L’unité fait la force – Unity is our strength. This national motto of the West African country of Benin is a window into the larger sub-Saharan African worldview. Individuals are not unimportant, yet they find their deepest identity not alone but as part of a people.
This collective cultural value shows up in pagne, the colorful cotton material locally woven and sold in many places across Africa. One popular pattern shows cracked fingers, separated one from another, dry, lifeless, and empty. Next to them are hands, healthy and strong. All five fingers are connected, grasping pieces of gold that could only be gathered as they worked together. The Ivorian proverb reinforces a similar message: “You can’t pick up a grain of rice with just one finger.”
Modern individualism notwithstanding, historically, the United States has shared such a collective vision. Our tragic Civil War was fought from 1861-65 in part over the issue of whether we would be a single people. Prior to that conflict, it was common in writing to say: “The United States are.” Now we say “The United States is.” The Latin phrase, E plurbus unum – one from many – appears on the seal of the nation.
This longing to be part of a people is no stranger to the pages of Scripture. Peter wrote to the diaspora, believers scattered over five provinces of the Roman Empire:
“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).
It is with the community of Christian faith – the holy people of God – that any study of how we can positively impact the world for Christ must begin. The church was here before any of us were born, and it will continue when we are gone. The words of the well-known African saying – “I am because we are” – are no less fitting when it comes to matters of belief. So while we will later look at our individual response to Christ’s call to follow him, we purposely begin with a more important concept than “me.” Let us begin with “we.”