Season 17th Sunday after Pentecost
Scripture 1Timothy 6:6-19
Prayer: Loving One, make us a welcoming, affirming community that celebrates difference and strives to learn and grow. May my words and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to you, our rock and our redeemer. AMEN
Who among you has heard the word Ubuntu?
Ubuntu (Zulu pronunciation: [ùɓúntʼù]) is a Nguni Bantu term meaning “humanity.” It is often translated as “I am because we are,” or “humanity towards others,” but is often used in a more philosophical sense to mean “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.”
Since the transition to democracy in South Africa with the Nelson Mandela presidency in 1994, the term has become more widely known outside of Southern Africa, notably popularised to English-language readers through the ubuntu theology of Desmond Tutu. Tutu was the chairman of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and many have argued that ubuntu was a formative influence on the TRC.
Desmond Tutu uses descriptive words to speak about Ubuntu intimately binding it within Christian principles of goodness. He describes the person true to Ubuntu as one who is “generous, hospitable, friendly, caring and compassionate.” He says it as a state in which one’s “humanity is caught up and inextricably bound up” in others. Tutu says of Ubuntu “I am human because I belong, I participate, I share.” In this form, Tutu’s use of Ubuntu is an “I am because we are” concept that encourages the person to the responsibilities of communal good and makes one find one’s good only in the communal good.
The theology of Ubuntu is deeply embedded in African spirituality – a spirituality that is central to life and transforms all human relations. As Suzanne Membe-Metale affirms, Ubuntu is a spirituality that enables mutual sharing and satisfaction and is illustrated in the biblical account of the disciples sharing all they had with one another so that no one lacked anything (Acts 4:32–35).
Ubuntu theology affirms the interaction and relationship among persons in which everyone’s humanness is recognized and affirmed. It is the philosophy of reconciliation and forgiveness that expresses “respect for a person’s dignity irrespective of what that person has done.” In this theology and ideology, Tutu seeks restorative justice over against retributive justice to give opportunity for the healing of both the oppressed and the oppressor as children of God.
Ubuntu theology is based on inherent value for individuals and their relationships within communities, thus mixing African culture and biblical teaching. Faustin Ntamushobora holds that this sense of community is supported by Paul’s explanation in 1 Corinthians 12:12–31, in which the apostle discusses unity in diversity.
Ubuntu promotes the idea that people are truly human only in communities in the full expression of the koinonia and finds the best manifestation of this in the church, which is the space in which life in relation to God and to one’s neighbour is nourished by worship and fellowship.
Ubuntu recognizes the humanity of all as created in the image of God, thus making the imago Dei the essence of humanity’s identity. The imago Dei foundation of Ubuntu determines humanity and denies any one or any institution the right to decide the superiority or inferiority of the other.
“I want to give a special message to a group of people sitting in that corner — it is families who have lost sons to the gun violence that is so rampant,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, motioning toward a table at the far end of the ballroom. Among those seated there was Ron Holt, father of Blair Holt, the 16-year-old who died shielding another friend from gunfire on a Chicago Transit Authority bus in May 2007.
“It is easy, so facile, to say to you, ‘We feel with you,’ ” Tutu said. “Please go away from here knowing there are people who care enormously who want to see a different kind of Chicago, who want a Chicago where everybody is safe.”
“Imagine what would happen if all Christians said, ‘Jews, you killed our Lord!’ And they did! There was a time when Christians said, ‘Jews are guilty of deicide,’ of murdering God,” Tutu said. “That was obscene. That was repulsive and that was dangerous, because from that came the justification for the persecution of Jews, ending with the Holocaust. It’s dangerous. Dangerous!”
Reducing any person or people to a stereotype is dangerous, the archbishop insisted, especially if its done with the claim of a divine imprimatur.
“I don’t know about you, but I am so glad I’m not God,” Tutu said, drawing one of many bursts of laughter from the rapt audience. “I really am glad I’m not God. But I’m also so glad that God is God. He is an incredible God!”
He giggled as he began to talk about his dear friend, the Dalai Lama. “I have not yet met anyone as holy,” Tutu said. “I haven’t met anyone I know who has the depth of his serenity. I’m a little jealous of him, of course. If he were here, you’d have to look for a far, far larger venue.
The message of revolutionary peace and nonviolence is one that Tutu and the Dalai Lama intimately share, especially when it comes to confronting violence done in the name of religion.
“God in his incredible generosity to us, God says you will understand me as only you can understand me. And you will misunderstand me only as you can misunderstand me,” Tutu said. “And God says, my children, I love you. I love you. I love all of you and I gave you these faiths as paths to me. My children, my children, why, why do you do what you do to one another and then say you are honoring me? You killed my child and you come to me and you say, ‘I have honored you in killing your child.’ You come to me and you oppress my children, and you say, ‘I did it for you.’
“God says, ‘Help me. Help me. Help me make this world the kind of world I intended for it to be. Help me. Help me so I can make this world more compassionate. Help me. Help me to make this a world that is more caring. Help me, help me, please help me, to make this world a world where there will be no poverty; where my children won’t spend as much as they do on weapons of destruction, and would spend a small fraction of what they do on killing to make sure my children everywhere have enough to drink and have food to eat. Help me. Please help me. Please help me. I have no one except you.”
After assuring the audience that “God is not a Christian,” Tutu quoted a passage from the Gospel of St. John in the New Testament, reminding Christians in the room that Jesus said, “I will draw all people to myself.”
“His embrace is so wide that it leaves no one outside,” Tutu said, stretching his arms out like a cross. “All are inside. All. ALL! Do you understand ALL? Black, white, rich, poor, clever, not-so-clever, beautiful, not-so-beautiful. All. Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Baha’i. All. All. All. Gay, lesbian, so-called straight. All. . . . Bush. Bin Laden. Palestinian. Israeli. All. All. All. Help me.”
God, help us . . . help you.