Quakers and ubuntu

27 September 2023


Most of the world’s Quakers live in Africa. It is also the continent with the largest number of Christians in the world. The 2024 World Plenary Meeting will be hosted by the Friends World Committee for Consultation’s Africa Section and Southern Africa Yearly Meeting.

The framing for both World Quaker Day 2023 and the World Plenary Meeting 2024 uses the word ubuntu known and used in various countries of Africa, and originating in Southern Africa. Ubuntu refers to the recognition that ‘a person is a person through other persons’, or more succinctly ‘I am because we are’.

The unity and interdependence affirmed in ubuntu is found in scripture, for example in Paul’s teaching that “the body is not made up of one part but many” (1 Corinthians 12:14), and “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28:). 

This is also reflected in Jesus’ own words. When asked what was the most important commandment Jesus replied “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one…and the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’. There is no other commandment greater than these (Mark 12:28-34)”.

Quakers often speak of the divine as The Light, present in the hearts of all. This follows the Gospel according to John which speaks of Christ as “the source of life, and that life was the light for humanity” (John 1:4). In this context it is interesting to note that the root ‘ntu’ in ubuntu can be taken to mean both ‘human being’ and ‘God’s being’.

The word ubuntu itself can be found in the versions of the Bible in Bantu languages. For example:

  • 2 Chronicles 24:22 (“King Joash did not remember the kindness Zechariah’s father Jehoiada had shown him”) in isiXhosa is “Ukumkani uYowashe wabulibala ubuntu awayebenzelwe nguyise kaZakariya”.
  • Jeremiah 51:10 (“The Lord has revealed our righteousness)” in isiNdebele is “USomnini uvuselele ubuntu bethu!”
  •  Ephesians 2:8 (“For it is by grace you have been saved”) reads in Kinyarwanda as “Koko mwakijijwe n’ubuntu”.

In addition to its other meanings, in Kirundi and Kinyarwanda ubuntu means Grace. In Burundi, ‘living ubuntu’ also means to know an inward purity that informs how you live, in such a way that others would seek to do so too.

The engagement with ubuntu theology by Friends is in part due to the resonance with the recognition of ‘that of God in everyone’ as well as the relationship with Quaker testimonies of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality and sustainability. In Southern Africa’s book of Faith and Practice, called Living Adventurously, ubuntu is described as being rooted in the “invisible circuit of connection between us all”. 

Although the origins of ubuntu reflect a local agrarian society, it is increasingly used to consider the national and international level too. Acutely aware of the violent effects of inequality and environmental degradation, Friends in South Africa are seeking to manifest ubuntu by calling for systems of clean and abundant energy. They also advocate a universal basic income.

We pray to be enabled to be partners with God and one another in bringing about the change the world needs, and to find clarity on our role within that. This will be a collective endeavour. 

FWCC will share resources and perspectives on ubuntu, throughout 2023 & 2024, to help inform discussions at Section Meetings, on World Quaker Day (1 October), and to assist with spiritual preparation for the World Plenary Meeting.