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empty Posted March/April 2008
Rev. Damon R. Jones
"I Am Because We Are": African Spiritual Social Ethics According to Peter Paris
Rev. Damon R. Jones
Chicago, IL

When one reads The Spirituality of African Peoples: The Search for a Common Moral Discourse, social ethicist Peter Paris makes a proposal that there is a communality of what the religious and moral discourse is and it is based on the African worldview or African proverb, “I am because we are.” This is a common thread throughout his proposal. He is trying to explicate the common features of different African communities as being foundational for an African and African American moral philosophy, in addition to making reasonable arguments concerning the continuities of this African experience on the continent and in the North America Diaspora. (1) The author wants his primary audience (African Americans) to understand one source of their moral discourse. He proposes doing the task by studying African academia and research to search for African roots in moral discourse. For Paris historical experience shapes the nature of theology and ethics. Therefore, he claims that African Americans must begin in Africa.
Paris makes three arguments to formulate his theory of social ethics. He will argue first that, “African peoples both on the continent and in the diaspora are diverse in cultural form yet united in their underlying spirituality.” (2) This is evident by the different languages and cultural conventions that embody the fundamental values of a particular group. He uses the metaphor “unity in diversity” for African Spirituality. Secondly, he will argue ‘that the realities of cultural diversity and the unity of African spirituality both separate and unite African and African American religious and moral traditions.” (3) And finally, Paris argues, “that a dynamic principle of unity permeates the diversity of African cultural traditions both on the continent and in the African Diaspora.” (4) Hence, by stating the above three arguments proposed by Paris the “I am because we are” demonstrates the “unity in diversity” or the individuality and the inter-relatedness of his overarching proposition.
Paris is morally accountable to the African peoples from whom he extrapolates his information. In other words, he is wholly accountable to the African academic community to honor their work and to honor the life and times of the peoples about which they write. In Peter Paris’ work, he is aiming his moral dictum to African Americans as a method for discussing theology and ethics, thereby, interacting or conversing with religion and morality. He constantly provides this audience by stating “those on the continent and in the diaspora.” The former is consciously practicing the communality of a moral life while the latter may be exhibiting features of it (community praxis of the ethical life) and somewhat aware of it but may not understand its beginnings. Thus, Paris is accountable to the Africans in the diaspora by providing a declaration of the moral life without being overly offensive and judgmental.

The moral vision that constitutes the moral life for Paris is found in four overlapping conceptions of African cosmological and societal thought:

1. The realm of the spirit (inclusive of the Supreme Deity, the sub-divinities, the ancestral spirits), which is the source and preserver of all life

2. The realm of tribal or ethnic community, which, in equilibrium with the realm of the spirit constitutes the paramount goal of human life

3. The realm of family, which in equilibrium with the realms of tribe and spirit, constitutes the principal guiding force for personal development, and

4. The individual person who strives to integrate the three realms in his or her soul. (5)

These four ways guide the work of constructing a social ethic that is communal in its praxis for African and Africans in the diaspora according to Peter Paris. Therefore, the realm of the spirits (living dead) interacts with and affects the living or tribal community and vice versa, the familiar unit affects both the spirit realm and tribe, and finally the individual and their actions affects the family, tribe, and spirit. “I am because we are” is the common thread.

To further break down the “I am because we are” phraseology of the African proverb I am using, it will coincide with Paris’ statement of having an Africentric worldview as the underlying foundation for social ethics. This statement underlies the analysis of his work for me. The “I am” portion of the phrase encompasses the individual. And the individual only exists due to the three previous African cosmological and societal thoughts of spirit, tribe, and family. “I am” because the Supreme Being exists and the ancestors continue to exist in the spiritual realm, therefore, it is because of them I am. “I am” because of the inter-relatedness of my ethnic and cultural heritage to my tribe. “I am” because I exhibit behaviors and patterns normative to the community to which I am a part of. “I am” because of the blood ties I have with and to my family.

This Africentric worldview is reciprocal and communal, thus, making it circular not lineal. Moreover, we are because I am. The “we” cannot continue to exist if the “I” as an individual, do not uphold the rites, tradition, and value system of the spirit, ancestors, tribe, and family. It is obligatory that the virtues one exhibits, is for the good of the community and not the individual. The preservation and the enhancement of the “we” precede the “I.” Putting it in terms of an American colloquialism, “there is no I in team” or family or community, or in relationship to the ancestors or to the Supreme Being. Ultimately, the “I” is the community.

Proverbs 29:18a of the King James Version of the Bible states, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” This is the quintessential scriptural representation of the proposal made by Peter Paris. In order for the people to survive in the African context, the moral obligation must lie within the community context. Therefore, good happens only within the community. Ancestral relationship continues in community and as long as there is someone to pass on the oral/aural history to others in the community. This remembrance is another obligation placed upon the community in the African context and for Christians. Did not Christ state to the disciple during the last supper account in 1 Corinthians 11, “this do in remembrance of me?” This concept is also captured in Adinkra Symbolism (6) of West Africa in the statement, “Kae me” translated from The Twi language of the Akan people to mean remember me, with its symbol being the Sankofa Bird on an altar, representing to go back in history to retrieve it to place upon the altar or in high regard. (7) The moral virtue to be manifested in a person is to do what is best for the community and community is defined by one’s right relationship to the spirit realm, tribal realm, and familiar realm. To live, move, and have your being in community is the paradigm that one must model in order to have the good life or moral life.

As an emerging Black theologian, I find Paris’ work most compelling. His rendering of the communality of an African worldview is what I find appealing. In my Masters of Religious Studies thesis work entitled, Reshaping the Consciousness: Dispelling the Myth of the Hamitic Curse Through Analyzing the Black Presence in the Bible, I acknowledge from the research on having an Africentric perspective, “that the highest value of life lies in the interpersonal relationships between humans, all humans are considered to be equal, share a common bond, and must be a part of a group.” Additionally, all events are tied together with one another. However, Paris could have developed his emphasis more explicitly of how and what the commonalties/differences were between the various African communities that he researched. This would have given his reader a more decisive way to better form an opinion of his work. Overall, it is in my opinion, a mode of social ethics that seems viable for any community (African, African American, Latino/a, Euro-American, etc.) to engage in.

1. Peter J. Paris. The Spirituality of African Peoples: The Search for a Common Moral Discourse. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 19.

2. Ibid, 21 - 22.

3. Ibid, 22.

4. Ibid, 23.

5. Ibid, 25.

6. Adinkra symbols are used as a visual representation of social thought patterns relating to history, philosophy, and religious beliefs of the Akan people of both, Ghana and Cote' d'Ivoire. The names and meanings are presented in Twi language of the Akan peoples.

7. W. Bruce Willis.  The Adinkra Dictionary: A Visual Primer on the Language of Adinkra, (Washington: Pyramid Complex, 1989).

Rev. Damon R. Jones is an Associate Minister serving at Calvary Baptist Church of Chicago, where he has been a Religious Educator for over seven years. Rev. Jones pursuing his Doctorate of Ministry focusing in Christian Education and Urban Ministries at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He received both his Master of Divinity (2005) and M.A. in Religious Studies (2002) from The Chicago Theological Seminary, his B.S. in Sociology from Illinois State University and A.A.S. from Illinois Central College. Damon has taught as an Adjunct Professor at Trinity Christian College teaching both African American History and Sociology courses.

Copyright© 2007 Damon R. Jones.  All Rights Reserved. Used by permission

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