This last week, in some of my reading, I came across the word ubuntu again. Because of Desmond Tutu, the South African Church leader and the head of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I’d heard of this term before. Desmond Tutu’s granddaughter, Mungi Ngomane, has taken some of her grandfather’s leadership direction and is talking about ubuntu; she wrote a book called Everyday Ubuntu: Living together the African way. It is a concept that has many applications around the world and is deeply spiritual.
It is one of those terms hard to translate into English. Tutu wrote in his memoir, “Ubuntu … speaks of the very essence of being human. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, (‘Yu, u nobunto’;) ‘Hey so-and-so has ubuntu.’ Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, ‘My humanity is inextricably bound up in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life.”
In looking up the word, Ubuntu could also be translated, “I am only because you are.” We are interconnected because we are human beings and our beingness is woven together. Mungi Ngomane explores 14 ways that ubuntu teaches us to be better human beings in her book. In an online article, she described 7 of these ways; check out the reference in my sermon at our website. I think I will seek out this book to read.
I know ubuntu comes from an entirely different culture, time, and place from Jesus in Palestine 2000 years ago, but it seems to me that ubuntu holds the meaning and essence of Transfiguration and even Valentine’s Day together. Today is ultimately about love, and it is that deep love that finds meaning in beingness that gives fulfillment to who we are and what we do as a community of the earth.
The Transfiguration story is a story that points to Jesus’ identity as deeply embedded in humanity. Jesus was all that was important in terms of the Jewish law and the prophets, symbolized by the presence of Moses and Elijah; Jesus embodied God’s engagement with the world. At that time when James, John, and Peter went with Jesus up the mountain, this was thought to be the fullness of what it meant to be human—to fulfill the Law out of love for one’s neighbour and to prophetically follow the quest for justice again out of love for one’s neighbour, all wrapped by our love for God and God’s love for the world. This story, then, is our invitation to connect with God and God’s love planted deeply in our beings and how we live that love out in our lives. Because it is ultimately about being, the story gets at the heart of ubuntu—I am because you are. God’s name is, after all, in a translation of the Hebrew, “I am who I am; I am who I will be.”
Maybe it’s appropriate that we tell the Transfiguration story on Valentine’s Day. I know that Valentine’s Day is currently linked to romantic love, but more broadly, I think, it’s also a reminder of the power of love to change lives. And I think that is ultimately what ubuntu is meant to do, change lives, change societies, change countries. If we set aside for a moment the sentiments of Valentine’s Day, it could be an invitation to make simple gestures of love to one another an everyday occurrence.
I was also reminded this past week of Martin Buber’s book I and Thou. It is a book that arose when Nazi Germany was beginning—Buber, a Jew, was able to escape Germany. His book was all about the degradation of society when relationships become detached and diminished—when we have relationships with “its” rather than real people. It is what happens with racism; people from a different culture get treated as an “it”. We don’t treat the other as human, as having being. We treat them as an object, as the Nazis did with the Jews and anyone who didn’t follow their teachings.
For Buber, relationships with other people must be I and Thou, fully human, fully being, fully inter-relating beingness. We relate to each other as if you are an extension of me and I am an extension of you, whatever differences we may have. This is ubuntu…. I am because you are!
When we’re stressed or we become overly ideological, it is all too easy to treat other people as its, not to mention the natural world of which we are a part. We exploit others or nature because they are an “it” and we have only a superficial relationship based on an idea of possession or ownership.
Jesus, James, John, and Peter take the transfiguration experience on the mountaintop to engage more deeply those they meet. Jesus’ being was affirmed and we were called to listen. We listen deeply with our hearts; we listen transformationally. We listen to engage one another more fully in relationships of mutual respect and honour. We join Jesus and friends in the work of building the Kin-Dom of God because of the affirmation of our own humanness. That’s ubuntu. That’s love.
During this COVID-19 year, there were many moments of decision when we were faced with ubuntu and I-Thou. I have no doubt, for you as it was for me, sometimes your heart opened and ubuntu expanded and beingness was celebrated in a mutual meeting of heart and soul. And sometimes, in difficult, stressful moments, we were unable to live into ubuntu and we retreated from engaging another fully. The key is that we try, as we try with love, to live as fully as we are able.
The truth is that ubuntu, I-Thou, living the loving, transfigured life is a journey. And it is a journey of mis-steps, getting lost occasionally, and feeling alone. But ultimately, it is a journey that others walk with us. When we open our hearts, we will see companions. We walk the journey of ubuntu because of those who’ve gone before us, not just those that walk with us. For example, in a blog, Dr. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, reminded us all that the Vice President of the US, Kamala Harris, walked the path of Charlotta Spears Bass, the first Black woman to run for Vice-president in 1952 on the Progressive Party ticket. And in 1968, Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to Congress and then became the first Black woman to run for her party’s nomination as president in 1972. Ubuntu is walking the path of those who’ve gone before and building on their work.
No question, that we follow the same path as Jesus and the countless people who worked to build the Kin-Dom of God… a Kin-Dom of love, compassion, deep relationship, and I-Thou. We are not separate and our beingness, our humanity is because each other’s beingness and humanity is real and true.
I am because you are. You are because I am! Let’s live that out in the transfigurative way Jesus invited.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
 Quoted in a Ted Talk by Boyd Varty and at this site: https://blog.ted.com/further-reading-on-ubuntu/.