Reflecting on Ubuntu in Hot-Mess Times

What is your faith? What is the foundational building block you start with in building the belief system that shapes you, inspires you, supports you, challenges you? When Jesus was asked a similar question — framed by the questioner as “what is the greatest commandment” — he famously replied:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Matthew 22:34-40

As followers of Jesus, the foundation of our faith likewise hangs on these two commandments. And Mungi Ngomane — granddaughter of the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu — offers this summation of how we are called to live that faith in these challenging times.

COVID-19 showed up in our global family, we were living in what I call “hot-mess times.” In our current context, race and ethnicity, caste and color, gender and sexuality, socioeconomic status and education, religion and political party have all become reasons to divide and be conquered by fear and rancor. . . . Put simply, we are in a perilous time, and the answer to the question “Who are we to be?” will have implications for generations to come.

We have a choice to make. We can answer this question with diminished imagination, by closing ranks with our tribe and hiding from our human responsibility to heal the world. Or we can answer the question of who we are to be another way: We can answer it in the spirit of ubuntu. The concept comes from the Zulu phrase Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, which literally means that a person is a person through other people. Another translation is, “I am who I am because we are who we are.”. . . With this in mind, who I will be is deeply related to who you are. In other words, we are each impacted by the circumstances that impact those around us. What hurts you hurts me. What heals you heals me. What causes you joy causes me to rejoice, and what makes you sad also causes me to weep.

By channeling the ancient wisdom of ubuntu, we can engineer a badly needed love revolution to rise up out of the ashes of our current reality. . . . The empathy that grows from listening to others, from connecting with our neighbors, and from loving our neighbors as we love ourselves can define the courses of action we take.

[1] Mungi Ngomane, Everyday Ubuntu: Living Better Together, the African Way (New York: Harper Design, 2020), 13, 14.

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