Bear one another’s burdens: Ubuntu
A couple of weeks ago, I reminded you that I’m from Yorkshire. I’m happy that my birthplace was in Yorkshire; it means that I’d achieved something as soon as I was born!
It can be a hard place, Yorkshire. People sometimes wrongly say that Scottish people are mean. Well, it’s been said that the difference between a Yorkshireman and a Scotsman is this: A Yorkshireman is a Scotsman wi’ generosity sooooked out of ’im. And there’s a saying that Yorkshire folk are famous for:
’ear all, see all, say nowt;
tak’ all, keep all, gie nowt;
eat all, sup all, pay nowt;
an’ if th’ivver do owt fer nowt,
do i’ fo’ thisseln
Hear everything, see everything, say nothing;
take everything, keep everything, give nothing;
eat everything, drink everything, pay nothing;
and if you ever do anything for nothing,
do it for yourself.
But you know, anyone who were to live by that motto would be making a mistake.
Perhaps another piece of English wisdom is better: it’s from the poet John Donne, who eventually became the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. In 1624 Donne wrote,
No man is an island, entire of itself…
Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind;
and therefore never send to know
for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.
John Donne got it right; others have got it right, too. I’ve been reading something of Desmond Tutu lately. He speaks of the interdependence of all people using an African word, ubuntu. I want to spend a few minutes on what he says later; some of it may be familiar to those of you from Africa, particularly southern Africa.
So, according to John Donne and Desmond Tutu, we are all interconnected; therefore, next time you do something for nothing, do it for someone else.
This week, we’re in the final leg of our journey through Galatians and the Apostle Paul is exploring more of what it means to be one new people in Jesus Christ.
Remember, Paul says we Christians are one new people in which distinctions like black or white, male or female, straight or gay are irrelevant. A part of this one new people, we are to ‘live by the Spirit’. Through spiritual practices like daily prayer, we are to seek to put ourselves in a place in which we can follow the leading of the Spirit.
As part of this one new people, we are to grow the fruit of the Spirit, which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
It’s not about any law. Some people can obey rules easily. Others have great difficulty. But in this one new people, we all depend on the fruit of the Spirit. Law can’t command happiness; the Spirit gives joy. Law can’t settle an anxious mind; the Spirit brings peace.
Now let’s notice one thing: the fruit of the Spirit can only be seen in our relationships. I can’t have ‘love’ unless I am loving to others. I can’t have ‘gentleness’ if I’m not gentle in my dealings with other people. I can’t have ‘generosity’ and be ‘a Scotsman wi’ generosity soooked out of ’im’.
The fruit of the Spirit is not something we ‘have’ or ‘possess’. No, we show the fruit of the Spirit in our relationships with others. And if we don’t show the Spirit’s fruit by the way we live, then there is no evidence that it’s growing within us. As Jesus said (Matthew 7.17, 20):
every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit…you will know them by their fruits.
The fruit of the Spirit is ‘relational’ fruit: it is revealed in the grace-full relationships that are formed within and beyond the Body of Christ.
There’s an interdependence in the Body. We need one another. So when Paul talks some more to the Galatians about relationships within this one new people in which the old distinctions are meaningless, he talks about how we care for one another.
My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.
‘Bear one another’s burdens…’ There’s the connection to John Donne’s words:
No man is an island, entire of itself…
Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind…
‘Bear one another’s burdens and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ’. What is the law of Christ?—‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ And as part of this community, Paul says we ‘work for the good of all, especially [but not only] for [the good of] those of the family of faith’. That’s why we really can’t live according to if th’ivver do owt fer nowt, do i’ fo’ thisseln.
The particular burdens Paul is talking about bearing are the burdens of a brother or sister who has done wrong, who is ‘detected in a transgression’. A community that is organised around law knows how to deal with this; it judges or even attacks the sinner, and may try to expel him or her. It’s like the men who were baying for the blood of the woman caught in adultery in the story in John 8. The legalistic community works to preserve its purity, and does that routinely at the expense of those who fail.
Friends, it is very easy for a Christian congregation to become legalistic. It really is our default position when we are not living by the Spirit.
Paul says a firm No to legalism. If someone has done wrong, we are to restore her or him in a spirit of gentleness and humility. We haven’t got a pure community; but we are a community of sinners seeking to live by the Spirit. Any one of us can fail, and each one needs to guard against the temptation of pride.
So let’s just see where we are in our journey through Galatians. We are a people that has been formed by God through faith in Christ to walk by the Spirit. We have the fruit of the Spirit, which is shown as we relate grace-fully toward one another. We belong together; any differences among us are unimportant; we are one in Jesus Christ.
In other words, we depend on one another. We are interdependent, not independent. We live by the grace of God. When I say ‘we’, I mean every single person on God’s earth. Some of us have come to trust in the God who gives us this grace; but all people live by God’s grace. John Donne got it right: ‘No man is an island, entire of itself…’
As I mentioned earlier, Desmond Tutu uses the term ubuntu, an African word meaning ‘the essence of being human’, when he speaks of our interdependence. The Zulu and Shona people of southern Africa say: ‘a person is a person through other persons’. We need other human beings just to be human. For us to do well, we need others to do well. Jealousy and envy are—or should be—foreign to the Christian community.
Desmond Tutu says (God has a Dream, chapter 2):
A person with ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole.
For me, that resonates clearly with the practical message of Galatians, with the Church being a community in which people relate to one another in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, a community in which we ‘work for the well-being of all’.
It also resonates with Paul’s chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13. We could say that a person with ubuntu has a love which is patient and kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, a love which does not insist on its own way and is not irritable or resentful.
Ubuntu isn’t a Christian philosophy. Does that bother you? Don’t let it worry you. Two reasons: firstly, much of the wisdom in the Old Testament comes from the people around Israel. It wasn’t revealed straight to Israel; it came to them through others. We can and should allow wisdom to come through others too.
Secondly: what after all is a Christian? A Christian is someone who has been made right with God. What does it mean to be made right? It means to be a truly human being, the human being that God intended us to be.
The Holy Spirit has planted the seeds of what it means to be truly human across the whole world. In Africa, the Spirit has implanted ubuntu in people.
Among English-speaking peoples, John Donne’s words have struck a chord in many people—whether they are Christian or not.
I’m not sure what the Holy Spirit is doing with Yorkshire folk though! No seriously, I’m just kidding. A Yorkshireman will give you the shirt off his back—once you remind him that you lent it to him in the first place!
So, we’ve come to the end of Galatians. Paul wrote to the Christians in Galatia because they were being turned away from the truth by a message of keeping a community pure through keeping the Old Testament laws about circumcision and food. He showed them that to be a Christian is to trust in Jesus Christ the faithful One, and that this faith brings us into a community of equals who are open to the Holy Spirit, a community of people who need one another.
This is a very live message today. Christian congregations can easily get into legalistic ways of operating. We can ignore the call to relate to one another in love. We must listen to that call time and time again. Perhaps we could paraphrase ubuntu in the context of Galatians: ubuntu is what it means to be a Christian, that is, to be truly human: we can live by the Spirit only through other people.
Let us pray:
Confront us, O Christ,
with the hidden prejudices and fears
which deny and betray our prayers.
Enable us to see the causes of strife;
remove from us all false sense of superiority.
Teach us to grow in unity
with all God’s children,
trusting in your mercy now and for ever. Amen.
from a prayer of the WCC 6th Assembly, 1983, Vancouver