[taken from a speech I presented at my family reunion July 13, 2013]
Ecclesiastes 4:7-12 (NRSV): Again, I saw vanity under the sun: 8 the case of solitary individuals, without sons or brothers; yet there is no end to all their toil, and their eyes are never satisfied with riches. “For whom am I toiling,” they ask, “and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business.
9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.
When reflecting on this scripture and the subject of Strengthening the Ties that Bind, our family reunion theme this year, it made me first think of who was writing this text. In the text, we find the wisdom imparted to us by “the son of David,” and for the time we have today we’ll assume it is Solomon speaking. And I think it is important for us to understand who Solomon was.
We all know that Solomon was the son of Bathsheba and David (let us not forget David had a mother too). This son of Bathsheba and David, Solomon, inherited the throne at a relatively early age. Some scholars say around 12 and others say anywhere from 16-23. Popular thought says that he was the richest man ever to live. He had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Solomon was the King who presided, at least for a moment, over the united Kingdom of Israel. He had a great empire that achieved great prosperity. Solomon also built the first temple in Jerusalem dedicated to Yahweh. Solomon, was not however, without his problems. Scripture provides us with numerous examples of how Solomon had a serious problem with indulging in I guess you could say extramarital relationships and idol worship.
The interesting and perhaps the most captivating and compelling aspect of King Solomon’s life is that he was the one king who asked for not for money, silver, gold, prosperity, or wealth but for wisdom. If you flip back over a few books to 1 Kings Chapter 3 around verse 5, we find God appearing to Solomon in a dream. God asks Solomon to make a request known and God would grant it. Solomon responds in verse 6, “You have shown great and steadfast love to my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” God goes on to grant Solomon this gift of wisdom along with riches and honor that Solomon did not even ask for. God promises Solomon that no other King would compare to him. So here in this book of Ecclesiastes is where we find Solomon’s reflections about the meaning of life and ultimately the best way to live life. In this book we find Solomon discussing variety of topics surrounding life. He concludes the book saying in essence that all these things are vanity, or meaningless, fleeting, because all of our lives whether wise or foolish end in death. In light of coming to terms with his mortality and the grave, Solomon encourages us to enjoy the simple pleasures of daily life, such as eating, drinking and taking enjoyment in one’s work, which are gifts from the hand of God.
He doesn’t conclude his reflections, however, without stressing this important point about the need for us to commune with one another and to rely on each other. In Solomon’s opinion, it is pretty simple. Two are better than one. In essence, we cannot live in this world alone. God is not calling us to live on a mountain alone, where we are no earthly good to other people. But even more importantly, the bonds we form with one another make us strong and able to withstand attacks of the adversary! This is what it means when he says a threefold cord is not quickly broken. We are much stronger together than we are apart!
You see it seems that this African King (And he was African you know?) understood the importance of the South African concept of Ubuntu. Ubuntu simply means: I am what I am because we are what we are. Ubuntu is a community concept. It’s a family commitment. Desmond Tutu talks about Ubuntu in this way:
Ubuntu speaks of the very essence of being human. We say, “Hey, so-and-so has ubuntu.” Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.” We belong in a bundle of life. We say, “A person is a person through other persons.”
Tutu continues: 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 proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole [or family] and is diminished when others are humiliated, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.” (No Future Without Forgiveness)
The Johnson-Ford family has for a long time understood this concept of Ubuntu– our individual and collective responsibility for each other. This family has a long history of the ubuntu spirit. It started with the matriarch and patriarch of our family and has carried on through the years. This spirit tells us that all of us, from the youngest to the oldest, the poorest to the richest, the least to the most educated, are equally important to our collective well-being. In short, we need each other. Solomon understood this. For him, not only was the knowledge of God the only thing that made life worth living, but it was also communing with one another. For isn’t it written, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers (sisters, aunts, cousins, uncles, grandparents, etc.), are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20)
Now what are some steps we can to take to continue in this spirit of Ubuntu and strengthening the Ties that Bind? First, I suggest that everything ultimately begins and ends with love. Family, we have to love. And in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., I’m not talking about a love to be confused with a “sentimental outpouring.” I’m talking about radical transformative love. I would suggest that this love would start with yourself. Love yourself. Loving yourself in a war-raging, racist, thing-oriented society that undervalues women and children is an act of political resistance! Moreover, its personally liberating. You are wonderfully and beautifully made! In Malcom X’s insightful speach, “You Can’t Hate the Roots of a Tree Without Hating the Tree,” he reminds us:
And this is what the white man knows. So they very skillfully make you and me hate our African identity, our African characteristics. You know yourself; that we have been a people who hated our African characteristics. We hated our hair, we hated the shape of our nose, we wanted one of those long doglike noses, you know; we hated the color of our skin, hated the blood of Africa that was in our veins. And in hating our features and our skin and our blood, why, we had to end up hating ourselves.
And we hated ourselves.
God gave you the color of your skin, the texture of your hair, the shape of your body–love that! Before you go to school or work in the morning, tell yourself, “I’m black and I’m proud.” or “I’m a woman and I’m proud.” or “I have kinky, nappy hair, and I’m proud of that!” There’s no way we can love others rightly unless we love ourselves! True love beings with you!
Secondly, in order to strengthen the ties that bind, we need to recognize the bonds we have in this family and in our lives that are weak or broken. We must be honest with ourselves. Tell the truth about what we have done to harm others and what others have done to harm us. I’m not suggesting that this truth telling is an easy task. In fact, Derrick Bell in his book Ethical Ambition tells us that, “Telling the truth can be hard and even painful work, but lying, keeping the truth secret, is far more painful.” We are suffering– in pain, when we continue to hold grudges with each other. Someone hurt us, yes. You hurt someone, sure. But we will never begin the healing and mending process in our bonds if we don’t tell the truth about what is causing us this pain. He goes on later to suggest that, “There is absolutely nothing like the truth. You deprive your enemies of most of their ammunition when you tell the truth.” Did not a great man once say that, “The truth will set you free?” Get your freedom today.
Finally, once we’ve healed and mended bonds, we must build them up. Exalt each other. Encourage one another. Scripture directs us to out do one another in showing love! Do you know what that means? Out do one another is love! It means when a child in our family gets honor roll or principal’s list, we need to outdo one another in exalting, encouraging, and praising that child! When a family member gets a promotion, we should be battling to be the first to congratulate that person! Family, the world out there won’t do it! There’s nobody out there affirming and praising the good we do! The world out there in this “post-racial” society still deems our very existence criminal and inhumane. Just down the road a few miles in Sanford County the jury is deliberating on the fate of a man who killed a black boy carrying a bag of skittles and some Arizona Ice Tea who he thought didn’t belong. Folks, if we don’t affirm our people, our family, or kin, then who will? We need each other to survive–desperately.
Now I think Solomon understood this. Looking over the life of Solomon it seems as though he was a very a lonely man. Yes, he had more than enough women to count, but did he have love? And sure he had all the people in his entourage, but did he ever obtain real friendship? Sure he had all the riches and honor, but did he ever have real family? I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we can imagine Solomon as a lonely man reflecting in this book of wisdom on the things that he really should have placed first in life. I think if we’re honest, we can imagine Solomon yearning to commune with others. This is the lesson of the threefold cord. This is the lesson in strengthening the ties that bond. Josie Pickens rightly summarizes the lesson of the threefold cord when she reminds us when reflecting on love, “I certainly do not have all the answers,( and I don’t) but together we do–” together the Johnson-Ford Family does. She continues, “We can teach and we can learn and we can heal one another. . .and if nothing else, we can feel less alone in our pains and our falling down, and our rising up.” That is how we will strengthen the ties that bond.