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Ubuntu, Tutu, and a Parable of Hope

January 23, 2008


In my continued pursuit of non-traditional, non-Western theologies (e.g., Caputo, and Pagitt, in his forthcoming book), I’ve followed the suggestion of a few friends and gone exploring after Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Ubuntu theology in Michael Battle’s book Reconciliation (which was– as a book– reportish and uninspiring, though interesting).

The genius of the Anglican South African Archbishop’s theological method is that it provided a much-needed alternative for African and black Christians who were dubious of Western/White theologies and their tendencies toward universalizing principles and rationalism. He did so by pursuing an indigenous philosophy of life, emphasizing its connection to the Biblical narrative. Where western Christianity is about individual salvation, ubuntu focuses on community. It sees that our true humanity is expressed in relationship to others. Like the theology of Miroslav Volf, Ubuntu emphasizes mutuality among people, helping the oppressed to see their oppressors as peers under God, and does so with a great awareness of the pain and suffering which people experience. It reminds us that God knows suffering from the inside, and has overcome it by experiencing pain, and even crucifixion.

Battle suggests that in South Africa, where native peoples grew up under brutal, legal oppression at the hands of that country’s colonizers, the way toward reconciliation was not by celebrating their ‘blackness’, for this would only lead to self loathing of oneself or to disrespect toward others. Elevating one race or arguing for equality on the basis of some theology similar to that of the oppressors would only exacerbate the situation, as the various parties used their shared ideas to argue for the unorthodoxy or inhumanity of the other. Instead, there needed to be some response that would include– rather than alienate– white resistance. And Tutu’s gentle, persistent courageous leadership combined with his pursuit of alternative indigenous theological constructs provided just that miraculous and unforeseeable way forward.

In this non-systemic school of thought, competitiveness is excluded, as such selfishness demonstrates our distance from God’s model of interdependence. Or, as Tutu puts it, ‘a self-sufficient human is subhuman’. The way forward is found not by being only negative– non-racial, non-sexist, non-exploitive– but by helping people toward a positive future built on valuing each person as God’s own viceroy, empowered to spread love and mercy and justice throughout their own sphere of influence. Just as in ancient Hebrew culture, to avoid a division between body and soul and to emphasize the congruity of ends and means.

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2 Responses to “Ubuntu, Tutu, and a Parable of Hope”

  1. My reading material consists mostly of children’s literature and psychology magazines. Someday, I’m going to follow through with one of your reviews…and then maybe I’ll have something worthwhile to contribute!

    Hope you guys are well.

  2. P3T3RK3Y5 says:

    so his theology is anti-cowboy.

    damn.

    so how would that relate to us?

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