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Asia/Africa: Ubuntu and Sangsaeng

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Aug 28, 2007 (070828)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"'Business as usual' is inappropriate, if humankind and creation are to survive on planet Earth. The prevailing development trajectory leads to destruction. ... But this is only one side of the coin.... [Those] who have realized the life-threatening consequences of the prevailing growth-oriented economic development paradigm are re-discovering the wisdom and life-affirming values of their own cultures and civilizations." World Council of Churches general secretary Samuel Kobia

Kobia was speaking at a consultation organized by the World Council of Churches bringing together theologians from Asia, Africa, and other parts of the world for a consultation in Changseong, Korea. Along with other participants, Kobia, who formerly headed the All Africa Conference of Churches, stressed the need for the ecumenical movement to find new ways of drawing on multiple traditions for a life-affirming vision and action to confront today's global problems.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains excerpts from Rev. Kobia's speech and from the statement released by participants at the consultation. These documents are available in full from and, respectively.

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Transforming Theology for Vital Ecumenism in the 21st Century

Consultation on New Waves of Life-Centered Theology, Spirituality and Mission in the 21st Century

Address by Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, WCC general secretary Chang Seong, Korea, 13 August 2007

World Council of Churches

[Excerpts only; full text available on]

Dear friends,

It is wonderful to see all of you here in Chang Seong, a place so close to the city of Gwangju. We will never forget the date of 18 May 1980. "5.18", as Koreans often say, stands for the beginning of the Gwangju Democratization Movement. The movement started with demonstrations by courageous students against the introduction of martial law in the country and the closure of universities. More than 300 000 citizens later joined the protesting students.

They were stopped on May 27th by the massive intervention of military power in the form of five airborne and infantry divisions. We shall always remember the victims of the Gwangju massacre as martyrs and heroes of the struggle for democracy in Korea, a struggle that finally overthrew the dictatorship and gave to the whole world a sign of hope for transformation.

As we begin to work on the theme Transforming Theology and Life Giving Civilization, we should keep the memory of 5.18 in our minds and thoughts. It will help us to remain grounded in reality, even as we refuse to give in to the powers that be. The memory of those people and events will nurture our commitment and our hope for change.


Ecumenism in the 21st century must grow beyond the confinements of the historical streams of the ecumenical movement, which took shape primarily as attempts to overcome divisions within Christianity that had occurred in European history. This tradition of ecumenism played an essential role in fostering a relevant witness on the part of churches in the context of two World Wars and the anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century. For decades ecumenism was heavily affected by the conflict between capitalism and socialism and the so-called cold war between the two super-powers of the last century.

The world and the ecumenical movement of today have taken on a different appearance. The most vital and fastest growing churches are not in Europe or North America, but in Africa, Asia and Latin America, with many of them belonging to the families of charismatic or Pentecostal churches. The church in South Korea, having been transformed from a missionary-receiving to a missionary-sending church, is challenged to discern new ways of doing mission in the 21st century. The old doctrinal divisions are not the main concern for churches in India that are pushed to find new forms of belonging to the church in response to the social and cultural realities of the Indian sub-continent. The post-denominational church in China represents a profound challenge to all denominations and Christian World Communions. But a pointed question arises: to what extent have these realities and experiences really shaped the approach and agenda of the ecumenical movement?

The 20th century's belief in economic growth and development has lost much of its attraction and appeal to people who are becoming more and more aware of the deeper crisis of life. The growth oriented development paradigm, especially when it is married to neo-liberal economics, has not only aggravated the exploitation of nature, but is undermining the web of life on which existence depends. The outdated paradigm of development has also created a new class of extremely poor and dispensable people without access to money, land or other resources. It makes sense to ask the question: To what extent have the crisis of life and the reality of the poor and excluded really shaped the approach and agenda of the ecumenical movement? The old bi-polar world system has been overthrown and replaced by the drive to imperial hegemony of the sole remaining super-power, the USA. What is needed to secure and sustain the American way of life dictates the fate of nature and of many nations around the world. At the same time, US power is confronted by the growing economic, political and military power of nations like China and India. Some non-state actors have demonstrated increasing resistance to US control and dominance, sometimes even in the form of terrorist actions. And again we need to ask ourselves: To what extent have US imperial power and the multi-faceted response to it really shaped the approach and agenda of the ecumenical movement?


"Business as usual" is inappropriate, if humankind and creation are to survive on planet Earth. The prevailing development trajectory leads to destruction. ...

But this is only one side of the coin. There is also hope. At the dawn of the 21st century, we witness an epic drama unfolding at the grass-roots. The poor are overcoming their long-standing oppressed consciousness as they attain, instead, a liberated consciousness. Indigenous Peoples of all continents, farmers and others who have realized the life-threatening consequences of the prevailing growth-oriented economic development paradigm, are re-discovering the wisdom and life-affirming values of their own cultures and civilizations as they engage in alternative projects. Their associations, co-operatives, unions and movements have become a multi-faceted, growing phenomenon in many countries around the world. I am happy to see that the Hanmaum community here in Chang Seong is one of them!

Slowly but steadily connections and linkages are made from country to country, and from continent to continent, for mutual learning and support. ...

These are small but significant developments which point the way to the desperately needed shift from the present domination of Western culture, and the development paradigm it represents, to a new life-giving civilization that nurtures dialogue and co-operation, with the goal of peace and justice, among diverse cultures and religions.

As Ubuntu and Sangsaeng Meet Together

It is for just this reason that I have insisted on developing stronger linkages between Asian and African theologians and ecumenists. Afro-Asian solidarity and co-operation is an important contribution to the search for a new paradigm of ecumenism in the 21st century. The core of it is very well expressed in the subtitle of this consultation: "As Ubuntu and Sangsaeng Meet Together".

Ubuntu stands for the African anthropology and cosmo-vision of life in community. The South African Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes Ubuntu in the following way:

"It is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion. A person with Ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole. They know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they are. The quality of Ubuntu gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them."

Sangsaeng recalls the ancient Korean concept of a sharing community and economy that allows all to flourish together. When Ubuntu and Sangsaeng meet together, justice and peace kiss each other, and the Biblical vision of life in God's shalom shines in the light of two congenial cultures of this world and speaks to people of Africa and Asia - but not only to them!


Bringing together Ubuntu and Sangsaeng: A journey towards life-giving civilization, transforming theology and the ecumenism of the 21st century

Statement by Consultation Participants

Changseong 17 August 2007

[Excerpts only. For full text see]

Thirty-five theologians and practitioners from Asia, Africa and other parts of the world, met in Changseong, Korea from the 12th- 17th August 2007 to explore together the contribution of Ubuntu and Sangsaeng in relation to theology, life giving civilization and ecumenism in the 21st century, under the theme "Transforming Theology and Life Giving Civilization".

Today we are faced with life-killing civilization, manifested in economic injustice, ecological destruction, the threat of Empire, and the escalation of religious conflicts. This compels us to urgently explore the possibility of life-giving civilization which affirms relationships, co-existence, harmony with creation, and solidarity with those who struggle for justice. This quest finds meaning in Ubuntu and Sangsaeng.

Ubuntu is an expression of human relations lived in community and in harmony with the whole of creation ('African anthropology and cosmo-vision lived in community'). Sangsaeng is an ancient Asian concept 'of a sharing community and economy which allows all to flourish together'.

In the shifting demography of Christianity, with Christians from the South now forming the majority, Christians are presented with the privilege and responsibility to formulate an alternative expression of Christian faith constructed around: - new ways of relating
- openness to theological expressions rooted in the cultures of the South, and
- an agenda which reflects the issues and concerns of the peoples of the South
- a commitment to building bridges of understanding and hope, and deepening relationships between North and South.

We recognized this as contributing to the life-giving and life-affirming resources that we all, South and North, need in the face of the challenges we encounter together and differently in our own contexts. In being attentive to one another we can be enriched and empowered for transformative mission, supported by the life-sustaining spiritualities we bring from our cultures.

We met at the Hanmaum Community, which is a community born out of the movement of the farmers' struggle for social justice1 and democracy in Korea. The community is an example of Ubuntu and Sangsaeng, as it seeks to be connected with nature and with other members of society in creative and life-affirming ways. Modeling an alternative way of living, the community seeks to sustain life through a commitment to organic principles, expressed not only in its agriculture and industry, but in every aspect of its life, recognizing that these are predicated on a life-death cycle which is ever regenerating. This contrasts with the neo-liberal economic model which is fixated on continuous growth, which is death-dealing because of its emphasis on excessive consumption, unsustainable production and inequitable distribution.


Transforming Theology

We discerned together that in the past we have generally promoted theological models that encourage a dichotomy between humanity and creation, and hierarchies of domination between peoples, which at their root are patriarchal. This has resulted in a faith which is privatized, individualistic, anthropocentric, otherworldly and dualistic. However, we acknowledged that there have also been expressions of life-affirming theologies around the world, including the movements we represent such as liberation, feminist, womanist, eco, minjung, dalit, and black theologies, to name but a few. Building on these theologies we believe that there needs to be a new emphasis on holistic theology expressed in the interconnectedness of life and convergence. Holistic theology so expressed manifests a theo-praxis which is exemplified by Ubuntu and Sangsaeng.

Such a theology should, amongst other things, speak to the following:

  1. Issues of memory, shame and guilt of the past, enabling liberation for all God's people and creation
  2. The denial of the dignity and sanctity of people which leads to issues of identity and belonging
  3. Privatization and commodification of life and elements of life, such as water, land, knowledge, etc.
  4. Reaffirmation of the lived experience of people and cultures.


Key themes

In our Bible studies and discussion of how we could individually and collectively take forward these insights we identified the following key themes and methodologies:

  1. Identifying - how Ubuntu and Sangsaeng are manifested in our own contexts and around the world - suppressed, ignored and emerging theologies in the North which express or demonstrate a commitment to Ubuntu and Sangsaeng and which speak to their context and to the life of the world - models of economies of sharing
  2. Exploring - ways through which a sustained and critical conversation between theological institutions in the North and South can identify and engage the death-dealing issues of Empire in order to promote solidarity and life-affirming theologies and praxis - creative ways for people to affirm their dignity in solidarity with other people and creation - the concept of oikumene as life-giving - critically the imperial dimensions of civilization - how we can resist and overcome the intentional fragmentation of communities and creation by Empire, drawing on Ubuntu and Sangsaeng, enabling peoples to live in solidarity, equity and interconnectedness
  3. Reclaiming - missio Dei (God's mission) and in that process move away from language of proselytism, embracing instead a language and practice of invitation and hospitality as expressions of life-centred mission. - the gift of ecumenism as having a common vision of living and working together - key theological and doctrinal concepts in the light of Ubuntu and Sangsaeng - indigenous methods of caring for nature
  4. Developing - theologies of life and creation and their implications - knowledge sharing centres based on indigenous ideas of knowledge sharing - a new paradigm within churches, particularly in respect of pastoral formation and 'pulpit language', drawing on Ubuntu and Sangsaeng - a new biblical hermeneutics opening up space for fresh interpretation of the Bible - a new ecumenical spirituality drawing on the spirit of Ubuntu and Sangsaeng - a wider ecumenism, embracing civil society groups as well as people of other faith and encouraging the contributions of young people, recognizing their central role in life-giving change - models of life-giving praxis in the production, consumption and distribution of resources
  5. Applying - life-giving theology in the context of those who arevictims of injustice and those who benefit from injustice - life-giving theology as the basis for establishing local eco-congregations

In all this we recognized the need to remain critical of traditional cultural concepts so that in rediscovering them we redefine them in the context and challenges of our time, that they may be truly life-affirming and life-giving.


AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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