I was privileged to hear Desmond Tutu, the famous Archbishop from Cape Town, South Africa, speak at St. Sabina’s on Chicago’s southside about five years ago. He was this amazing, kind, funny, wise, little man in a bright magenta colored robe with probing, deep insights into race, faith, human nature, suffering, and forgiveness. He introduced me to the concept of “Ubuntu,” an idea present in African spirituality that says “I am because we are” – or we are all connected, we cannot be ourselves without community, health and faith are always lived out among others, an individual’s well being is caught up in the well being of others. (Sojourner’s devotions for this month in their “Living the Word: A People’s Identity“, are all about this concept too – how we are a people and how we are called and often judged as a group.)
I later read more about Ubuntu from an academic point of view, understanding how theological anthropology has different lenses with which to view human nature and tendancies. Ubuntu brings with it a very different vantage point then western Christianity tends to – whereas white evangelicals tend to talk about individual salvation, personal morality, and family values, black theology, liberation theology, and african-Ubuntu frameworks tend to talk about kingdom living, community wholeness, and beyond just caring for our nuclear family, the “it takes a village” mentality in terms of how we care for others and who we extend our mercy to as we respond to God.
Communal faithfulness, and caring for the health and life of the whole community, is actually much closer to the biblical mindset that the prophets and Jesus embodied then an individualistic mentality. God called a whole nation – Jews – a people group, to follow Yahweh and to be formed as a community into the faithful witness of God on earth. Christ came into this people group and then widened the call to Jews and Gentiles – anyone who believed in His vision for a new kingdom – which is a social group or communal order with a specific King that rules those people. Christ used the disciples (a social group not based on the nuclear family), and then the church (an even larger social group meant to embody the body of Christ now on earth), to manifest the witness of God now. The old (first) Covenant of the Jewish people group was fulfilled and expanded to be a new Covenant of grace and living into the kingdom of God – which Christ partly brought with His life and death and which the people of God are now to continue in our individual and corporate lives.
My understanding of history is that the more recent focus on ‘individual salvation’ was a reaction to what was considered cold, dead, or rote corporate faith practice. The Pietist movement (of which I am part and think we need more of in today’s context), arose in this time frame in Europe to ask people to bring their emotions, their personal questions and choices, and all of their lives into faith and to not fall into a pattern where head and heart and hands were separated. Where a pattern of belief or belonging to a certain church could equal personal faith or commitment. But this renewal of the church that Luther, Wesley, Moravians, Baptists, and other denominational movements all flowed out of was never meant to split personal faith from corporate life -or internal piety from external lived ethics. In the US in the 1920’s, this dualism between individual and community became even deeper as the fundamentalist movement developed in response to liberal theology coming from Germany, the Scopes Trial that scared people into thinking they had to choose between science or religion, and Darby’s reaction to the social gospel through a heavy focus on ‘premillenialism’ (a specific interpretation of when the end times would occur that was then linked to a belief that heaven was the only goal and so this world was not worth being actively engaged in). A.C. Dixon’s “The Fundamentals,” that brought much definition to early evangelicals, was also published in this time, and specifically split personal faith from community life, internal morals from external political or community systems, and was wary of any communal or social conversation because of the ‘wordly’ overtones it was scared of. Rational consent of certain beliefs and principles became the definition of ‘a believer,’ instead of a lifestyle or acts of following Christ.
While it is possible to see how the climate of these times caused different faith traditions to separate out individual and communal aspects of faith in order to refresh and renew their call, in many places in the US evangelical church, we have gone too far. Christ never asked people to affirm the four spiritual laws to show their assent to a certain apologetic of faith. Jesus never asked people to do daily devotions on their own and personally get right with God as the only response of faith – He asked people to ‘follow me’, to join a community of a band of misfits who learned from being with Christ, to try to live in the way of Christ, to make choices for both their own lives and for the community that would embody God’s justice (righteousness) and mercy in this world now, to be the aroma of Christ and be the salt and light of the coming kingdom (the coming social order). Personal committment and faithfulness is of course, part of the biblical teaching that the church needs to continue equipping saints for – but a heavy focus on only this aspect of faith has resulted in weakness and inbalance in the church today. The Bible is about both personal and communal salvation, transforming individual lives and transforming the world we live in in order to serve and love our neighbor as ourselves. I am so grateful for Ubuntu – African spirituality (and other theologies), that have helped me recover this part of my faith tradition that has been almost lost, and to see how vital and central it is to the health and mission of the church.