Ubuntu: Intimacy & Interdependence

“A person is a person through other persons” –Archbishop Desmond Tutu


In traditional tellings of the biblical story of Creation, there was just one thing that was not good, and that was for a person to be alone. God fixed this by giving the first human ever created the gift of companionship with another person. 

“Ubuntu” is a Southern African principle concerning oneness and basic human kindness. The Zulu phrase in which ‘ubuntu’ is found, umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, literally translates to “a person is a person (through other) persons.” No one person can meet all their needs and achieve all their goals without the help of another. We are interconnected and can only thrive through interdependency.

Seen within the earliest examples of Black community and family in the States, all needs were met amongst the people. While one could wait for those with an abundance power and resources to be benevolent and humane, instead we decided to be the doctor, teacher, preacher, artisan, and whatever else we needed to both survive and thrive. The Black Panther Party taught us about this type of people power. The account of the earliest Church in Acts 2:42 shows us this type of collectivism which requires getting close to people, building trust, knowing their name and their story.

Hezekiah Walker’s song, “I Need You to Survive” beautifully describes ubuntu:

I need you, you need me.
We’re all a part of God’s body…
It is his will, that every need be supplied.
You are important to me, I need you to survive.

from Family Affair II: Live from Radio City Music Hall (2002)

The biblical principles and reality of being a body of many parts and bearing one another’s burdens must be remembered and lived out faithfully. This is where our healing lies. This is where our power lies. As our structures and institutions currently stand, we have a ways to go before things are stable and life-giving…especially our churches. There is more often concern for maintaining a brand than meeting the needs of the people in the congregation. Very rarely do we see the parish/neighborhood-based type of model being executed well. We must know and believe that our success is tied up within the success of the people in closest proximity to us. The needs of our neighbor must be taken seriously.

adrienne maree brown, author of Emergent Strategy, helps us further understand ubuntu when she says this about social movements and building people power: 

The idea of interdependence is that we can meet each other’s needs in a variety of ways, that we can truly lean on others and they can lean on us. 

Brown, Adrienne Maree. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. AK Press, 2017.

Even the relationship within the God-head models for us how to love and long for one another. How to make room for one another. How we might testify to the glory we see in one another. That being said, ubuntu makes certain interpersonal, political, and theological demands of us:

  1. A redistribution and equitable sharing of resources 
  2. A hospitality for the “person passing through” *
  3. A respect for and celebration of the different skills and ways of making meaning in the world

*As explained by Nelson Mandela, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HED4h00xPPA

This is what the Church ought to be. This is what community should look like. 

Questions to consider:

  1. Are the people within our immediate spheres of influence taken care of? How are we tendingto their needs/addressing their sources of pain?
  2. How might we be more hospitable and humane to the people outside of our circles?
  3. Are we acknowledging, celebrating, and utilizing the various giftings of the people around us? Do we value different views and thoughts that seek to challenge and better shape us?

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