Umbuntu

Posted on April 24, 2017

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So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you. (Matt. 7:12)

It’s only the giving that makes you what you are.  Ian Anderson

I recently returned from visiting a missionary friend in the Eastern Cape area of South Africa.  My friend ministers to the Xhosa villages in the area that was formerly the Republic of Transkei.

We found the people were very gracious to us, wanting to make sure we were taken care of.  One of the managers of the mission station (who is Xhosa) explained to me a concept she called Umbuntu.  Umbuntu is a concept of mutual dependence and support for each other.  The idea is that “I am, because you are” and therefore, we help each other.  My missionary friend explained that if we were to get a flat tire, we would not be able to change it ourselves without someone coming to help.   Umbuntu is about helping each other and valuing relationships.

I bring this up not to glorify their culture over ours.  They do have significant problems in the Eastern Cape (e.g. 83% unemployment, 48% HIV/AIDS).  This is also not intended to suggest that one’s identity should be tied to one’s relationships.  Rather, the point here is to look at this idea of mutual support and valuing relationships.  Of course, one of my first thoughts is, “How does this apply to marriage?”

My experience is that we often focus too much on our own needs in marriage and not our partner’s needs.  The more we feel that our needs are not getting met, the more our needs become our central focus both in how we think about our marriage and how we interact with our partner.  If either partner’s needs never get any attention in the marriage, it is certainly problematic.  However, if both partners are focused on how I can be there for you, there is tremendous power there to heal hurting relationships.

Perhaps this idea of Umbuntu captures some of God’s original intent for marriage.  In Gen 2:18, we read, “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’”  The original idea was that we were supposed to help each other, husband and wife were to be each other’s helpers.  Perhaps we can start reclaiming that as part of our identity in marriage: “I am my partner’s helper.”  This is not to the exclusion of your identity as an individual, but rather as a key component of the role you took on when you exchanged vows.

Umbuntu is empathy in action.  “I get what it is like to be you.  I care about what it is like to be you.  Therefore, I want to be a support to you.  I want you to feel loved and valued in this relationship because you matter to me.”  If both partners are approaching the relationship like that, this can be a very satisfying relationship that lasts a lifetime.

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