Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Ubuntu: humanity to others

Ubuntu is a Zulu word meaning “humanity to others”[1] or, more strictly, “I am what I am because of who we all are.” It is the belief in a universal bond of sharing that “connects all humanity”[2] and a person with ubuntu is one who is “open and available to others, affirming of others [and] does not feel threatened that others are able and good.”[3] This comes from the knowledge that we all belong to a greater whole that is somehow diminished when others are humiliated, tortured or oppressed.[4] In politics, ubuntu is used to emphasize the need for consensus decision-making and “for a suitably humanitarian ethic to inform those decisions.”[5] It also has religious connotations for the Zulu whose maxim umuntu ngumuntu ngabanta (“a person is a person through other persons”) connotes the idea that those who “uphold the principle of ubuntu throughout their lives will, in death, achieve a unity with those still living.”[6]

Recently the concept of ubuntu has received a lot of press in the West because of its use by the open source programming community known as Linux, who have incidentally registered the domain as their homepage. In their words, “the ubuntu Linux distribution brings the spirit of ubuntu to the software world.”[7] Ubuntu typifies the unique nature of open source programming, allowing anyone with the necessary skill set to remotely recode the software from any computer with internet access.[8]

What I find so compelling about ubuntu is the way in which this online community is rapidly succeeding at a time when the world seems bankrupt in cooperation. Everything about our modern world has emphasized individuality, from commercials selling exclusive toys and encounters, to high priced education that isolates persons from one another in a competitive race for a capital edge. Ubuntu, on the other hand, teaches us to stay connected.

And it’s working.

Ubuntu models an effective counter community to the commerce-based community of the world marketplace. It is the product internet conversation and global word of mouth. Through the spirit of ubuntu, people are “discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed.”[9] Doc Searles identifies these conversations as “profound acts of humanity”[10] and describes discourse as a necessity in “divine dialogue”[11] required of our nature as spiritual people. Searles talks openly about his aims to reinsert a spiritual dimension into economics. He sees this happening through an “economy of voice”,[12] declaring that “companies that do not belong to a community of discourse will die.”[13]

This is the power of ubuntu – that it is both an ethical and a peg community.[14] It is an ethical community because of the shared belief that open source programming is based on long term commitments and a peg community because it is the language of systems that brings people together. Churches are also this kind of both/and community. They are ethical communities, bound together by their love for and devotion to Jesus Christ, and peg communities because of the common mission expressed in fellowship and outreach.

But is not yet an ecclesial reality, for our gatherings too often look like priests selling doves and our people like sheep without a shepherd. We are still consumers. We have become “gatherers of sensations”[15] and are almost enslaved to our “liquid, pick and mix, consumer oriented way of living.”[16] “The way society now shapes itself,” says Zygmund Bauman “is dictated first and foremost by the duty to play the role of the consumer”.[17] So we must fight for an alternative as the western, male, Christian hegemony slips into the recent past. We must design new ways to define ourselves, new symbols and clusters, that bring redemption not only localized to the church but also inside every believer and in every relationship. We have to fight the thoughts that say “there’s a product that will fill these holes, a bit of fetishistic magic that will make us complete” [18] and instead let everything leverage on love.”[19]

Love defies isolation.

It is agape that will bring ubuntu most truly, agape that will allow us to “unconditionally ascribe worth to another at a cost to ourselves”,[20] and agape that will teach us that there is more than success or satisfaction. It is love that brings us all into the “eternal dance of the trinity, to participate in and glorify this unsurpassing loving fellowship.”[21] Love carries us off with God and man, but requires the “hard work of getting along”[22] as noted in the Book of James. It means we must sow seeds of consistent behavior, clear communication, honesty and serious promise if we are to reap credibility, which is the harvest of trust.[23]

This is a return to a more human kind of interaction, because ubuntu is fundamentally human. Where conflict has become state to state, it must return chin to chin; and where we have relegated solidarity to politics, we must once again stand shoulder to shoulder and feel the press of flesh and sweat. We can no longer hide behind business models and bureaucracy. We must speak from our hearts and see with our own eyes how the world could be better if we could learn to love being together, for we are nothing if we are not all.

[3] From Archibishop Desmond Tutu. Cf.
[4] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[8] In contrast to closed software like Microsoft Windows which requires Microsoft to make all changes.
[9] From the Cluetrain homepage.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Locke, Christopher and Rick Levine, Doc Searles, David Weinberger. The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual, (New York: Perseus, 2001), 167.
[13] Ibid, xxiv
[14] Zygmund Baumann introduced the idea of ethical and peg communities in Liquid Modernity (Warsaw: Polity Press, 2000).
[15] Ibid.
[16] Steve Taylor, The Out of Bounds Church. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 116.
[17] Bauman, Zygmund. Globalization (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 80.
[18] Locke, Christopher and Rick Levine, Doc Searles, David Weinberger. The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual, (New York: Perseus, 2001), 2.
[19] Boyd, Gregory. Repenting of Religion: Turning from Judgment to the Love of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2004), 55.
[20] Ibid, 25.
[21] Ibid, 32.
[22] “You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.” James 3:18
[23] See the section “Watersheds of Trust” in Dale, Robert. Seeds for the Future: Growing Organic Leaders (Danvers: Lake Hickory Resources, 2005), 71.

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