I Am Because We Are

Rev. Douglas Taylor

September 19, 2021

Archbishop Desmond Tutu related the following story in one of his earlier sermons from more that forty years ago.

There was once a man who was a staunch churchgoer and a deeply committed Christian. He supported most of the activities of his local church. And then for no apparent reason he stopped attending church and became just a hanger on. His minister visited him one wintery evening. He found him sitting before a splendid fire with red glowing coals, radiating a lovely warmth round the room. The minister sat quietly with his former parishioner gazing into the fire. Then he stooped and with the tongs, removed one of those red glowing coals from the fire and put it on the pavement. The inevitable happened. That glowing coal gradually lost its heat, and turned in a while into a grey lump of cold ashes. The minister did not say a word. He got up and walked away. On the following Sunday, the old man turned up in church. A solitary Christian is a contradiction in terms.”

-Tutu, “My Search for God” 1979

When my mother shared with me a version of this same story, she adjusted it a bit so the minister moved the coal back to the fire where it came back to life; a good Universalist edit which I think supports the point of the story. “A person is a person through others persons.”

I stumbled across a delightful Huffington Post article from 2 years back entitled “Why the Phrase ‘Pull Yourself Up by Your Bootstraps’ is Nonsense.” https://www.huffpost.com/entry/pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-nonsense_n_5b1ed024e4b0bbb7a0e037d4

The article tackles the origins of this phrase used to suggest that gumption and a ‘go-getter’ attitude is all one needs to be a self-made person in this world. By self-sufficiency and determination, you can elevate yourself without the help of others. Of course, this is nonsense.

Our culture has become too enamored with the false idea of the Lone Wolf and the Rugged Individualist. The usual reason a wolf is alone and separated from their pack is not because they are strong loners. They leave their pack because they are mature adolescents ready to form a pack of their own. Being a Lone Wolf is not a symbol of self-sufficiency and strength. It is a symbol of transition. It means you should be looking for a new pack!

And the idea of being a rugged individualist is also a bit bunk. That phrase originates from just before the Great Depression to say a person doesn’t need any help from the government to get by. That kind of ‘go-it-alone’ attitude became inexorable entangled with the stock market crash of ’29 – at least until enough people forgot that part of our history. And are we surprised to find ideas of toxic individualism circulating among modern conservatives given the times we are in today?  

But let me get back to the bootstraps. It is not uncommon for an idiom to be a little confusing on face value. Why would anyone ingest hair of the dog that bit you? If someone says they ‘slept like a baby,’ does that mean they woke up every two hours crying? And pulling yourself up by your bootstraps – that is literally impossible. Why would people use this bootstrap phrase to imply that something is hard but manageable?

Well, as it turns out, the phrase was originally used to suggest something was impossible – he might as well pull himself over a fence by the straps of his own boots. It was meant to be heard as an absurdity. The Huffington Post article suggests the shift from describing something absurd to something attainable occurred in the early 20th century. You know, right around the Great Depression and all that.

And this is not simply a historic rant by your pastor against some old-timey bygone notions. These ideas and false narratives undermine our capacity for collective action. The culture of hyper-individualism is hampering our country’s response to Covid-19, for example. Friday evening, I drove past a few dozen protestors with flags and signs saying they would not be guinea pigs and refused to be vaccinated. Crassly, they were protesting outside Lourdes Hospital rather than at city hall as decent protesters usually do.

The image of the Rugged Individualist has a strong pull in our national psyche. This form of toxic individualism gets trotted out as patriotic and lifted up a what helped us build our nation and tame the west. Which is not only blatantly wrong, it is harmful.

In truth, our national culture has been most strongly influenced by the work of teams and of people banding together. The image of a barn-raising is far more indicative of our culture than a lone deputy on the horizon smoking a Marlboro.

I understand the values of personal liberty and independence through grit and resourcefulness. But ultimately our goal here is to build a just and thriving society. At times like this I find it helpful to consider wisdom of a different source on how to be a community.

We could learn a lot from the African teachings of ubuntu as we heard about in the reading this morning. Ubuntu teaches us: “a person is a person because of other persons.” My humanity is caught up with the humanity of every other person. Ubuntu tells us that we need each other and we are all connected. It promotes the greater good rather than individual success. We have strength in our unity. I am not able to be myself without you also being yourself.

Interestingly, when we start to look, we find this idea popping up in all manner of places, running counter to the dominant culture of toxic individualism. The ideas in ubuntu are not exclusive to African philosophy and wisdom.

In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote:

“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

Many of the teachings of indigenous people of North America offer a similar lesson. The message that we are all children of one spirit, we all belong to Mother Earth, is a message that arises from many of the speeches and teachings across many different tribes and nations. We are one strand in the web of life. Consider the impact of seven generations. We are called to recognize our interdependent place in the grand design. 

And from another corner of the globe, Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh talks about a similar Buddhist perspective which he calls Inter-being.

“If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. … If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. …. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. …

“When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist. Looking even more deeply, we can see we are in it too.”

– Thich Nhat Hanh, excerpt from Teach Breathe Learn by Meena Srinivasan

Wisdom from Vietnamese Buddhism, American Indian elders, Civil Rights activists, and a multitude of African tribes coalesce around a different message, a different set of values, a different way to be a society and community together. It is a message that we are all connected, and that we all need each other. You won’t be surprised, perhaps, to hear me suggest our Unitarian Universalist principles align well with the concept of ubuntu. I am because we are.

Ubuntu calls for qualities such as empathy and compassion, listening and solidarity, nonviolence and mutual respect. These are the qualities we need for building a just and thriving society. These are the values which can heal our communities. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said:

A self-sufficient human being is subhuman. I have gifts that you do not have, so, consequently, I am unique – you have gifts that I do not have, so you are unique. God has made us so that we will need each other. We are made for a delicate network of interdependence.

-Desmond Tutu, “God’s Dream”

Now, there is, of course, a healthy version of individualism. There is an important value worth celebrating and cultivating that leads us to think for ourselves, to be innovative and take risks. A healthy version of ubuntu would not stifle that. Tutu has noted that communism has never taken root in Africa because the communal element of ubuntu nurtures healthy individuality. Yes, Ubuntu emphasizes the community as what defines a person. But notice it is still about defining a person.

Western civilization defines a person as an individual with a capacity for reason and self-determination. Ubuntu defines a person by their relationships with other persons. Consider this interesting impact of that difference.

In our society, when there has been violence, we talk about the impact on the individual. Using ubuntu, the conversation would be not only about the injury to the individual but the injury to the community as well. The violence weakens society. The impact of the school shootings is not only on those students who were shot. The impact of a rape is not only on the one woman. The impact of a police officer’s use of excessive and even lethal force is not only on the one black or brown body. These acts of violence weaken our society. We know this, we experience this. But our society does not like to talk about it. We receive the message that the impact was just on those personally impacted. As if we are not all connected. As if our communities and our relationships don’t shape and define us. As if we do not all feel that impact.

I invite you to take a moment in reflection on the events of your morning, on just the past few hours of your day. How many threads of connection were woven into your experience? Where did your pillow come from? Did you eat breakfast? Who paved the road you traveled or built the computer through which you watch the worship service? Where might you send your gratitude? How might you put a little more out into the world for the next person?

I invite you to have an ubuntu perspective. Consider your relationships and how you are supported and connected. You are not alone. You will not become a lump of grey ash. Others are here to offer their glow for you and others are in need of your glow which you have to offer.

In a 1993 commencement speech at Morehouse college, Archbishop Tutu delivered the following words, and I offer them as the closing of my sermon and our ‘sending forth’ this morning.

This is how you have ubuntu – you care, you are hospitable, you’re gentle, you’re compassionate and concerned. Go forth as a new doctor, conscious that everybody is to be revered, reverenced as created in God’s image whether inner-city, and rural areas; go forth to demonstrate your ubuntu, to care for them, to heal them especially those who are despised, marginalized. Go forth to make the world a better place for you can make a difference. The task is daunting, of course, but it is our necessary struggle.”

(Tutu, Morehouse commencement speech, ’93)

The task is daunting, of course, but it is our necessary struggle.

In a world without end

May it be so.