by Melissa May
A reflection on "ubuntu" theology published in the ELCA's Youth Gathering Newsletter, 2003
|Who Do You Say We Are?
Jesus asks his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?”
Young people seem to be constantly reminded of this passage by their church leaders—so much so that these youth might start to think that finding the most appropriate answer to this question is the key to being a Christian.
Perhaps it would help us to understand the Youth Gathering theme—“Do Life! Ubuntu” if think of the question in this way.
We ask Jesus: “Who do you say that we are?”
We are God’s Beloved. We have been chosen by him, brought into his family, fully forgiven, blessed by his presence, and given all that we need to be “little Christs” (as our pal Luther would say) to the world. We are the Church, one body in Christ, each of us
gifted to serve his calling, which is to be set apart in this world of chaos for the purpose of calling all things back to God. All that God is works through us, and none of us could work without him or without each other.
Not too shabby, eh? No wonder we keep talking about this concept of ubuntu!
Desmond Tutu, who was instrumental in making ubuntu known to people outside Africa, says, “God has set in motion a centripetal process, a moving toward the center, toward unity, harmony, goodness, peace, and justice. Jesus says, 'And when I am lifted up from the earth I shall draw everyone to myself' as he hangs from [the] cross with out-flung arms, thrown out to clasp all, everyone and everything, in a cosmic embrace, so that all, everyone and everything, belongs. None is an outsider, all are insiders, all belong . . . There is no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free— instead of separation and division, all distinctions make for a rich diversity to be celebrated for the sake of the unity that underlies them. We are different so that we can know our need of one another, for no one is ultimately self-sufficient.”
So now what? our youth ask, as we all should be asking. What do we do now? A phenomenal part of ubuntu is that it’s not something that merely remains in our thoughts— it’s a way of living. Now is the time to do life!
The Rev. Alise Barrymore, who spoke at the Gathering on Saturday night of Week 1, shared these words with us: “See, to ‘do life’ is to love. To ‘do life’ is not just an attitude, it is an action. It’s not love of just the heart but the hands. Love is an act of worship—when we serve our brothers and sisters, we are loving God.” Ubuntu is a concept of community that isn’t just a pretty idea; it changes the way we live. That’s why the “do life” directive is so important. “This is what we believe,” participants have gone home from the Gathering thinking, “what do we do now?”
The idea of imago dei (the image of God) comes strongly into play as well when Desmond Tutu explains ubuntu: we are created in God’s image, we have been wrapped warmly in God’s own redeeming grace, and that divine image is still coming into fuller focus as we grow. Our lens of faith helps us to continue to see God at work through ourselves in community, for we already have within us more than enough to enact the change we so desperately want to see in the world.
You could almost say that imago dei, as a part of the larger concept of ubuntu, is our I.D.—it is a part of how we identify ourselves in relationship to God and to the communion of humanity.