There are two images that are conjured up in my mind as I reflect on the theme of what it means to be a civilised society. The first are the words of the African proverb ‘It takes a village to raise a child’, and the second is the word ‘ubuntu’. Both these sets of words capture for me all that is intrinsic to being recognised as a civilised society.
Children are often thought of as potentially vulnerable and this African proverb reminds us that whether or not we have biologically contributed to children being in the world, as adults, we all have a responsibility to bring them up, to protect them, keep them safe and to teach them sustainable values. It is within the wider community that lies the breadth of gifts and resources needed to grow the next generation of humanity. This comes into fruition as together we interact in a way that is healthy and wholesome.
In the summary of the law, we are reminded by Jesus about what is ‘core.’ It is to love God with our whole being and love our neighbours as we love ourselves. Within this we capture what is being asked of us – ‘to do unto others as we would like them to do unto us’ – ‘to be our brother’s keeper.’
In a civilised world we do not just think about ourselves or seek to look after number one. Yet time and time again, we selfishly ask the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”. If we are going to be part of a civilised society, then every time that question is asked, the answer must be a resounding “Yes.” We must be a community that genuinely cares about one another. It cannot just be left to religion to share this message; political life – which impacts on just about every area of our life – must catch up with the arts and religion.
In a civilised society, we exercise collective responsibility in ‘the village’, playing our part for the sake of the whole – “My story is your story, and your story is my story.” I believe that if we were to follow this path, the society we live in would look rather different to the one we inhabit today. For example, the cry from the West appears to be ‘America first!’…. So are we setting out for someone else to be last?
And this takes me to my second word, ‘ubuntu. This word comes from the Zulu and Xhosa language and means ‘I am because we are’. It is part of the Zulu phrase ‘umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’ and this literally means that a person is a person through other people. I must give credit to the late Archbishop Emeritus of South Africa, Desmond Tutu, for popularising the word ‘ubuntu’. He spent a significant part of his life stressing the need for others’ humanity to be taken seriously, not just black people in South Africa but people across the globe. We too must begin to look beyond our borders and think of the Uyghur people in Northwest China, the Rohingya people from Myanmar (formerly Burma), and all the migrants fleeing from the various crises unfolding around the world.
For me practising ‘ubuntu’ is the icing on the cake of what it means to be a civilised society!