I first discovered the word Ubuntu in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2002. Having travelled there to attend the first Global Anglican Congress on the Stewardship of Creation for a week, also for the following week at the United Nations Global Summit on Sustainable Development, I found myself wandering around a civil society display area in a large white tent named Ubuntu.
Crowded into the space were literally hundreds of displays–of technology, agriculture, special project groups and countless innovative corporate entrepreneurs of all kinds—a panoply of promises and expectations of better times ahead. (I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony.) These displays were intended to encapsulate the energy of the UN Summit, to laud the accomplishments of its participants and sponsors–nations, transnational corporations and NGOs, all gathered around the concept of Ubuntu. The effect however was quite the reverse; a spirit of competition prevailed, as claim rivaled counterclaim. A few conversations revealed that most representatives were simply hired hands with little understanding of what they proposed. It was a sales salon.
Returning to North America and to Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Centre for Contemplation and Action (founded by Fr. Richard Rohr SSF) publishes daily reflections drawing on the teaching of Fr. Rohr and other affiliated teachers and writers. The reflection for Tuesday, February 8, 2022 concerns Ubuntu and dares to suggest that we can, despite our differences, be members of one diverse family. Quoting the late Desmond Tutu:
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 a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished. (Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness)
Throughout his ninety years of life “The Arch” as he was known repeatedly explained how Ubuntu provided daily strength and hope especially during the darkest days of Apartheid South Africa. “Separate but equal” was anything but equal, and in the end, unsustainable. For Tutu, understanding that while there was strength in numbers, there was greater strength in the real experience of shared identity and power. Such shared identity was possible even amongst rivals, even enemies if all parties worked at it. The meditation continues:
Originating from a Southern African philosophy, it encompasses all our aspirations about how to live life well, together. We feel it when we connect with other people and share a sense of humanity; when we listen deeply and experience an emotional bond; when we treat ourselves and other people with the dignity they deserve . . .
Presently in Canada combative social and political claims and actions are emerging, even locally, beginning but not ending with complaints about mandatory vaccinations and social restrictions. Such fallacious claims have become a platform for an angry movement of narcissistic protest which essentially boils down to “I want what I want and I want it now.” And the corollary “I really don’t care about you.” As the virus mutates, so the complaints expand in scope and force, a small though very vocal hard-right wing political movement, drawing fiscal and logistical support from extremist partners south of the US/Canada border. And yes, the Canadian experience is now being taken up by similar groups as far away as New Zealand and elsewhere.
Someone suggested to me a few days ago that we should work harder to understand the motivations of these protests. The same has been suggested for US rust-belt protesters during the Trump campaign and presidency. Certainly Ubuntu demands that we try; for “Ubuntu is about reaching out to our fellow men and women, through whom we might just find the comfort, contentment and sense of belonging we crave.” Fair enough, but like ballroom dancing, Ubuntu requires mutual commitment to a process of reconciliation, a commitment most often absent in such dialogues. If we have already defined who “I am” and who “you are” it will be impossible to discover who “we can become together.”
Ubuntu tells us that individuals are nothing without other human beings. It encompasses everyone, regardless of race, creed or color. It embraces our differences and celebrates them. (Tutu Granddaughter, Mungi Ngomane, Everyday Ubuntu: Living Better Together, the African Way)
May we all find a path towards a deeper understanding and experience of being together in the mystery and beauty of life.