Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Ubuntu: interdependence and cultural appropriation

The theme of this event I'm attending is Ubuntu. The Episcopal Church website explains:

The Trinitarian design depicts God the Creator in the bright center, God the Son in the cross formed by the longitude and latitude lines and God the Holy Spirit, swirling around the Father and the Son. The swirl is comprised of dancing figures, male and female, with faces of many colors, who symbolize the interconnectedness of humanity.

It's graceful, but I need more explication.

Fortunately, retired Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu has explained in his wonderful little book God Has a Dream.

The first law of our being is that we are in a delicate network of interdependence with our fellow human beings and with the rest of God's creation. In Africa recognition of our interdependence is called ubuntu in Nguni languages, or botho in Sotho, which is difficult to translate into English. It is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness: it speaks about compassion. A person with ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole. They know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they are. The quality of ubuntu gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them.

You know when ubuntu is there, and it is obvious when it is absent. It has to do with what it means to be truly human, to know that you are bound up with others in the bundle of life. And so we must search for this ultimate attribute and reject ethnicity and other such qualities as irrelevancies. When we Africans want to give high praise to someone, we say "Yo u nobuntu"; "Hey, so and so has ubuntu." A person is a person because he recognizes others as persons. ...

The truth is, we need each other. ... In our world we can survive only together. We can be truly free, ultimately, only together. We can be human only together...

According to ubuntu, it is not a great good to be successful through being aggressively competitive and succeeding at the expense of others. In the end, our purpose is social and communal harmony and well-being. Ubuntu does not say, "I think, therefore I am." It says rather: "I am human because I belong. I participate. I share." Harmony, friendliness, community are great goods. Social harmony is for us the summum bonum -- the greatest good. Anything that subverts, that undermines this sought-after good is to be avoided like the plague. Anger, resentment, lust for revenge, even success through aggressive competitiveness, are corrosive of the good.

Africa has a gift to give the world that the world needs desperately, this reminder that we are more than the sum of our parts: the reminder that strict individualism is debilitating. The world is going to have to learn the fundamental lesson that we are made for harmony, for interdependence. If we are ever truly to prosper, it will be together.

That's not an easy teaching for self-regarding, anxious North Americans.

When I heard of the Convention theme, I was reflexively a little anxious about our adoption of it. The Episcopal Church is not an institution which, by and large, understands that mostly white, mostly privileged people ought to consider carefully before they wax enthusiastic about concepts and activities derived from other peoples' cultures.

There's a reason that most of the world thinks Americans are grabby and arrogant. We see something attractive, we think we can have it. Why shouldn't we get a piece, or even take over, what is so obviously a good thing?

Well -- because it is someone else's culture. Theirs not ours. If we blithely assume we can just take up somebody else's concepts, we're not only being happily imperialistic, we're also being shallow and foolish. Cultural mores are the habits of a life time, lived into, not easily put on like a pretty new shirt.

And yet, and yet -- our human species is interdependent. We do live more and more in a global culture. Part of what that gives us is a chance to understand that other people do know things our culture misses. Not all goodness is Made in America. And people like Bishop Tutu do generously (and prudentially) want to share what they know of how people can live in harmony. Learning from each other, with each other, has always been part of how cultures change and grow. So there we are, back to Ubuntu.

Until July 18, I'll be working my butt off at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, trying to move us closer to full inclusion of all baptized people, including LGBT people, in all the life of the Church. This time is what we political junkies call "campaign mode" -- the crazy, exhausting 18 hour days of frenetic activity that sometimes win changes we seek and sometimes lead only to deep disappointment. I'm hopeful about how this project will work out. If you are curious about how we're doing, you can follow all the General Convention news at the LGBT advocacy group Integrity's GC portal. I don't expect to blog during this time except perhaps a few photos, but I've got at least a rudimentary post set up for every day, many of them more reflective than the time-sensitive political commentary I often write here. Enjoy.


Darlene said...

Ubuntu - what a beautiful concept. And what a beautiful post. This is why I enjoy blogging as I wrote on my first anniversary blog today. I learn so much.

This is one of the finest posts I have ever read and I am going to copy and paste it in my Keepers file.

Thank you, Jan.

Rona Fernandez said...

Funny, this is the second time in a week that I've heard this term (and the other time was also my first time ever hearing it). For a sense of how one African writer tries to explain Ubuntu, and the qualitative difference between how a North American may understand it and how a non-North American might: http://tinyurl.com/6kxemc

Mark said...

Thank you so much for this article. I am a white person and I'm doing a creative project about ubuntu, and I am conflicted about what it means to use this term as the privileged white American that I am. This article has been great in helping me deal with that issue. i-am-ubuntu.tumblr.com

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