By Ben Swift
Dedicated to the late Samuel Mtembo
“It became clear to me that simply caring is not enough. To drive real progress, you have to change both hearts and laws. You need both understanding and action.” (Hillary Clinton)
Lately I’ve been reflecting on what God has to teach people about people, and I keep hearing the words to that corny song performed by Streisand in the 70’s, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” The thing is that as I sat down to write this post, I had just received a phone call informing me that my sponsor child, Samuel Mtembo, whom I’ve been supporting for approximately fifteen years, has suddenly died of an unexplained medical condition. Several years ago I remember hearing a preacher suggest that we will never look into the eyes of anyone who doesn’t matter to God. I never did get the opportunity to look into the eyes of my sponsor child but I know for sure that he mattered to God and therefore he mattered to me. Having received correspondence from his family for many years I know that I mattered to him also and that these types of relationships, among others, give us reason to ask questions about how we should see others in a world that so often sees only the man in the mirror.
Christianity while embedded with truth, loses its power in the truth, when it becomes simply an academic exercise where actions suggest that people don’t really matter. Christianity cannot become aligned with an individualistic culture focused on serving the self. Perhaps this is why Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias states that, “Truth that is not undergirded by love makes the truth obnoxious and the possession of it repulsive.”
Let us not forget what Jesus taught about how we should see others. “I am giving you a new command: that you keep on loving each other. Everyone will know that you are my talmidim [disciples] by the fact that you have love for each other.” (John 13:34-35)
These words of Christ are not unfamiliar to many of us but they raise the question, “Why is it that we in the human race find it so difficult to genuinely and unconditionally love others?” After all, we all know on a deep personal level that we need to be loved. We are all people who need people.
For those of us who live in the West, it has become increasingly easy to form and express opinions and ideas about other people when it remains a temporal exercise. However, the moment one comes face to face with real people in real places, preconceived thoughts and biases can melt away. Human relationships can instead be defined in the context of an emotional reality. This is why life behind a screen leads to so many relationship breakdowns, in the absence of body language and face to face human emotion.
Peter Vardy in his book, ‘Being Human’, gives us some insight into why we consistently fail to genuinely love others as he takes us to the roots of the Western world’s increasingly perceived lack of meaning. He suggests, “Seeing human beings as a biological accident without meaning or purpose has led to many of the difficulties at the heart of modern society. This has been accompanied by an ethical impotence because no intellectual framework seems to exist to challenge this meaninglessness.”
Fortunately we don’t have to travel too far to find a framework that does challenge the perceived meaninglessness of postmodernism’s humanity. In fact we only need to travel as far as the African continent for some insight that aligns with biblical teaching on love.
The framework or concept is known as ‘Ubuntu’. This is not a new idea, in fact it is an ancient African word meaning ‘humanity to others’ or ‘I am; because of you’. The concept has been made known to those in the West through the writings of Archbishop of Cape Town and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Desmond Tutu. In his article titled, ‘No Future without Forgiveness’, he writes, “Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human….You are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, ‘My humanity is inextricably bound up in yours. We belong in a bundle of life.”
Theologian Martin Luther understood this concept well and expressed it in the context of the Christian faith, particularly in response to the writings of Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:19. Luther writes in his twofold thesis, ‘On the Freedom of a Christian’, “A Christian is a free lord over all things and is subject to no one. A Christian is a ready servant of all things and is subject to everyone.” It is because of the freedom we have gained through the perfect love of what God has accomplished through Christ that we are able to live for others in Christ’s name.
“We ourselves love because he loved us first. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar. For if a person does not love his brother, whom he has seen, then he cannot love God, whom he has not seen. Yes, this is the command we have from him: whoever loves God must love his brother too.” (1 John: 19-21)
In the end, we can only conclude that the human race indeed consists of ‘people who need people’. We must then ask ourselves if we will become the people who love other people. Will we love others through our freedom in Christ and with the help of His Holy Spirit? Will we learn from the ancient African concept of Ubuntu and see ourselves as one connected piece of God’s integrated creation? As the saying on every Hard Rock Café jacket or t-shirt goes, ‘Love all, Serve all’.