Hello! I want to talk with you about the meaning of one of my favourite words. It is one of three favourite words of mine from languages other than English. One is from the Hebrew of the Old Testament, another is from the Greek of the New Testament and the third is from the language of the Xhosa people of southern Africa. (You may be able to guess what the first two are. If you can’t, I will tell you at the end of this chat.)
The one I want to focus upon for now is the third. It is the word ‘ubuntu’ and it is usually rendered in English as ‘I am because we are’. Desmond Tutu says this:
“Ubuntu … speaks to the very essence of being human, saying my humanity is caaught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours. We belong in a bundle of life and so we say in our part of the world a person is a person through other persons. It says not: I think therefore I am. It says rather: I am human because I belong, I participate, I share.“
As we all walk in the valley of the shadow of the coronavirus, are we not coming to realise in a new and deeper way that we are all one, that I am because we are? Again, Desmond Tutu talks of ubuntu as the spirituality of humanity’s oneness with our Creator, oneness with the other of another person and oneness with nature, with the physical world. And he goes on to say, “I dream of a new world and a new humanity, a humanity that expresses ubuntu”.
But this is not an idea that is peculiar to the Xhosa people from whose language the word comes or indeed to the people of Africa in general. Is it not an idea that runs right through the Old and New Testaments? We are made in the image of God, made for relationship with him and with one another, physical beings made of the dust of the earth, beings who are charged to care for creation, this physical world of which we are part.
In a poem that begins “No man is an island”, the English poet John Donne writes:
“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.”
The funeral bell tolls for each and all of us. The death of any fellow human being diminishes us. Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus! He knew this diminishing at that moment. Are we not coming to know this diminishing in a new and deeper way in these days as we see on the screen pictures of those whom the coronavirus has taken from us?!
At the heart of it all is love, love for one another, love for the wonderful world in which we find ourselves, love for God who is love.
Desmond Tutu says ubuntu is very different from the individualism of the ‘Cogito ergo sum’, the ‘I think therefore I am’ philosophy that is so dominant in western thinking. He says that I am because we are, not I am because I think.
Back in the nineties, there was an international conference of Christian theologians in Kingston, Jamaica, who met to consider what it is to be a human being. One task given to the delegates was to come up with a Christian alternative to ‘I think therefore I am’. They decided that love should be at the heart of it. (After all, if we value the capacity to reason above the capacity for love, we are saying that those with multiple learning disabilities or those with dementia are less human.) So they considered ‘I love, therefore I am’ as a possible Christian alternative. However, they quickly realised that, as the Bible says in I John 4:19, “We love because he first loved us” so they moved on to ‘I am loved, therefore I am’? But that is still focussed on the lone individual. They closed, doubtless with the encouragement of African delegates, on ‘We are loved, therefore we are’. This is a rendering of the idea of ubuntu with an explicit reference to love which is anyway implicit in ‘I am because we are’.
So ubuntu is not individualistic and is therefore different from something that is deeply embedded in western thinking.
At the same time, ubuntu is not collectivist. It says that I am and it says that we are. It is not that the individual is all-important and the group isn’t. (Margaret Thatcher expressed that individualist view when she said that there is no such thing as society.) On the other hand, ubuntu is not saying that the group is all-important and that the individual doesn’t matter. Ubuntu is therefore different from, for example, a communist perspective in which the rights and freedom of the individual are devalued. It is not either the individual or the group – it is both the individual and the group! It is a third way, a view of community that is between the extremes of western individualism and communist and other forms of collectivism.
It is both the one and the many. Christians believe in the Trinity of three Persons and one God. Some say it has to be one or the other, either one god or three divine persons, but Christians say it is both. In the same way, ubuntu is an idea of community that values both the individual and the group.
I hope you can see why ubuntu has become one of my favourite words. With Desmond Tutu, I dream of a new world and a new humanity, a world of ubuntu. Is that not the world of what the Bible calls “the promised new heavens and the promised new earth, all landscaped with righteousness” (1 Peter 3:13, The Message), the world of the now-and-not-yet kingdom of God?
The other two favourite words of mine from languages other than English? Have you guessed? They are shalom and agape. Perhaps we can come back to one or both of them later. Let us pray.
O God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, help us all to promote true community wherever you have placed us, especially at this time as we are all seeking to cope with the impact of a global pandemic. Help us to care for the world, to love others and to love you for you have first loved us. Amen.
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 See conference papers and report in a special issue of Transformation: An International Journal of Holistic Mission Studies, 15:1, January 1998.
This blog is an edited version of an interview recorded a few days ago via Skype with Dubliner Joe Donnelly, a former student of mine who is one of my heroes. Joe was brought up very religiously in the Dublin docklands and by the age of twenty he was an atheist and a member of a rock band that shared gigs with U2. He is now leading a truly amazing ‘hope-shaped’ community project in that same docklands area.
ME: Joe, you are a Dubliner born and bred and you grew up in Ringsend. What was Ringsend like in those days and what were you like?
JOE: Ringsend was a docklands community, fiercely religious and a tight-knit community. Everybody knew everybody for generations back. I would have been a bit on the quiet side. We were a very religious family. I had to spend a lot of time living with my grandmother because we were a family of ten living in a two-bedroom council flat. My granny took me under her wing and she was deeply religious and I imbibed a lot of that.
ME: She lived in Ringsend too?
JOE: Yes, she lived a few doors away.
ME: There was an old mission hall by the river and that was a place with which you were acquainted when you were young. You didn’t attend meetings there, did you?
JOE: No, we didn’t go to meetings. We were warned not to go to any of the meetings there.
ME: They were Protestants?
JOE: Yes, they were Protestants. We used to throw stones at the bus that used to bring the Protestant children to the meetings. When we were older, we used to have cider parties at the back. Then gradually it decayed into near dereliction.
ME: Thankfully, these things don’t happen there now! Joe, did you change as you went through your teens?
JOE: Yes. Although I was brought up fiercely religious and there was talk about me becoming a priest at one stage, I ended up an atheist punk rocker. I suppose it was a typical Irish family story – a candidate for the priesthood in your early teens and an atheist punk rocker in your late teens. We started playing on the same circuit as a band called U2.
ME: U2?! I wonder what became of them.
JOE: I think they have notions about themselves now – the best band in the world!!!
ME: Did you know any of them?
JOE: Yeah, we knew them and at that time we shared several musical venues with them around town.
ME: Wow, you’re an ageing rocker then? So, as an atheist, you went to the Netherlands and you found yourself in Amsterdam.
JOE: I hitchhiked around Europe, John, with a couple of friends and I ended up in Amsterdam. Most of my time there was a bit of a drunken haze. One night I got mugged and that night I suppose I fell into a pit of despair. I just felt that all of my hopes and dreams … I knew I had hopes and dreams in my heart but they were all slipping through my fingers and I couldn’t manage it. I couldn’t control it. It is hard to articulate exactly what despair is in words, what profound despair is. I seriously and intentionally considered suicide that night.
ME: But something stopped you?
JOE: Yes, John. Again, it is hard to articulate. At the age of six in Dublin’s docklands I came very close to drowning. I can still remember it to this moment. I can remember it vividly and as I was preparing to throw myself into a canal in Amsterdam, I got a complete flashback to that event at six years of age. It may sound crazy to some people but it was as if a voice was saying to me, “What you’re doing is wrong”. It shook me to the core of my being. There’s a lovely line in that poem ‘Missing God’ …
JOE: And the guy speaks about missing God like, “the way an uncoupled glider riding the evening thermals misses its tug.” And I felt as if I’d got a tug that night, as if something was pulling me back from the jaws of suicide saying, “This is wrong”. I came back to Dublin then and I was totally in despair because I’d gone off hitchhiking around Europe seeking adventure, but here I was and I was forced to admit that my life was falling apart and I was sinking into quiet despair.
ME: But somehow you went from there to faith in the Lord?
JOE: Yes, it’s a very long story but I was given a copy of the New Testament by this guy who was bananas about Jesus – whereas I was an atheist punk rocker! I was terrified that I would catch whatever he had. I threw the New Testament beside my bedside locker, inexplicably I eventually started to read it. I was always interested in history and famous people and I thought to myself, I’m reading about Jesus Christ. He’s somebody famous and I can quote him at parties and impress people. So I read Matthew’s Gospel and by the time I had finished Matthew’s Gospel, a revolution had taken place in my heart and mind and soul that has continued to this day. I can only say that the closest way of articulating it is in John Newton’s hymn where he says, “It was grace that taught my heart to fear / And grace my fears relieved / How precious did that grace appear / the hour I first believed”. Now I can only say that there I was reading Matthew’s Gospel as an atheist punk rocker and I began to fear that I wasn’t right with God. What if all of this is real? Etc.
ME: So you became bananas about Jesus?
JOE: Well, I don’t think I could nail down a particular fruit but let’s say that the fruit of the Spirit began to develop in my life!
ME: Joe, it was quite a few years after that that you and I first met.
JOE: Yes, John, but a lot of things happened before we met at the Irish Bible Institute. Within a year of me surrendering my life to Jesus, John, I felt that the Lord was leading me into Christian work in Dublin and to give up my job which was quite a drastic step for me. Part of my new Christian workload then was to develop outreach work in the inner city. And after a while we were seeing a lot of stuff happening in the Sherriff Street and Sean McDermott Street areas of inner-city Dublin. It got to the stage where we knew we had to pray and ask the Lord for a venue in the inner-city area. As I was praying about an office and a little desk and a window and a phone, the Lord led us to this place – the old mission hall that we had vandalised as kids and had a third of an acre of a site in the inner city.
JOE: And I was appalled at the thought that the Lord would want me to take on the old mission hall.
ME: Memories of cider in the back garden?
JOE: Not so much that, John. I just felt that this was the last place on the planet I would go to! You’re warned in school and you’re warned in the chapel and you’re warned at home not to go near this place. And the words “Prods out” were sprayed on the front door. They had faded with the weather but the implication was still pretty clear, you know. So Sharon and I decided that we would take it on. We called it ‘Mission Impossible’ at the beginning because it was an old mission hall. I learned the wisdom of that verse where it says, “The foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom”.
JOE: A great verse in First Corinthians chapter one. It reminds you that sometimes God takes you to the craziest place to do something that will glorify his name.
ME: Wow, Joe, and sometime after that you signed on to become a student at the Irish Bible Institute. You’d left school at fourteen or fifteen, hadn’t you?
JOE: Yes, that was another crazy decision. I’d left school at fifteen because my Dad died when I was thirteen.
ME: But you signed on for a Master’s degree?!
JOE: Pretty crazy but I think in fairness to IBI they were saying that if you had a BA qualification or had ministry experience of more than twenty years (which I had working in Dublin’s inner-city), your ministry experience would allow you to submit an initial essay. This would then be assessed and then you would do two years which would take you up to BA standard and then you could do a final year which would give you your MA.
ME: So hope was an important theme or passion.
JOE: We took on the old mission hall and we renamed it ‘The Anchorage Project’ because the great biblical metaphor of the anchor – “hope like an anchor of the soul” as it says in Hebrews chapter six. And we always had a great passion to develop it into a hope-shaped space to showcase something of the Kingdom of God in the inner city.
ME: Yes, that idea of the space. There’s an American writer named Andy Crouch whom I often quote who has written a book entitled ‘Culture Making’. He always makes me think of you, Joe, and what you’ve been doing. For too long, he says, Christians have been happy to condemn, critique, copy and consume culture. The only way to really impact culture is to create culture. In a very short video about the book, he talks about a coffee shop near where he lives. It was opened by a young Christian fresh out of college who saw this building and created “a beautiful space which is now a whole cultural world of its own … where friends meet, teenagers come after school, Moms get together during the day. … A wonderful hospitable welcoming environment.” Now I’ve been to the mission hall, to the project, to the Fair Play Café and those words describe what you’re doing there so thoroughly.
JOE: I suppose that when I did my dissertation under your tutorship, John, and I can’t speak highly enough about your impact on my thinking – especially with the use of metaphors and using metaphors to help mould and shape our thinking in Christian work. My Master’s dissertation was four key concepts – beauty, children, community and justice. These are four key components through which hope seems to run like a river with four tributaries. And people connect with a real profound sense of hope and hope becomes tangible. I researched this through ancient thinkers like Aristotle and Augustine and all the big thinkers.
ME: Yes, I remember. Yes, you did.
JOE: Right up to the likes of Jurgen Moltmann and Miroslav Volf and Tom Wright or N T Wright as well … to try and get a sweep through theological and secular thinking around the subject of hope. And so it was this quadrilateral (to use an academic word) of beauty, children, community and justice that I articulated in my dissertation and then pulled back into our ministry at the old mission hall.
We’re busy right at this moment planting seeds in our greenhouse and these seeds are sprouting in the midst of a Covid pandemic. We’re working furiously because we know that we’re going to see better days than what we’re in right now. There will be a tangible beauty, as our garden is going to be dripping with flowers again. Several dozen children will come back here again every day to our childcare project. We have a community café and a garden space where our local community can enjoy meeting up again. And we work very keenly with justice initiatives locally as well as overseas. We work to develop an integrated project here whereby people can connect with expressions of hope and be drawn under the umbrella of God’s outreach in the community.
ME: That’s wonderful, Joe! Now you mentioned the pandemic. That must have some impact on what you can do with the café.
JOE: It has indeed, John. We have a tips jar in the café which we call it the ‘Share Your Lunch Fund’. When Jesus was presented with the need of five thousand plus people, he said to his disciples, “You give them something to eat”. It’s very profound that this happened at this moment because Jesus obviously was ready to feed everybody but he halted a miracle because he wanted some human interaction and the disciples really struggled with this. So as we had been reflecting and praying over the needs of this community, this city. We felt the Lord saying to us, “You give them something to eat” so we put a tips jar there and we said that’s going to be the five loaves and the two fishes. Whatever goes into that, we’re going to build up this fund. Now this pandemic hits and over the years we’ve been giving free food to lots of people in the community, people in difficult circumstances and so on with this Share Your Lunch Fund. And now we have the police, district nurses, worried residents and family members contacting us and saying, “Can you deliver food to this person or to that person?” We have scores of people every day that we’re feeding.
ME: And your daughter has launched an online appeal to raise more funds for this?
JOE: Yes, she set up a GoFundMe page and would you believe, John, that last November, before anybody ever heard of Covid or whatever, she ran a half-marathon and she was hoping to raise a thousand euro for our Share Your Lunch Fund?
ME: And you’re still open to receiving more if I put a link into this blog?
JOE: Yes, that is very thoughtful of you. You can be sure that it’ll receive more because it’s just whatever the Lord wants to do. It’s a bit like the disciples. I wonder, and I’m sure you would wonder, at what stage did the disciples start doing the Maths as the five loaves and the two fishes were being handed out.
ME: Well, I was a Maths teacher – I would have done that early on and I would have been stumped.
JOE: I honestly feel that they didn’t actually do it. That’s why Jesus made them collect the left-overs!
ME: Joe, it has been wonderful to talk with you like this. May God richly bless all that you and Sharon and your team continue to do in Ringsend and its impact to the ends of the earth. Bless you, brother.
Grateful thanks to Vox and NewsFour for kindly granting permission to use their photos.
The full text of this interview is available here and it includes more about Joe’s childhood in the docklands and about the band’s relationship with U2!
End of pictures!
P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please EITHER (1) email me through the contact address on this website OR (2) message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook.
If ever there was a book written for life under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, surely The Shape of Living is it! Back in the nineties, David Ford (Irish Christian and Cambridge academic) wrote it as a “book about coping with multiple overwhelmings”.(p. 18)
In this blog I will focus on what he says about the “community of the heart” from a chapter entitled ‘Faces and Voices: Shaping a Heart’. I think it will particularly resonate with what many of us may be experiencing just now. (You can find the Table of Contents and selected extracts from other chapters here on Googlebooks.)
Being physically distanced from family, friends and acquaintances, Val and I have found ourselves to be in many ways actually closer to them. The phone calls, emails, Facebook messages, WhatsApp video calls and shouted conversations through a door or window have all come to mean so much more to us. I have even found myself sending Facebook Friend Requests to people with whom I’ve had little or no contact for years, even decades. One was a student who was a member of my tutor group when I was first a full-time teacher back in the seventies! (He accepted the request immediately!) His name had popped up in a list of ‘People You May Know’ and I was transported back into the classroom in the tower-block by the games field to be again with him and a great group of young teenagers.
David Ford writes:
“’Heart’ is a way of talking about that dimension of our self where memory, feeling, imagination, and thinking come together. The heart is like a home for all the concerns of our lives, where our identity is sorted out year after year. Above all it is inhabited by images of other people and of ourselves in relation to them. Our hearts are filled with the faces and voices of those before whom we live. These are the members of our ‘community of the heart’. (p. 33)
Is it not some of these people in the community of our heart that we find ourselves remembering and contacting in these physically distanced days? Others may have died long ago but they may nevertheless still be “so much a part of our identity that they are woven into the texture of our feeling and thinking” (p. 34).
Some years ago, England’s Teacher Training Agency had as its recruitment slogan: “Nobody forgets a good teacher”. Is there a teacher or teachers in the community of your heart? Miss Thomson (my primary school teacher) and Roddy Bent (a secondary school teacher of English) are certainly prominent figures in mine.
David Ford quotes from ‘Foster-Figure’, a poem about a teacher. The poem is by Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail, a contemporary of Ford’s when they were students at Trinity College Dublin, O’Siadhail writes of the affirmation he found and even now finds in that teacher’s glance, how he “craved the nurture of his words” and “strings until then silent … stirred, trembling towards song”.
The poem continues:
“I probe the essence of this energy; no blandishments or blind approval, his unblinking trust enticed me, fingered some awareness of worth; in his praise all is possible.”
Years later, even decades later, the teacher is still there:
“Though at first a copy-cat tremor, after many storms I’ll still strum the chords of his assurance, that music I’ll make my own, my old resonance I’ll summon up.”
In the praise of Miss Thomson and Roddy Bent, for me all was indeed possible. Of course, it is also the case that nobody forgets a bad teacher. I had one who shall remain nameless, a teacher of Irish Gaelic, who once said to me, “You speak Irish like an Englishman”. It wasn’t a compliment!
David Ford goes on to point out that there are also discouragers in the community of our heart. He quotes from ‘Fallen Angel’, another of O’Siadhail’s poems. This one is about some new teachers who came to the school after staff changes and who were anything but encouragers:
“New brooms with fresh sweeps. How easily we become how we’re seen; failure throws an oblong shadow, I cover hurts with jaunty humour.
pretend not to care, affect disdain, harden the core to day-by-day humiliations – tiny erosions of respect – learn the slow rustlings of shame.
And laugh a bitter laugh! …
How many faces must a wound wear?” (The Shape of Living,pp. 34-35)
These people have shaped and are shaping our lives. Their faces and voices are with us. Let’s treasure the good memories, the memories of the good people. Let’s put relationships with people above the false and fading values. Let’s seek the affirmation of the greatest Teacher of all as we go forward together into the unknowns of these days.
Father God, in these days of multiple overwhelmings, bring us into closer relationships with others and with you and help us to be encouragers and channels of your peace, your shalom. In the name of the Prince of Peace. Amen.