Scripture’s ability to reveal truth in multiple ways blew me away this past Sunday. Chanhee’s Ruth-inspired children’s message about the power of crying with and being with our friends in hard times brought me to tears. Seeing Ruth’s ability to be with Naomi in the darkest time of her life without arguing with her to “buck up” humbles my heart with each read. Not only does Ruth not argue or dismiss Naomi and her feelings, but she doubles down on her commitments to Naomi and God. In difficult seasons, people often struggle to find or have people that can be with them fully, without trying to diminish or dispel the hurt and sorrow. When we show up with another in those moments, we take on their hurt too. When we stay with others in those moments, we have the chance to carry that sorrow. Our culture tells us to turn away from hurt, or rush to buy something to relieve it. Ruth turns toward Naomi. I pray that we each have known someone who turned toward us and helped us bear the weight of sorrow – no matter the source. When the time comes, may we each live in that manner for someone else. It is then we discover how human we are and how we are made in God’s image.
The first week of my sabbatical was spent away in Nashville for a class at Vanderbilt. The class offered best practices, theory and encouragement for people who work for social justice. People came from across the country. The passion in the room was palpable and powerful. My heart was reinvigorated and challenged every day. One of the most significant challenges came from Dr. José Cossa, a professor in the Peabody College at Vanderbilt. His home country is Mozambique in Southeast Africa. He spoke to the necessity of shifting away from Western individualism and redefine how we see being human. He taught us about the idea Ubuntu.
Perhaps you’ve seen a meme with African children’s feet in a circle and a definition of the word “ubuntu” as “I am because you are.” While the sentiment and image are striking, Dr. Cossa let us know that this is not an accurate explanation of Ubuntu. Ubuntu is an African derived idea that takes different expressions across the African continent. Dr. Cossa went deeper saying that Ubuntu is more accurately expressed as “a human is a human because of humans.” The concept of Ubuntu is seen in the fact that some African languages have no concept of individual. When a person would refer to themselves, the word would be “we.” Further, when colonizers approached people who speak Bantu languages (rooted in the southern parts of Africa) and asked what they were called, the people simply said “bantu,” the word that means human. Misunderstanding, the colonizers called them Bantu as a name. (This information comes directly from my notes taken in Dr. Cossa’s class.)
Processing this history continues to inform reshaping of many ideas including humanity, individual people, church, and family. Ubuntu keeps waving to me from different corners of my mind as we go deeper in the book of Ruth. Ruth’s declarations to Naomi in chapter 1 (below) reinforces that our humanity is caught up in how we respond to another’s humanity. Her declaration strengthens my belief that any single person’s identity is never an individualistic matter, but rooted in our connections to others. Could I make a play on the idea of “we are what we eat?” Could it be that we are who we love? Could it be that we are who we show up for? Existentially and spiritually, of course. It doesn’t mean we all have to do WHAT Ruth did in order to be fully human or fully who God made us to be. Ruth, as a book and a person, reveals to us God’s design of our core being. God’s design of our humanity could easily be described as Ubuntu. God did not leave the first human alone. God did not leave God’s own self alone, creating humanity in God’s own reflection. The very character of God could even be described as Ubuntu! Hear now these words of Ubuntu.
But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.