Community: a lesson from African Ethics

What does it really mean to live in community with others?  Part of my current research deals with communities and democracy.  It’s amazing how many different definitions one finds for “community”–almost as many as one finds for “democracy.”

     I don’t know that I have ever really given this much though to community before; a confession that undoubtedly will cause dismay in some of my friends and knowing little chuckles from others.  As I weigh various ideas, I find the definition of community that is most intriguing to me comes from African Ethics literature.  Community, says these writers, is made up of human beings alive now, those waiting to be born, and those who are long since dead.
     I think what I like most about this definition is that it unintentionally highlights the heart of community breakdown that haunts the West, and America in particular, today, and then offers an interesting remedy.  The problem we face here in the West is that we are, by and large, individuals with a single-generation mindset.  More often than not, we ignore our collective history, and rarely do we think of a future that does not, somehow, include ourselves.
     Here’s an interesting thought experiment.  Think for a moment about how you live.  Now think of all the people you can who have gone before you in your community–whether it is people who pioneered your vocational field or your own ancestors or even spiritual predecessors.  How do you think they would view your life in terms of fulfillment of their legacy?
     Now think of you community again, but this time without you in it–say, 100 years from now.  What kind of legacy are you leaving?  Is it a legacy off which others can build?  Will the community be made stronger, or will it be weakened, for you having been a member?  It’s a startling, if not a little scary, thought, isn’t it.
     Perhaps the difficulty we experience in achieving community today stems less from a lack of communication than from a lack of context.  If I am part of a community that extends into both the past and the future, then it is much more difficult for me to see my place in that community as arbitrary or meaningless.  In fact, according to this definition of community, I am no longer the isolated individual, but rather I am an integral part of a puzzle that cannot be completed with out my piece.  There’s something rather hopeful about that isn’t there?
     It’s certainly worth ruminating on.

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