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Ubuntu: Beloved Community


Last week I attended a conference entitled, “Beloved Community as the Way from Scapegoating to Ubuntu.” Theology and Peace hosted this 12th annual conference in Nashville, Tennessee, at American Baptist College.

Ubuntu is a worldview that appreciates all humanity, not just oneself and those with whom one interacts. Ubuntu, a foundational concept used in the reconciliation of South Africa, is concerned with more than facilitation of the thin veneer of justice in the moment. Naomi Tutu described the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as creating a platform for conversation with victims, community, and perpetrators. It sought restorative justice, not punitive justice. Robust truth telling served as salt and light and as part of ubuntu. The healing that Desmond Tutu sought included community through conversation with questions such as:

“Tell me about your family.”

“Who are you and what is life like for you?”

Brené Brown’s work on empathy and vulnerability are almost prophetic calls for peacemaking in this moment when the internet defines and feeds a post truth era with bursts of shallow sensationalism. We’ve taught ourselves not to see. Or maybe the internet platforms have taught us with well-crafted boats of reality on which one can navigate life with a preferred set of paddles, ignoring other, perhaps better suited, ways to pass though the waters of life. We have shrunk to opposites so that now it is easy to ignore the mysteries of others. Faith cannot deny matter. The internet does.

In this post factual cultural moment, reason has no effect on a crowd. Emotion is the driver with resentment, anger, and fear being the best driving gear available. As Daniel Kahneman highlights in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, decisions and analyses will be based on deep intuitions that cause a person to select isolated segments of reality to prove her point. A person is prone to biases, and one is prone to cultural narratives, especially those that appeal to emotion.

I have observed that reputational dynamics are key in the decision about whether to trust the words or story of another. Is this person in my tribe? If so, then she can do no wrong. If not, then everything is suspect.

Ubuntu is not an add-on or an action verb. Adopting ubuntu means that one will see humanity in everyone that one meets and will make decisions based on community, not winners and losers or “team” membership. A person will be valued as more than a unit of production. Each person has a special gift to give. Shabbat Shalom, the most ancient description of Sabbath rest, includes the idea of tethering one’s life to the premise that each human deserves abundance and well-being. The Trinitarian God, living in reciprocity and mutual subservience, can be seen as an ideal of community function and worthy of imitation. This means “we” before “I.”

A fragmented reading of scripture and a fragmented soteriology stunts Christians’ understanding of what is required to act in this moment. In addition, anthropologically, a “White Social Hermeneutic” says, “I can tell you how you were hurt and what you need to do now.”

Jesus told three stories at the end of His life as recorded in Matthew 25. These are:

The Story of the Ten Virgins

The Story of the Buried Talents

The Story of the Final Judgment

Consider the main point of the final story.

“Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” Matthew 25:44-46 (ESV).

It describes a blueprint for how to live in ubuntu.

Africans can teach some things to those in the West who have been numbed by the dominant culture in which we live.

In any situation, a prayer for the Holy Spirit, paraclete, to come alongside those involved is a foundational way to exit the emotionally imitative spirals that entangle society. A failure of Christian anthropology is that it does not describe how one can be one’s own worst enemy. This makes it too easy to scapegoat others based on fear — False Evidence Appearing Real.

Pray for one another. Listen to one another. Ubuntu knows that minimizing another’s story will minimize oneself.


Carmen Lau is board chair of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.

Photo by J W on Unsplash


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