I have been privileged this week to meet Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was visiting Croydon to see, and celebrate some of the work of the Tutu Foundation (whose first Chair was the late lamented Colin Slee). With many hundred others, I saw a dance performance blending south Indian music and rhythms with salsa and western dance music, and listended to music combining a drumming ensemble and classical musicians. These were emblems of the Foundation’s work to bring together people of different traditions and backgrounds, and to enable them to celebrate what each has to offer the other. The Foundation has been working in Croydon, as in other area of possible social dislocation and division, to promote ubuntu. What is ubuntu (when it’s not a computer operating system!)? – here is the Foundation’s own definition:
Said to be the ‘glue’ which held together the volatile and fragile nation of South Africa after the end of apartheid, ubuntu teaches us to look beyond ourselves – and in so doing, to become more fully human. Ubuntu is a traditional Southern African philosophy which emphasis our common humanity; our connectedness and interdependence as fellow human beings.
“I am, because you are” says Archbishop Tutu; “how I behave impacts not only on me but also others around me because we all belong together.” So a person with ubuntu is generous, thoughtful and respectful towards others, appreciating the differences that together make us greater than the sum of our parts.
Reflecting on ubuntu also helped me to recognise the gift that I received from our recent visitors from the diocese of Central Zimbabwe. The most precious gift was exactly that sense I had when with them, that our human identity is something that springs out of our relationships with each other, rather than coming first. We are not first of all individuals, but first of all we are in relationship.
That is an insight of many centuries in southern Africa, and it is also profoundly Christian. Many Western Christians have lost sight of the fact that we are called into faith in a body – the body of Christ, which is the church. As Christ lives in us and we in Christ, we are also equally intimately linked to one another. Some Christians in richer countries worry about how our relationships with believers in places like Zimbabwe can be an equal one, when we have so much. We may need to heed again the message to the church in Laodicea, in the Book of Revelation ‘For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered and I need nothing.” You do not realise that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.’ (Revelation 3:17). The riches of human relationship which the philosophy of ubuntu opens up – and which the gospel teaches – are far greater than any amount of material wealth.