As I write these words, our world is embroiled in several struggles. First, we have been clutched by a global pandemic which has disrupted any sense of normalcy we may have assumed. Our second struggle is with overt expressions of deeply rooted racism that continues to kill and oppress black and brown brothers and sisters. Both of these – the pandemic and systemic racism – are not isolated struggles. They both highlight the inequality (racial and economic) that continues to cause suffering and pain.
These struggles highlight the realization that God’s peaceable kingdom is not yet a reality here on earth. If, however, we pay attention to the cries of those who cannot breathe – due to COVID-19 or police brutality – we can learn to respond in solidarity with those who are in pain and/or oppressed.
The biblical narrative tells us the story of a God who walks with those who are disheartened, disenfranchised and who suffer. It also invites those who believe in this God and who follow his Son Jesus Christ to see how all of humanity is interconnected: when one suffers, creation is not well; things are not as they should be. If we are interested in embodying God’s peace and justice in this world, what happens to one should also matter to others. If we seek to be a Peace Church, we must therefore recognize our interconnectedness and challenge injustice while accompany those who suffer.
Recognizing our interconnectedness, however, means calling into question the myth of “the individual.” The notion of “the individual” suggests that one is “free” or “separate” from others. It assumes that one can be “independent” from others; pushing against the idea that others may determine or affect one’s actions. Thus, the battle that rages on when we seek to emphasize “the individual” is one that seeks to be free from others.
One thing that COVID-19 has highlighted in the past few months, however, is how we are all intrinsically bound. And this is a reality that those who are oppressed and exploited could have already told us. Put simply, what we do affects others. What others do affects us. For better or for worse, we are inextricably bound. We only need to see how COVID-19 has spread to understand this reality.
In South Africa, the notion of ubuntu provides a significant philosophical reminder. Ubuntu has become the short hand for the phrase umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu which means “a person is a person because of other people.”
In South Africa, ubuntu provided an alternative logic to the history and experience of colonialism and apartheid. Apartheid, which literally manes “apart-hood,” was the rigid structure that was based on racial segregation. It emerged out of European colonization and formed a legal system that was based on and promoted white supremacy and white privilege while suppressing and oppressing those it deemed as “not-white.” Apartheid was a form of social engineering that promoted separation and fear of the “other,” thus justifying oppression and violence against those it deemed as “not-white.”
Throughout the struggle against apartheid (which officially came to an end in 1994) and into the early years of South Africa’s democracy, the concept of ubuntu provided motivation and vision. It highlighted how apartheid and its separation and exclusion attacked not only one’s dignity, but one’s humanity! Desmond Tutu, for example, regularly referenced the notion of ubuntu as he challenged the logic and separating practice of apartheid. “My humanity,” he would remind people, “is bound up, is inextricably bound, with yours; and yours with mine.”
It seems to me that this notion of ubuntu is a concept we might want to embrace at this time (if not from here on in!). It may help us to better understand Philippians 2:3-4:
Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than [one]self. Let each of you look out not only for [your] own interests, but also for the interests of others.
When one member suffers, all members suffer.
Embracing such a vision of interconnectedness, however, has consequences. What happens to someone else matters to us, and what happens to us matters to others. And this may affect not only who we are, but what we do! It offers, in other words, a social vision, not an individualistic one!
Embodying such a vision, however, takes a posture of solidarity. It assumes that we are not walking on our own but with others. There are many joys in embracing such a posture. But, it also means that we share in the suffering: when one member suffers, all members suffer.
Thus, if we want to be healthy, we must also work to ensure that others may be well. If we want a world where everyone is treated with respect and dignity – as human beings and as gifts of God – then we must ensure that the “least of these” (those who might not count in the eyes of the principalities and powers) are front and centre in the quest for dignity and humanity. At the most fundamental level, this is what it means to be in solidarity with others.
To live in solidarity, however, means that we must understand the struggles others face. In other words, a posture of being in solidarity with others means that we must also be aware of and question our constructed social realities in order to better understand why or how others are suffering.
Herein lies the significance of lament. To understand lament – someone’s cry, someone’s pain, someone’s time of anguish – is to recognize that things are not as they should be. And this animates us (or should animate us) to investigate why some are suffering and explore how we might confront the issues that cause such suffering. Lament offers an opportunity to shape our social vision; it challenges us to recognize what is not right, where harmony is not yet a reality and what needs to change so that everyone may experience God’s shalom.
This creates an invitation to be the church –the “called out ones” – today. It offers an opportunity to embody the vocation of the church in solidarity with others: struggling to ensure that everyone has the medical care, food, economic and social security and the dignity they need.
When we respond to the invitation to be the church, we can participate in a vision of hope: that God is with us, works through us and has not forsaken us. It also stirs us to action to embrace our particular vocation in and for the world and to witness to Christ’s way of peace as we participate in making God’s manifold wisdom known for the world.
May God help us respond faithfully.
—Andrew Suderman, secretary of the Peace Commission. He lives in the USA where he teaches at Eastern Mennonite University.
This testimony is part of the Peace Sunday worship resource for 2020. Click here to see more.
 Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness, 1st ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 31.