The Spirit of Ubuntu

by Patricia L. Griffen

One of the most memorable experiences from my childhood was a family road trip to the New York World’s Fair the summer of 1964. The trip made 1964 a historic year for our family, particularly when viewed in context of other global events.

1964 was an eventful year. President Lyndon Johnson had escalated the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War and casualties were mounting among US troops. Race riots were occurring in Harlem and other major U.S. cities.  Near Philadelphia, Mississippi, the Ku Klux Klan murdered three civil rights workers who had volunteered to work on voter registration and education. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.

In June of that year, Nelson Mandela and seven of his associates were imprisoned for life because of their leadership in the anti-apartheid movement.  In the midst of political unrest on the international stage, a nation tormented by widespread racial tensions, and the war in Vietnam, my father decided to take his family to view the world  through the lenses of the New York World’s Fair by way of our nation’s capital in Washington, D.C.

We were not privileged to have had a copy of The Negro Motorist Green Book during our travels.  The Green Book was the resource African American travelers used during a time when we faced a variety of dangers along the road, from refusal of food services and lodging to arbitrary arrest.  Instead, our family had its faith in God, its psychological fortitude, and my father’s government-issued service weapon from World War II.  Fortified thusly, our excitement overrode our fear, and we were New York bound.

Our journey from Arkansas to New York took us through the American South.  These states espoused the longstanding ideology that African Americans were inferior and subordinate to a superior white race.  As such, I vividly recall the pangs of anxiety that hit me when we drove through Virginia and my parents decided to stop for lunch.

My father was the only family member to leave the vehicle.  The rest of us remained in the car and prayed for his safe return.  After several unsuccessful attempts to be served at different diners, my father was finally able to locate a benevolent café owner who agreed to serve us food.  The caveat?  We were not allowed to enter the restaurant and my father had to receive the food from the back door of the establishment.

After arriving at the site of the World’s Fair, we experienced a new phenomenon that became the source of one of our most memorable experiences.  While sitting on a bench, a Japanese family graciously gestured for permission to join us.  Although we had no idea what to expect, we welcomed them.

Both families had stopped for lunch.  Perhaps most unforgettable was the family’s invitation to share their Japanese meal with us and their happiness when we accepted their offer.  Although there was a language barrier, we communicated nonverbally and warmly via smiles and hand gestures.

Since 1964, I have reflected many times on meeting this family.  I have concluded that this was not a random occurrence; rather, the encounter was a sincere, reverential exchange between strangers who recognized the humanity of “the other.” These two families transcended nationality, geography, language, race, ethnicity, religion, and culture to acknowledge and respect the divine creation in each other.  This was an “Ubuntu’ moment.

Ubuntu is an African term often translated as, “I am because we are,” or “humanity towards others.” Ubuntu has its roots in humanist African philosophy where the idea of community is one of the building blocks of society.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu drew on the concept of Ubuntu when he led South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which helped South Africa reckon with its history of apartheid.  Ubuntu promotes restorative justice and a community-centric ethos.  Archbishop Tutu defines Ubuntu as, “the essence of being human, how my humanity is caught up and bound inextricably with yours.” This notion of Ubuntu establishes a system of interdependence that is strengthened by the interconnections we have with each other.

In a 2013 interview with Yale Divinity School, South African theologian Allan Boesak warned against underestimating Ubuntu’s immense value or trivializing what is unique about it.  In other words, this is not a kumbaya moment.  Boesak goes on to state that humans are created for togetherness.  However, we are driven apart by greed, lust for power, and a sense of exclusion.

Bishop Tutu in God Is Not a Christian reminds us that, “We are created in the image of God which validates our divine worth and value.”   God created an eco-system to build on the concept of Ubuntu. As such, why has it been so difficult for America and its Christian community to awaken to the understanding of the spirit of Ubuntu?

This philosophy of “Ubuntu” is in stark contrast with the history of America which is currently living through a political chasm that has deepened and widened in recent years.  The fiber of America’s tapestry has been woven by greed, power, and the devaluation of “the other.”

Howard Thurman describes “three hounds of hell”: fear, hypocrisy, and hatred as motivating destructive behaviors over the course of time to self and others.  According to Thurman, Jesus saw little change possible to humans and communities without overcoming these “hounds.”  These destructive forces have driven the concept of inferiority of “the other” concurrent with white supremacy, perpetuated by major systems in America: economic, medical, psychological, judicial, educational and religious.

New York Times bestselling author Jemar Tisby, in The Color of Compromise, scathingly chronicles the role of the American church in creating and maintaining a system of social injustice and white supremacy driven by racist ideologies.  Robert P. Jones, in his recent publication, White Too Long, also recounts American Christianity’s role through white supremacy to advance a political agenda of social injustice and racism.  Through his Racism Index, Jones uses empirical data to correlate the significant relationship between white supremacy and Christianity.

Where does this leave us in terms of moving towards closing this divide, which in reality is a huge chasm?  The starting point is the church for discussing social injustice, social change, and building community.  Holy Scripture and the life of Jesus provide a plan designed and ordained by God to teach about justice, equality, equity, and our common humanity through the spirit of Ubuntu.

Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression;

bring justice to the fatherless, and plead the widow’s cause,” (Isaiah 1:17).

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice,

and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the nineteenth in a series of opinion articles on “Beyond the Divisions: Faith and Politics 2020.” We invite readers to submit perspectives of their own to for possible inclusion in the blog series.

Patricia L. Griffen, PhD is a Clinical Psychologist in private practice with Clinical Psychology Services, Inc., an independent practice she established in Little Rock, Arkansas.  She serves on the Board of Trustees for Central Baptist Theological Seminary.  She is a member of New Millennium Church and is married to the Rev/Judge Wendell L. Griffen.  They are the parents of two adult sons.


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