In the wake of the Boston bombings, I’ve been ruminating on the African philosophical concept of Ubuntu, which loosely translates as, “”I am what I am because of who we all are,” or more succinctly, “I am because you are.” As I watched the first responders rush into the debris and heroes in cowboy hats and running gear courageously tend to shocked victims, I thought, “Ubuntu.” In the midst of the devastation, the senseless violence, humanity has shone through the rubble, responding to hate with love and to violence with compassion.
But there’s a darker thought that’s been working on me, as well. As I watched the coverage in the days following the bombing, I was intrigued to learn about the responsible parties. Was it someone acting alone, or part of a larger network of criminals? Would he (I couldn’t even envision it being a “she”) be American? Of some other nationality? Christian? Muslim? None of the above?
I wanted to know, so that I could immediately begin the work of distancing myself from the culprit. “Thank God they don’t look or believe like me.” It’s a lot easier to draw hasty conclusions when the perpetrators don’t resemble your relatives or neighbors or fellow congregants. Even with the first-person testimonials about the positive character of the younger brother, I found myself relieved that this heinous crime was not committed by “one of us”, and then guilty for even thinking that way.
Here’s the thing: the reverse of Ubuntu is just as true. “You are because I am.” Just as “I am because you are” acknowledges the unbreakable bond we hold together as humans (even if we choose not to recognize it), the reverse acknowledges that the actions of others are, in some way, our responsibility. That’s great when others are serving in soup kitchens and fixing kids’ bicycles. But when they’re setting off bombs or burning holy books, we’re much less keen to make those connections.
The 13th century Sufi mystic Rumi said, “You think because you understand ‘one’ you must also understand ‘two’, because one and one make two. But you must also understand ‘and’.” And that “and” is one heckuva complicated thing, isn’t it? In this hyper-connected world, we are forced to live with the “and” of our existence. I believe our culture is experiencing a strong backlash against the individualism that ran rampant for several decades. The world is now very small and very connected. At the dinner table with our family, we can chat with our friend in Thailand while watching real-time coverage of police manhunts in Boston. There is no “me” or “you” anymore; there is “me AND you”, which adds up to “us.”
So, when someone does something like what happened in Boston, it’s no longer applicable to talk about “them” and “they” and “those people.” Those are outdated terms of definition. “You are because I am.” So if that’s the way you are, what have I done to contribute to it? What have I added to the panoply of society that might influence the thoughts or behaviors of another person? The bombers didn’t become who they were in a vacuum. Somebody somewhere said or did something that influenced them.
The beauty and danger of this “reverse Ubuntu” is that it works on all levels: global, societal, interpersonal. How we treat someone else matters, because it can affect the person (community, nation) they become. This is a sobering thought in a country where all of us have the freedom and most of us have the accessibility to say whatever we damn well please. Online forums provide us the means and the audience to spew vitriol, champion political rants, and “like” incendiary racist comments (not to mention shamelessly share memes about ugly cats). Because we’re doing this from the safety of our pajamas and our laptop keyboard, we may think it doesn’t really have an effect. Or maybe we think it DOES, which is even scarier to contemplate.
What we say matters. What we do matters. Not just to us, but to others. I believe the only way to live out the community and oneness of Ubuntu (“I am because you are”) is to acknowledge the truth inherent in its inverse (“You are because I am”). What qualities do we want to see in others? Do we want others to be violent? Then we should be violent. Do we want others to hate us? Then we should hate them. Do we want a country divided along political, ethnic, socio-economic lines? Then we should keep drawing them in our status updates.
“You are because I am.” God help us be the people we expect others to be.