An Address to Provincial Synod II
Albany NY • May 7, 2009
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Bishops and Deputies, ladies and gentlemen, I have to admit that when I first heard the theme of the next General Convention was going to be ubuntu, my heart sank a bit. Though a language major in college, and having picked up a few languages since, I have to confess my fluency in languages spoken in Africa is limited to English and French.
I can be glad ubuntu is not one of those African words with a disconcerting click in the middle. That click is represented by an exclamation point, but I prefer my exclamation points at the end of the sentence.
I know I’m not alone in my concerns about pronunciation. Like most Americans, I want to pronounce foreign words correctly. The French, as was observed in My Fair Lady, don’t care what they say in French so long as it is pronounced correctly. When it comes to foreign words and phrases, the French, like the English, don’t really give a hoot and pronounce them as if they were just French or English words, giving us things like Cervantes’ Don Quichotte and Byron’s Don Juan. But we Americans tend to want to pronounce foreign words correctly — at least until we adopt them as names for our cities, like Des Moines Iowa or, even closer, Delhi New York.
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Of course it’s not the word or its pronunciation, but the concept to which it points, that is important. And it is handy to have a convenient word or phrase in which to pack an ungainly concept. Words standing for concepts is, as Helen Keller learned in her breakthrough moment, the very heart of language itself — that this collection of letters stands for that — ushering her into a new world of meaning, a world from which she had for so long been isolated. And it is no accident that the first word she learned was water.
American English is so thirsty for words that we regularly sip, lap or chug foreign ones, especially when they handily capture a concept. We already have one of the worlds largest vocabularies — accumulated as the English colonial and imperial venture absorbed world languages better than a Sham-Wow — and the American enterprise continued it in the years of our own expansionist escapades. And we haven’t finished, as we continue to adapt or adopt words for concepts for which English doesn’t quite have le mot juste. That being just one example.
We’ve borrowed extensively from the French; I mean, where would we be without savoir and laissez faire? But the Germans have also made their contributions, from Gemütlichkeit to Schadenfreude. All of this in spite of the fact that neither the French nor the Germans are interested in a verbal fair trade agreement — the French Academy keeps other languages at bay; and the Germans prefer their own twelve-syllable word-monster rather than a shorter one on loan!
New Yorkers, of course, also lay claim to more than our fair share of Yiddish: with schmaltz, schmuck, and schmutz; drek, schlock and tchtochke, and the now widely used kibbitz — which has even made its way to the very Episcopalian House of Bishops and Deputies listserv. Oi! Or am I being too down-state?
Well, I know in this group I’m safer with the vocabulary without which the church would be at a loss for words; Latin and Greek words in particular. We can barely worship without speaking in tongues: from the Venite (there’s that English pronunciation again!) and on through the day to close with Phos hilaron, Magnificat and Nunc dimittis — we are hedged about with borrowed language: Kyrie eleison; alleluia, amen!
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Now, it is also obvious that we haven’t borrowed quite so many words from Africa. It is fitting, however, given the growth of the church on that continent, that we take note and heed those voices, and borrow a well-turned word to learn something new or say something more clearly. For it is a time-tested truth that words do not only convey meaning, but actually help us to think new things — it is no accident that creation itself owes its existence to the Word going forth at the beginning, as the formless deep was given meaning under the creative breath of God. As with Helen Keller, that involved water, too.
So, assuming that how I say ubuntu is close enough, we have this new word to help us think and act in new ways. So what does ubuntu mean? We have a shorthand definition in the theme for General Convention, echoing Jesus in his Last Supper banquet speech: “I in you and you in me.”
A longer definition, as given by Archbishop Tutu, concerns how one cannot truly be oneself without others — being is about relationship. It takes a village not just to raise a child, but to be a person, a city to be a citizen, siblings to be a brother or sister, children to be parents and parents to be children — and the church to be a Christian.
Think of that old figure and ground drawing — you may recall we used it as a logo in the Decade of Evangelism — is it two faces or is it a chalice? It depends on what you see as figure and what you see as ground. Neither is what it is without the other.
This relational understanding of existence is not just about our perception of creation, however. It is a revelation of the Creator, too. For we believe in God who although One is not alone — even within the Godhead there is this community of persons, defined by relationships of begetting or procession.
This same God, at the creation, saw that the human creature was alone — and that it was not good. Creation itself was not complete until that creature had another— an “other” — to relate to, and thus fully to be, both of them, who they really were.
And so, ubuntu means “being in relationship” — a handy new term to remind us what the church — and the world — is about from its beginning. I say “remind” because the concept is not new, is it? It lies at the heart of the biblical Hebrew hesed — the mercy of God, in Jewish mysticism pictured as God’s right arm, the power of God’s outgoing action in the world, the word which Myles Coverdale so beautifully translated by a new English compound word lovingkindness.
In the Christian context, it is what lies behind and within the mystery of agapé — what the Latins called caritas and which in English became charity. That last word lost much of its meaning by shrinking to cover only a subset of loving actions. So our modern translations light on another word, pull out all the stops and assure us that it is “love” which “never ends.” Love is the thing, at base — the essence of relationship. And love is really all you need, as John and Paul have written — Lennon and McCartney, that is.
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Far more importantly, the other John and Paul long since assured us that love is all we will ultimately have: when at the last the church is swept off its feet by its bridegoom and carried across the threshold of the life of the world to come — into that house with many mansions, a loving Father’s wedding present — and at last we know as we are known, and love as we are loved. What did Paul remind us of? Only three things endure, faith, hope and love — and love is the greatest.
And I will go further, relying on John as well as Paul: when we come at last to the end — when faith is fulfilled, and hope sees what it has so long hoped for, only love will remain — just as at the beginning it was love springing from within the community of God’s very self that first spoke the Word that called all else into being — the Word in the form of God’s own unspeakable name — “Y’hi” — as Being Itself calls out to each created thing, speaking words of wisdom, “Let it Be, Let it Be.” For there is no being without being in relationship, without being in love, without ubuntu.
This is why we become most truly ourselves when we set our selves aside for a time to embrace others, to do to others as we would be done by. There was every reason in the world for Jesus to cast his ethical message in such a relational form, mining the rich soil of his tradition for that precious gold, refined and purified in a simple summary: to love God with your whole being, and your neighbor as yourself. Note those relational words, those ubuntu words, upon which it all hinges: to love God with ourselves and our neighbors as ourselves — the vertical and horizontal relationships neatly echoing the sign of the cross — a sign by which we become who we are when we are marked as Christ’s own forever. That involves water, too.
This is a good message for the church, which is, after all, called in the meantime to be the Body of the Incarnate God at work in the world. One Body formed by one Baptism, nourished with one Bread in One Lord — One, yet not alone, through the peculiar arithmetic of ubuntu, or agapé, or caritas, or love: in which one plus one plus one still equals one — the mathematics of the faith reflecting multiplication rather than addition, as one is raised to the power of infinity by God — and yet is still one.
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Sadly, rather than multiplication, we have seen more than our fair share of division lately, haven’t we? Of course, there has been division in the church from the beginning, as Paul’s testy correspondence with the Corinthians and Galatians attests — not everybody was happy with the decisions of the council at Jerusalem. Some in those days stood firm on requiring circumcision for Gentile converts; and Paul himself seems not to have been entirely sold on the importance of not eating meat offered to idols — though he counseled the Corinthians to indulge the tender-minded by exercising restraint for a season. Some things, it seems, never change, and perhaps they never will, if we are to be in relationship, that is.
In a way, division is part of the human condition, for without it our original loneliness could not have been healed by relationship — we are, after all, individuals, each of us. And while it takes two to argue, it also takes two to tango — and the choice to fight or to dance is ours to make.
We carry our individuality in our bodies, in our race and our sex, and our social standing, in part inherited, in part carved out through our own struggles. And this has been true from before the days of Jew and Greek, and slave and free, and just after the primal division of our ancient parents, the primordial male and female.
Yet we also know that in relinquishing our focus on these and other distinctions and divisions, in setting them aside for a time, in our encounter with others, we become ironically more truly ourselves — as we relate to others, dancing instead of fighting. Our true likeness is slowly revealed as we become more recognizable as kin beneath it all, more alike in our resemblance to that original likeness, and yet also more truly who we are. Love, made possible through division mended by relationship, ultimately unites us in bonds that surpass mere affection.
In the long run, there is no such thing as a solitary Christian. There is no Christian without the church, no church without Christ, no Christ without God. For as we believe that God is love, there can be no love without relationship. This love divine, all loves excelling, is the ultimate compassion — feeling-with — the love that embraces the other, that gives itself for the life of the other, that becomes itself in losing itself, saving its life in losing it. This is the embodied love of the Incarnation, the love that died on the Cross, the love that rose again from the dead, and in whom we will one day be raised: love that becomes so united with the beloved that the old categories that ruled the world — Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female — are overshadowed by the love which passes all understanding, yet shelters our hearts and minds under the shadow of everlasting wings.
For there is in the end, behind and within ubuntu, caritas, agapé, hesed and all the other words in which we have attempted to capture the divine compassion — one word borrowed in every human tongue, one word that is foreign to us all, and yet comes to our lips as native-born to it — or born again to it, when by water and the Spirit our citizenship in God’s realm is granted. There is one word utterly strange, and yet intimately familiar; divine and human, yet without confusion. It is the Word of God — Jesus, our Savior and our Lord, our ubuntu with God.+