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May 08, 2013 | The Rev. Wendy Huber

South African Lessons in Ubuntu

Many of us were either too young or too far away to worry or even think about what happened in South Africa during the ugly years of Apartheid when men, women, and children were tortured or even gunned down for nothing more than the color of their skin.


During those years, the Anglican (Episcopal) Church was hard at work, and in many cases, at the forefront of the work, to seek justice in a world of oppression. Two leaders in this struggle are Archbishop Emeritus Desmond M. Tutu and The Rev. Michael Lapsley. Both were recognized recently by Pepperdine University’s Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution for their profound work in reconciliation following Apartheid. At the heart of these men is profound faith--faith in a God who is good and a belief that there can be no reconciliation without forgiveness. The South African name for these concepts of goodness and forgiveness is “Ubuntu.”   


Archbishop Tutu offered this explanation of the concept:

A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, and does not feel threatened that others are able and good. It is based on self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.


Archbishop Tutu reminds us that we should recognize that we need each other. He believes that the law of our being is: “I need you to be all you can be.” This alteration in thought causes the “me” generation to shift profoundly to a “you” generation. We must set our sights on reconciliation. Tutu once “translated” our final dismissal in the liturgy– to go forth and be more compassionate, more caring, more loving, more sharing.  He reminds us we are all made in the image of God.


Father Lapsley, a native of New Zealand, has served in South Africa (and nearby nations) for many years. He said that although he understood his call to the priesthood from childhood, it has not been the one he imagined. Nothing prepared him for the experience of being a “white man” in South Africa and he struggled to recover his own humanity after watching white South Africans gun down innocent children. He joined the opposition to Apartheid and paid dearly for that affiliation when he opened a letter bomb and lost both hands and the sight in one eye. Lapsey sought to redeem the bombing and continues as he seeks to help others on their journeys to healing.


The retributive justice model of getting revenge is just making the oppressed the oppressors Fr. Michael believes. Restorative justice reconciles the oppressed and oppressor. There is also transitional justice, in which we are taken from where we are to where we want to be. In any type of justice there must be time for healing of memories.  Lapsley founded the Institute for Healing of Memories to assist others in their journey to healing and wholeness. Much of that healing comes in the form of listening and telling of stories in safe and confidential settings.


Each of us has a story to tell and one of the ways the Diocese of Texas has been at the forefront of this is the Sharing Faith Dinners where church members gather for a meal and share their faith experiences. This opportunity to listen to others and to share some of our deepest felt experiences is a way to see that we all depend on one another; it is an Ubuntu moment when we can begin to learn from one another and know one another in a more profound way. Our very being is tied to one another and we must therefore listen more carefully and strive to understand more fully.