In my twenties I used to travel a lot. I especially loved the Middle East and North Africa. I travelled through Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. Whenever I stopped in a village, locals would come up to me and we’d try to communicate. They would show me photos of their family – and they would always ask to see my family. At first I didn’t have any photos – but I soon learned. In the Middle East and Africa, if you want to know someone, you ask about their family. “Let me see your family, then I will know who you are.”
And that is very hard for us to really understand in the west. Our ideals are so often bound up with terms like “rugged individualism,” the constant encouragement to be competitive – more successful, richer than my neighbor. I remember growing up at school where I was constantly encouraged to distinguish myself – to be different, better, outstanding. I was never encouraged to find my identity in that which I had in common with others – but rather how I might differentiate myself from others – what might set me apart from them.
From this perspective, the pages of the New Testament pose a profound cultural challenge to us. The world which Jesus inhabited was much closer to that of those villages in the Middle East and Africa, where your essential identity is defined by your family, tribe, community. And so when the New Testament talks about coming to faith in Christ, it is always in terms of community. The way to grow into our full stature as children of God is not through competitive individualism, but being made part of a new family, a fellowship, or what the New Testament calls a koinonia of love. It is in this community, the church, the Body of Christ, that we become who we most truly are meant to be, and gain our true identity.
This life in community, in koinonia, is so fundamental for Christians, quite simply because we believe that the very nature of God, in whose image we are made, is community. Today we celebrate the doctrine of the Trinity: that is really just saying that God’s very essence is a community of three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As our Rule puts it: “there is a ceaseless interchange of mutual love which unites the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” So the more we live in communities of love, the more we can grow into the image and likeness of God who created us.
Five years ago in the summer of 2008 I was privileged to be one of the international chaplains to the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury. At the time, and perhaps things haven’t changed that much, the Anglican koinonia was deeply divided and broken. The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams looked to Africa, and their deep understanding of community, for inspiration.
In South Africa there is a Bantu word – ubuntu – which expresses precisely this concept of personhood in which the self is understood to be formed through community – in common with others. “It takes a village to raise a child.”
At the heart of what went on at the Lambeth Conference, was practicing ubuntu. The bishops from all over the world sat down together, recognizing that we all need each other – however much we may disagree – we need each other to find God. As the Africans put it, “I am because we are.”
Some months ago, I was talking with Martin Prozesky, a wise and courageous African theologian, and he took this one stage further. He told me that the word for ubuntu in the Shona language, spoken in Zimbabwe, is ukama – and this means that you can only grow into your true identity in community and through nature. In other words, if you are not in a right relationship with the created world – if you abuse or exploit creation, you are diminished as a person. Today we are realizing with greater urgency how our destruction of God’s beautiful creation is diminishing us and damaging us in ways that we are not yet even fully aware of.
There is the most beautiful description of God’s creative act in our reading today from the Book of Proverbs.(Prov. 8:14, 22-31) It describes God creating the world in marvelous lyrical language. But what is most significant is that the act of creation is a communal act. That God’s very nature is to be in community. Foreshadowing the full development of the doctrine of God as Trinity, already here in the Book of Proverbs there is the developing understanding of God as being and acting in community. It is Wisdom who speaks. “I was created,” says Wisdom, “at the first, ages ago, before the beginning of the earth. When the Lord established the heavens, I was there. When he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him like a master worker: And I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, and delighting in the human race.”
This lovely passage is a perfect expression of ukama – of God living in communion, of God working in communion to create the world, and of God delighting in creating us to live in communion with God, with each other and with creation. That is a wonderful vision of what the Shona language calls ukama and what the Hebrew Scriptures call shalom.
I wonder how you have experienced ukama in your own life? Times when you have felt powerfully and inextricably linked together with others, or profoundly at one with nature? When have you experienced the opposite – that terrible alienation, loneliness and sense of isolation so powerfully described in the story of the Fall in the early pages of the Book of Genesis? A level of loneliness and isolation which is so prevalent in our rich, individualistic western society, but rarely experienced in poorer parts of the world.
We as Christians are called to witness to ukama, shalom, to build community, to know that I need you in order to become whom God made me to be. We as Christians need to heal our wounded planet in order to receive its blessing.
Towards the end of the Eucharist we all, whoever we are, put out our hands together to receive our Lord. Together, we as a family, a community, express our need to be fed and nourished and healed and recreated by our God who is a community of love – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
May we know then, that it is as community, in koinonia, that God longs to save us and bless us, to God’s praise and glory.
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