Ubuntu: Considering Our Humanity
Most of the people I know have been watching the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang South Korea. The strength, grace, and endurance of the altheletes; and the perfection of the human form when the body has been sculpted and molded to the height of physical achievement…what was I saying? Oh, yes…the Olympics. There have been some glorious moments: watching the American duo of Jessica Diggins and Kikkan Randall earning America’s first gold medal ever in cross country skiing; or watching figure skater Adam Rippon skating a personally triumphant routine as the first openly gay man to compete for the United States.
It occurred to me that while we are watching the human body stretched to it’s absolute limit, it’s also the season when people in the Catholic and Christian tradition, or spiritual seekers, are asking what it means spiritually to be human. The cultural exchange that happens during the Olympics reminds me of the concept of “ubuntu.” For those of you not familiar with ubuntu, the concept of unbuntu was foundational for Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s creation of the Truth and Reconciliation process formed to dismantle the system of apartheid in 1994. He understood the importance of reconciliation. He also understood that it could not happen unless people understood how they had harmed others and made amends for the wrongs they committed. In recent years, Archbishop Tutu has become an advocate for the LGBT Community and allies; encouraging others to view us as God’s beloved people just as we are.
In their book Made for Goodness Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter Rev. Canon Mpho Tutu van Furth describe ubuntu as follows:
Ubuntu is a Xhosa word used to describe the “tend and befriend” survival behavior. Ubuntu recognizes that human beings need each other for survival and well-being. A person is a person only through other persons, we say. We must care for one another in order to thrive.
For Americans who are often taught to value independence and individuality above all else, the concept of unbuntu may seem strange. How could a person only be a person through other people? There are ways in which the independent American spirit is good for innovation and for new enterprise, but the truth is that no matter how independent we may feel, as humans we are interdependent with one another. We learn our trades and earn our degrees because of our parents, teachers, and mentors. But we have an American ethos, a certain mindset that our country knows best; that we have the most freedom. I value Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s belief that all countries and peoples have qualities and wisdom that we all need.
When tragedy occurs, it sometimes challenges our spiritual beliefs or connection to the greater force of love. We might ask “how can God be present in a world where 17 young adults were just murdered at their school in Ft Lauderdale?” We’re tempted to ask how God can allow this. If it’s God responsibility to fix it, then perhaps we don’t have to ask ourselves “what can we do?” Admitting that there might be a better way…that’s just not easy for us independent folk.
What if we could deeply understand how much we need each other? What if we saw the Divine in each other in a way that motivated to examine ourselves more closely? What if we were willing to ask how we have hurt someone else and how we should change. What if we really listened to another person’s needs? Couldn’t that step alone be a beginning towards healing wounds of racism, sexism, trans or homophobia, or ableism? If we could stop denying each other’s truth what would that look like?
Jesus had such a deep love for humanity that he was willing to become fully human in order to sacrifice for us. And that to me sounds like ubuntu. Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes ubuntu as the spiritual attributes of generosity, hospitality, compassion, caring, sharing…This concept speaks about the intrinsic worth of persons not dependent on extraneous things such as status, race, creed, gender, or achievement. …Ubuntu teaches us that our worth is intrinsic to who we are. We matter because we are made in the image of God. Ubuntu reminds us that we belong in one family – God’s family, the human family.” Ubuntu reminds us that we are our best when we love each other. And spiritually that is how we win the gold!