail about what that did and didn’t mean.  
I won’t post this text in the blog, but if you are inclined, I’d invite you to read Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13 in The Message.  He concludes with “Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly.  And the best of the three is love.”
I’ve always believed that, as a church and a congregation, the most important thing we can do for our children is to let them know that the church is a place where they are loved unconditionally, where they can come for assurance that they are special and awesome and wanted and welcome.  That means we must be a safe place.  I think Naomi Tutu’s description of ubuntu is a wonderful description of what that looks like... a place where everyone’s worthiness is recognized - everyone’s humanity is celebrated.  This is what Paul’s letter calls us to.  This is the love that is in the heart of God, and spreads among us, and fills us, and gives us the courage to share loving relationships.  Thanks be to God.

Sharon Copeman

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