Ubuntu: What it is, and why we could use more of it in public life | Lloyd E. Sheaffer

We are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye. We can’t let our toxic politics destroy that

May 26, 2022 6:30 am

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A few days ago in my morning devotions, I encountered a word that I had nearly forgotten. Given the nature of our current jaggedly rent society, this term should have been on the top of my embedded vocabulary list. The term is ubuntu.

In case the word is new to you or if you also have forgotten it, ubuntu is an African locution translated as “I am because we are.”

Ubuntu is more than a mere word, though; it is a centuries old philosophy of life.

Former President Barack Obama summarized the essence of this credo in his tribute to Nelson Mandela: “ . . . [Mandela’s] greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.”

If the recent primary election has shown anything, it is that we are no longer, “. . . one nation, indivisible.”

If the current cadre of reactionary wing-nuts, both those currently in office and those seeking office, prove anything, it is that the MAGA crowd no longer adheres to the Founding Fathers’ tenet that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The latest exemplar of a hostility-engendering, dissension-sowing politician has risen to the top of Pennsylvania Republicanism in the person of gubernatorial candidate and participant in the Jan 6, 2021 insurrectionist siege of the U.S. Capitol, state Sen. Doug Mastriano.

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Not only will his MAGA emulating political and social views sow discord and division in secular society, but also his Christian Nationalist orientation can add further friction in the Christian community.

As I wrote in a previous column, “Christian nationalism works in a decidedly un-Christ-like manner by supporting policies that marginalize those who, through their beliefs or identity, don’t conform to a biblically ordained order that reverences the traditional family, militarism, closed borders, and white, Protestant supremacy.”

How better to rip apart the church than to utter, as Mastriano did in his acceptance speech, that God is on the winning side of a political election: “We have the power of God with us. We have Jesus Christ that we’re serving here. He’s guiding and directing our steps.”

Really? Jesus, the Christ, is the political director for a campaign that espouses limiting personal freedom and choice, that discourages people from availing themselves of scientifically proven vaccines which can stem the COVID pandemic, that fails to acknowledge injustices in our nation’s history, that twists and misuses Holy Scriptures in ways that contradict the Messiah’s own teachings.

Michael Sean Winters, journalist for the National Catholic Reporter, writes, “If people think [Mastriano’s] version of Christianity is authentic, even more people will become estranged from religion.”

Citizens of good will and people of faith must reject those leaders and would-be officials whose positions and actions promote an us-vs-them ideology.

A church cloven by a divisive political agenda. Oh, yeah, that’s what we really need right now in these frightening times. But remember, Jesus did warn us of false prophets and their teaching.

The dismantling of (1) basic democracy and (2) a Koinoniabased religion purportedly espoused by those claiming to love both portends dire ramifications.

For instance: “By 2025, American democracy could collapse, causing extreme domestic political instability, including widespread civil violence,” warns Canadian political scientist Professor Thomas Homer-Dixon. “By 2030, if not sooner, the country could be governed by a right-wing dictatorship. We mustn’t dismiss these possibilities just because they seem ludicrous or too horrible to imagine.”

And for another prediction:

“The United States today is, once again, headed for civil war, and, once again, it cannot bear to face it. The political problems are both structural and immediate, the crisis both longstanding and accelerating. The American political system has become so overwhelmed by anger that even the most basic tasks of government are increasingly impossible,” writes columnist for The Guardian Stephen Marche.

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Citizens of good will and people of faith must reject those leaders and would-be officials whose positions and actions promote an us-vs-them ideology.

Although anathema to the cabal of White Supremacists, QAnon kooks, neo-Nazis, and sovereign citizen militia groups, the African ideal of ubuntu offers a way for sincere patriots and unhypocritical adherents of any of the world’s genuine religions to overcome the hatred and despotism roiling to the surface of our society.

The challenges we face in today’s world are too immense, too tortuous, too perilous to be settled by narrow-minded, partisan autocrats. The issues threatening our very existence can only be allayed by tolerant, solicitous, open-minded individuals working together—not being driven asunder—in community “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity . . .”

Working together for the good of all; learning from and teaching each other; sharing our plenty and filling others’ needs; recognizing the intrinsic and inherent worth of all others; seeing differences in lifestyles and diversity in cultures as seeds for growth, not as poisonous weeds to be extirpated.

These are the values and behaviors of an enlightened citizenry; these are what truly makes America great.

As noted above, Nelson Mandela’s life epitomized the concept of ubuntu. He delineated his philosophy this way: “In the old days when we were young, a traveller through a country would stop at a village, and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water: once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him.  That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but it will have various aspects.  Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves.  The question therefore is are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you and enable it to improve?  These are the important things in life. And if one can do that, you have done something important which will be appreciated.”

When in five months we next enter voting booths or fill out mail-in ballots, we have the opportunity to choose leaders who will “enable the community around you and enable it to improve” or to elect oppressors who put themselves and their lust for power ahead of the well-being of the body politic.

“I am because we are.”

Inherent in this whole process is an as-yet-unasked question: What is it we choose to be?

Please. Choose ubuntu — for the good of us all.

Opinion contributor Lloyd E. Sheaffer, a retired English and Humanities teacher, writes from North Middleton Township, Pa. His work appears monthly on the Capital-Stars Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected].

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Lloyd E. Sheaffer
Lloyd E. Sheaffer

Opinion contributor Lloyd E. Sheaffer, a retired English and Humanities teacher, writes from North Middleton Township, Pa. His work appears monthly on the Pennsylvania Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected].