The 2024 World Plenary Meeting will be hosted by the Friends World Committee for Consultation’s Africa Section and Southern Africa Yearly Meeting. Most of the world’s Quakers live in Africa. It is also the continent with the largest number of Christians in the world.
The framing for our World Plenary Meeting 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” (1 John: 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 embrace of ubuntu theology by Southern African 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.
At the global level, inspired by the Biblical concept of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8–13), Friends have for many years been part of the worldwide movement for the cancellation of ‘third world’ debt. These efforts have often been joined to advocacy for fairer trade rules and calls for big companies to stop dodging taxes in the countries whose wealth they extract.
At international climate change negotiations Friends have been campaigning for action on ‘loss and damage’ – drawing attention to the need for funds for the worst affected countries to compensate for the effects of extreme weather caused by rich countries’ carbon emissions. Although rarely framed as such, all of these recognise that the world as presently arranged does not reflect ubuntu. There is a need to repair broken systems and relationships, a process sometimes referred to as ‘reparations’.
The word ‘reparation’ isn’t used in the Bible. We do however find the language of atonement (at-one-ment) – the process of becoming whole again. We also find the language of repentance, including in Jesus’ first words in the gospel of Matthew: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). The Kingdom of Heaven has often been understood by Friends, at least in part, as a society re-organised in order to serve peace, justice and equality. If we are to know such a Kingdom, some kind of international at-one-ment and repentance will be necessary, to help heal the historical injustices which too often continue today. This would be a step towards reconciliation and restoration of right relationships.
In anticipation of reparations being part of conversations at the World Plenary, an international group convened by South African Friend Nozizwe Madlala Routledge defined reparations as consisting of recognition of harms committed and action to address them. At the UN level there is a wider consensus on the meaning of reparations, combining restitution (seeking where possible to restore the victim to the original situation), compensation, rehabilitation, victim satisfaction, and crucially, guarantees of non-repetition.
We are also preparing to talk about how to repair the ways that historical injustices have harmed us spiritually, as a community, including in the way we relate with one another. Raising these issues will involve brave, sensitive and complex conversations, but which are ultimately necessary to the times we are in. The goal is that we can break through and start to heal, strengthened by the unifying Bible passage chosen for the gathering “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the LORD, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11-14).
The strength that comes with divine hope will surely be needed. Today the global gap between rich and poor is the biggest it has ever been. What was once referred to as climate change or global warming is beginning to be called climate breakdown or global boiling, and is hurting the world’s poorest first and worst. In the world family of Friends it has become starkly clear that the extreme weather events once spoken of in the future tense are now without doubt here in the present. Hardly a month passes by without hearing of the effects of extreme weather on Friends or their near neighbors.
Our prayer for this World Plenary is 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 endeavor. Running through the event will be three related ‘streams’: Ubuntu, care for creation and healing historical injustice. On the penultimate day of the event we will seek to support these to converge into a concluding minute or epistle to share widely, speaking truth to the world situation as we understand it.
FWCC will share resources and perspectives on ubuntu, care for creation and healing historical injustice 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.