South African Ubuntu and Loving Our Neighbors
“My humanity is inextricably bound up in yours.” – Bishop Desmond Tutu
2020 was a difficult year. Not only did we face a global pandemic, but as a country we looked squarely into the eyes of racism, clenched our wallets during an economic downturn, and watched a presidential transition unlike any other unfold. Yet, in spite of global and national tragedies and disruptions, we witnessed monumental acts of courage, generosity, and sacrifice on the part of health care workers, newly minted activists, and everyday citizens who rose to the occasion.
Onward! When I think of 2021, I am buoyantly optimistic. My optimism is not solely attached to the panacea of a coveted vaccine, or to a rapid recovery from our economic woes, nor to centuries of systemic injustices finally being seen and addressed. I am hopeful for a different reason. Following the public killing of George Floyd, my husband and I marched in a rally in Washington D.C. Outraged by the cumulative acts of racism and violence, upon arrival our hearts were softened as we witnessed an eclectic sea of people marching in solidarity for justice, united in the oneness of humanity. It was beautiful! Despite the social disruption that we all experienced in 2020, in that moment I saw buds of ubuntu sprouting, buds of which I had witnessed during my time in South Africa, but had not really seen in the U.S.
Bishop Desmond Tutu has described the South African concept of Ubuntu by saying, “My humanity is inextricably bound up in yours.” Ubuntu says that we are all connected. Thus what happens to one person affects us all. As a Christian, I am not only called to see the humanity of others, but the Scriptures also tell me to love my neighbor as myself. My neighbor is anyone who doesn’t live with me (non-familial), who doesn’t live like me (different beliefs and practices) or live by me (different region or social location). This command to love my neighbor is not passive but active, which means being concerned about what happens to my neighbor and actively working towards the common good.
As a Christian who is also a minister, I live between the Great Commission (sharing the Gospel) and the Greatest Commandment (loving God and my neighbor). I feel the constant tension between wanting my neighbor to know about Christ, and simply loving my neighbor whether he or she accepts Christ or not. When I engage in interfaith work, I don’t lose sight of my faith or try to dilute it. I actually lean into it.
In my work, as a vice president for educational programs at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, I get to work with campuses throughout the U.S. and internationally. When we recently received a grant to do interfaith work with these campuses, part of our initial challenge was helping campuses see the benefits of interfaith work for their students, because some in the broader Christian community questioned if this meant compromising our faith. To that I say, we are not! Research shows that students who do interfaith work actually more firmly embrace their own faith. Cultivating a love for God and others is a core value for these campuses. Doing interfaith work can actually help with this. While engaging in interfaith work, Christian students are encouraged to embrace their faith while working alongside those who understand God differently or not at all. However, instead of stopping at points of difference, they acknowledge those differences but take it a step further to find commonalities and work together for the common good. Students not only get to live out their faith but they get practical life experience of living and working in a multi-faith world.
What does this look like in everyday life? It means a Christian social work student understanding the importance that faith plays in the life of her Muslim client. It means a Christian professor making accommodations for a Jewish student who wants to observe a sacred holiday. It means a white pastor understanding the intersection of faith and justice. Interfaith work makes us better people, more competent professionals, and a stronger society.
Finally, on a personal note, interfaith work has been beneficial professionally for me, but transformative personally. It led me and my family to actively love our neighbor, including paying for the education of a young Muslim girl in Ethiopia; my having end of life conversations with someone whose understanding of God is different than mine; and me respecting the Jewish faith of my aunt by not cooking non-kosher foods in her house. I believe interfaith work has made me a more thoughtful Christian, a kinder neighbor, and a better citizen. Although not perfect, I am learning to love my neighbor as myself. My hope is that others will too, because our very democracy and existence depends on it.
Kim Battle-Walters Denu is vice president for educational programs at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.
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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.