Over the years there has been a significant change in the social fabric that held African societies together. I remember growing up in the village where everybody knew everybody. I remember us always sitting under a mango tree to eat our meals. As we ate, if anyone happened to be passing by, they were greeted and immediately invited to join in the meal. Our mothers walked to the well together in the afternoons, talking all the way to and from. The men gathered together under a big tree at the market square and talked away the evening. As children we played all over the village and at lunchtime we ate our meal wherever we were. If we did wrong any adult could correct us. This was Ubuntu. The social fabric that held our community together.
The Shift from “Us” to “Me”
This lifestyle has been lost in the cities, largely due to two forces: urbanisation and westernisation. In the recent past, there has been an increase of predominantly young people moving from rural villages to urban cities, seeking a “better life”. These cities have become cultural melting pots where new cultures are created. Westernisation, driven by capitalism, has shaped these cities where the motto is, “survival of the fittest”. Thus the focus has shifted to the pursuit of individual wealth excluding—even at the expense of—the community. The negative influence of western culture has fundamentally contributed to the loss of Ubuntu in African cities. The loss of Ubuntu has negatively resulted in people being individualistic and self-centered.
The negative influence of western culture has contributed to the loss of Ubuntu.
Humans are Designed to live Relationally
Increasingly, the world has become more individualistic and inward looking. Africans have followed suit. In many places individualism is the hallmark of this generation. We approach life from the perspective of “I” rather than “we”. At the foundation is the attitude of how do I benefit, not how do we mutually benefit. Individualism is destroying the church rather than building it. People will come to church because they love God. But they will not care for their neighbour in church who has no food or clothing. God created us as human beings not human doings. This was so that we might live relationally in community. The Church needs to redeem the strong social fabric that Ubuntu offers. We must have a concern for the needs of all, both in proclaiming Christ and providing care.
The Church needs to redeem the strong social fabric that Ubuntu offers.
But people are building high walls around them and rarely interact with their neighbours. It is as if everyone is living on an island. The social fabric that once kept our societies together has been lost, even in the church. Life in community shaped by the gospel is the antidote to this dilemma.
Ubuntu sets Community over the Individual
Ubuntu is an African philosophy that says people exist in community not isolation. We are human because of our interconnectedness with other humans. Ubuntu is a word used by several Bantu tribes in East and Southern Africa to depict “humanness”. It is a word that is difficult to translate into English. It is an attitude of faithfulness and commitment to the group above success of the individual.
Ubuntu a commitment to the group above success of the individual.
Ubuntu describes what is unique about human beings and makes them distinct from other creatures. It describes a complete way of life and shapes behaviour, highlighting the very essence of being human. In Ubuntu my humanity is caught up in yours. Here a person is a person because of other persons. In Ubuntu social harmony is the summum bonum (greatest good). Ubuntu is not an end in itself but the content of all that is good in society. It is not a destiny but the journey. This differentiates Ubuntu from communism or socialism, which are ends in themselves.
Community is Present at Every Major Point in Life
In Africa, every major point of life was once marked by the spirit of Ubuntu. In every major intersection of life the attitude of Ubuntu was present. Community is present at birth, naming, circumcision, marriage, death and last funeral rites, sowing and harvesting, etc. It has been said, “It takes a village to raise a child.” This highlights the role of the whole community in the life of a child. Ubuntu affirms that being with others makes us human, from sharing a meal to showing hospitality.
Ubuntu and the Gospel
However, as Yamikani has said: every African traditional practice requires to either be rethought, redeemed, rejected or renewed. Ubuntu needs to be redeemed by the church. It needs to be refined by the gospel. It must be conformed to biblical truth. Throughout the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, we see that God created humans to be relational and live in community.
Throughout the Bible we see that God created humans to live in community.
In Genesis 1-2, God as a community of the Trinity creates mankind to live in communion with him and each other. At the fall these relationships are broken (Genesis 3). Soon after this we encounter the first murder (Genesis 4). But we do not have to wait long for God’s gracious response. In Genesis 12 through Abraham, relationship is initiated and a new community is promised.
Christ Redeems Mankind for Community
In the Gospels, Christ comes to redeem mankind for community. He restores our relationship with God and in doing so each other (Ephesians 2:11-22). Christ identifies with his disciples as he lives with them in community. Jesus’ word in John 15:13, “greater love has no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends,” refers to not only to crucifixion but also to the daily sacrifice of self for others.
Christ identifies with his disciples as he lives with them in community.
Ubuntu echoes this spirit and attitude. In Acts, church communities are established in different cities. The early church was a community (Acts 2:42-47). Repeatedly the New Testament reminds us to love one another (John 13:35); live at peace and in harmony (Romans 13:14-21); serve each another (Galatians 5:13; 6:10); encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11); and bear with each another (Ephesians 4:2).
The church in Africa should redeem Ubuntu, a social fabric that holds the church together. Recovering Ubuntu in the church would go some way towards recovering the New Testament vision for Christian community. This is the attitude that whatever you do impacts others, what affects one affects all. Success of the group is above that of the individual. Furthermore, the practice of Ubuntu creates an impetus for planting and evangelism, discipleship and caring for the needy.
You Won’t Get Far, Alone
It is important for Christians today to realise that God never intended for the Christian to live the Christian life alone. For we have been called to a common life in Christ. The biblical ideal of community challenges us to commit ourselves to live life together as the people of God. The community is where we learn to strip away our self-interest in order to serve others, sharing what God has given us. Paul Tripp argues in Whiter than Snow, “We weren’t created to be independent or self-sufficient. We were made to live in humble, worshipful, and loving dependency upon God and in a loving and humble interdependency with others.”
God never intended for the Christian to live the Christian life alone.
Therefore we have to reject individualism and redeem genuine fellowship and community (or Ubuntu) in the church. It is important for Christians today to understand that our lives are designed to be communal. Our sinful nature points us inward to claim that all we need is within us. The world says something similar. We are failing to take advantage of the resource of Ubuntu, living in community that God has demonstrated and called us to. Living a common life in Christ as the fabric. Ubuntu is a truth that God embedded in African culture that is affirmed in the gospel.