What do we have to do with each other? This question may not be as simple as it seems.
What do we have to do with each other? The question arises when two churches less than a mile apart, connected by tradition, begin to wonder if they should be doing more together and if so, what. The question is in the air when presbyteries think about restructuring for the third time in a decade. Pondering the answer quickens our heartbeat as we sit nervously outside the office of the influential local official known to be skeptical of the church.
This question is intriguing because the nature of our answer changes depending on what phrase we stress. It can lead to a heady intellectual exercise comprised of creating a to-do list of actions, programs or systematic theological terms. On the other extreme, it evokes the existential, gut-wrenching inquiry, “Why we are here … together?”
What do we have to do with each ot her?
What do you, the awesome person reading this article, have to do with me and everyone else, and what do I have to do with you?
Well, for at least as long as you are reading this article, we (you and I) are belonging with each other across time, space and perspective. Whether you are motivated by trust in this publication, a sense of mystery and intrigue, or boredom because this is the only thing lying around the narthex and you are waiting to meet with somebody at the church, you are opening yourself up to be with the other.
And while the medium of reading seems like a one-way communication, your willingness to be open to the thoughts of the other is the essence of being with the other. This is a foundational part of what we must do to be alive and not atrophy spiritually, emotionally, mentally or physically. Holding space for difference, learning, hearing the story and perspective-taking are all necessary to be in relationship with the other at any meaningful level. Humanity requires humanity. We need each other in order to survive or have a chance of thriving. And this need is divinely orchestrated. This interconnectedness is biblical. We belong to each other because the God who has formed us has created us to belong to each other.
So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. (1 Corinthians 3:21-23)
But the ability to belong together is predicated on an understanding of and orientation toward power. We cannot belong together or truly be with each other if power is understood as a power over or under each other. What we have to do is promote a power for the mutual benefit of each other. This is the relational difference between doing with versus doing for.
This is the Christian call for compassion, an invitation to feeling with the other. The gift of incarnation inspires awe that God chose compassion, God chose to belong with us in our humanity. And we can by grace choose to belong with each other. We can choose to keep our eyes open to the reality that we have something to do with each and every person who is, who was and who is to be. This means we don’t get to absolve ourselves or deny the sin and brokenness of our ancestors, but it also means that we get to treasure the wisdom and healing in stories of hope and resilience, joy and justice.
In South Africa and Zimbabwe, there is a term for the character of those whose lives reflect a deep knowledge of this blessing of community and of what it means to build up others in the world: Ubuntu. Ubuntu is more than a personality trait; it is a spiritual longing for communal shalom, wholeness, healing, peace and wellness. It describes a person of integrated demeanor who recognizes that we are indeed in this together. Ubuntu is embracing what it means that I am because we are.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”
Ubuntu, compassion and belonging are all ways of pointing toward the kind of hope and power there is in the feeling of having a lot to do with the other.
Yet in a broken and sinful world, there is a universally experienced feeling of disconnection — from the playground to the college campus to the boardroom to the fellowship hall. Throughout life, we continue to navigate spaces of wondering whether others will actually have anything to do with us if we are truly ourselves. There is an ever-growing fragmentation and disconnection in the day-to-day interactions in which we receive messages that we are not being enough, doing enough or having enough to warrant space in our community, including our church community.
While we live in this tension between the call to embody belonging and the question of how it’s possible to belong with others at all, what are we actually supposed to do together?
What do we have to do with each other?
At dinner, I was talking to my husband and 11-year-old daughter about this question, and no surprise, they nailed the answer. “Oh, that’s Micah, babe!” “Yep. Micah, Mom.” Of course, the prophet Micah, speaking for the God of all, says clearly: “O human, God has shown you what is good. And what is the Lord’s requirement for you? It is to act with justice, to love mercy, and to move in step with God with humility” (Micah 6:8, paraphrased).
These simple, actionable requirements call us into both a deeper relationship with the God who is leading and empowering the work and a deeper relationship with others in order to accomplish the tasks. There is no way to attend to justice outside of community. Justice exists for the flourishing of community, and we are held accountable for the level of justice in the community. To do justice is to move with intent toward restoration, reparations and healing in light of the bend of sin towards oppression and power over the other. We need each other in order to remain oriented toward a justice that is not self-serving or self-denying.
To love mercy means to have a burning passion for the tenderness and empathy necessary for the flame of mercy to exist. To love mercy is to be vulnerable in a world that mocks, bullies, belittles, scoffs and scolds. To love mercy is to not measure the other by what we believe they deserve. To love mercy is to search out grace and to delight in its discovery. To love mercy is to trust that there is enough possible in God to do what makes sense spiritually even if it doesn’t make sense otherwise. And to love mercy for the long haul requires a community to pour mercy into each other’s lives. None of us can love mercy alone; we have to do it together.
The last requirement on Micah’s collective to-do list for humanity is the call to move in step with God with humility. This means that reflecting faithfully and theologically alongside others is taken seriously. Communal discernment, one of the gifts of our Presbyterian tradition, supports us with a path toward humility in relationship with God for the building up of the reign of Christ in the world. Our polity enables us to listen together and be open to the prophets in our midst as we celebrate the priesthood of all believers. We are at our best when we have the discipline to listen to those long-silenced voices in our midst. This is an act of humility, because it challenges the commodification of people and creation and invites God to lead. It also challenges the ever-flawed societal expectations of “normal” or “important” voices.
The call to walk humbly with God opens up space to value those on the margins and to treasure all of God’s people in their diversity. Those of us without stable housing, those who are unemployed or underemployed, those who are not white, those who are queer, those who are different in our physical capacities, those who are above or below the expected body mass index, those whose brains and bodies are atypical, those who are recovering from traumatic and dramatic scars that none can see — all of us need tenderness as we move through life. We are invited to go with others at the pace of a God who offers rain on the just and unjust alike. An oft-quoted yet unverifiable African proverb speaks to the call to slow down for the sake of transformation: “If you want to go fast, go by yourself. But if you want to go far, go with others.”
What do we have to do with each other?
It is remarkable that after all of these many millennia together, humanity still struggles with interconnectedness, with opening our hearts to the other.
For the sake of power, ego or control, or because of fear, we often want to be the ones at the top of the heap. We want to be in first place. We want to feel safe. We want our hierarchies as much as we complain about them. (Hello, organizational flow charts!) We want the people with our favorite jerseys to win the game.
But at the same time, we know down at the base of our bellies that these things do not satisfy us or save us. Because we are actually one body.
But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. (1 Corinthians 12:18-20)
We can’t ignore the suffering of the other, because we belong to one body. Therefore, when we return to our question, we remember that we have a lot to do with each other. A huge part of being a body is that there is beautiful coordination of its distinct member parts working toward a common purpose: the flourishing of the whole. We celebrate this truth as a Christian community at the Lord’s Table, at baptisms and in our confessions, but we struggle to carry it out of the sanctuary.
And as much as the powers and principalities would have us believe in scarcity – that there is not enough goodness to go around or that some members of the body are just not as important as others – we must remember that we serve a faithful God who chose to come into the community. We serve a God who shows us in the community of the Trinity what it means to have something to do with each other. We serve a God who works with perfect common purpose as Creator, Liberator and Sustainer.
So, in light of all this, what do we have to do with each other? I am not entirely sure, but I sense that we have an opportunity to walk away from this reflection with a Jacob-like limp, aware of our unsteadiness, yet more grounded in the call to be community. By God’s grace, we have been sent to these days … together. We have to be together. We have to long together. We have to belong together.
Shavon Starling-Louis pastors at Meadowlake Presbyterian Church in Huntersville, North Carolina. She is inspired by the intersection of worship, art and justice. She is blessed to parent Sariah and Kamden with her best friend Kirk.