Much of the commitment to and analysis of community that we find in the work of Howard Thurman and Dr. King derives from their African roots. As African scholar Dr. Molefi Kete Asante puts it in The Afrocentric Idea and African Intellectual Heritage:
…prior to the interaction with the European and Arab populations that invaded Africa, the idea of race was nearly nonexistent; however, the concepts of community group, clan, family, and ethnicity did exist.
Values were grounded in community, including ancient beliefs in resurrection and life, reincarnation, matrilineality, the value of children, “and the ultimate goodness of the earth.”
Dr. Asante recognizes community as being at the core of African belief systems. We are in the universe and it is in us; there is no separation between us and nature, between life and spirituality or spirituality and religion.
Asanti sees the deep teaching of community among African people as connecting to the principle of harmony.
Among the Yoruba, the goal is always to restore harmony….Harmony and peace, societal and individual, come from the right ordering of the earth through an appeal to Ifa” (sacred texts).
Community embraces the ancestors–not only those from the past who are present as spirit but also those not yet born who are to come on the scene in the future. That is why all ritual begins with libations to these ancestors. They are part of any prayer service. (Is this unlike the prayer “all our relations” that Lakota people pray whenever they pray?)
There is a personal harmony that must be developed “because an undisciplined person creates disharmony within the society.”
Becoming human is the task at hand, and “one becomes human only in the midst of others,” that is, in community.
The development of personal powers that are inherent in us means our harmonizing with and becoming “in tune with the rhythm of the universe.” This happens, among other places, at community rituals and celebration.
Asante names a secret to African-American spirituality. It is this:
While we recognize the individuality of the responsibility, we know that it cannot be carried out without others. We can reach our own transcendence, but never without the help of other.
In joining in collective expression of power, true spirituality is manifested.
I am no longer myself, I am a transpersonal being at this moment….It is joy ineffable, because I am in tune with the feelings of others.
A key concept in African religion is Maat, which Asante defines as “the influence of right and righteousness, justice and harmony, balance, respect, and human dignity.” Maat is about living out the harmony or balance and shared interdependence we find in creation itself. “In all cases the ideas of religion [in Africa] kept the societies close to the fundamental principles of harmony between humans, humans and the environment, and humans and the spirit world.”
In this rich term Maat, we can easily recognize the concepts of Justice, Compassion and the Common Good that form the basis of authentic community and hold the key to common survival.
Adapted from Matthew Fox, One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths, pp. 89f., 392.
Banner Image: A modern interpretation of the goddess Ma’at by Amaranta Celena Colindres. Photo by wiredforlego on Flickr.
Do you see “restoring harmony” as an important value in today’s political and environmental crises? When you think of “ancestors,” do you include not only those who came before, but also those who will follow? Do you see examples around us today of how an “undisciplined person” creates disharmony and havoc and chaos for others?
One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths
Matthew Fox calls on all the world traditions for their wisdom and their inspiration in a work that is far more than a list of theological position papers but a new way to pray—to meditate in a global spiritual context on the wisdom all our traditions share. Fox chooses 18 themes that are foundational to any spirituality and demonstrates how all the world spiritual traditions offer wisdom about each.“Reading One River, Many Wells is like entering the rich silence of a masterfully directed retreat. As you read this text, you reflect, you pray, you embrace Divinity. Truly no words can fully express my respect and awe for this magnificent contribution to contemporary spirituality.” –Caroline Myss, author of Anatomy of the Spirit