The Moral Universe – Ubuntu


A recent Facebook post introduced me to the word “ubuntu.”

In an interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter, the Rev. Mpho Tutu, ubuntu is explained as an ancient southern African belief that individuals exist only in relationship with other living beings: I am because we are. (Sarah van Gelder and Fania Davis, Summer 2015 issue of YES! Magazine)

John Donne described the same concept as “no man is an island, entire of itself. “ If a piece of the island breaks apart, the island loses integrity. It is not the same island and it suffers for the loss.

Interestingly, Donne’s poem was inspired by funeral bells; the loss of a member of the community is a loss to the community as a whole.

James Byrd Jr.

James Byrd Jr.

Tomorrow, June 7, is the 17th anniversary of the lynching of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, in 1998 If ever we actually were in a post-racial society, Mr. Byrd’s murder ended that notion and was the first such murder of an African-American in recent times to be reported widely.

We know too well the stories of many more African-American men and women by police or people who thought they were above the law since that day in Jasper. Yet white people as a whole in this country still do not understand that the loss of these people diminishes all of us; these losses not only stain us as a society and detract from our humanity, they drive a wedge further into the dream that there ever could be a post-racial society in the United States.

Neo-cons and Tea Party ideologues just cannot see this. They divert the conversation of police-on-black crime to black-on-black crime, as if the latter (the high statistics of which are a myth) excuses the former. They spout the philosophy of too much government, but what they really mean is too much of the watchdog federal government and not enough state government. So they have taken to introducing too much state government that rules over African-Americans and Latinos voting rights, women’s bodies, gay people’s bedrooms, and everyone’s right to earn a decent living.

I have written before that I believe we are all children of one God and therefore all brothers and sisters who are here to help one another build the kingdom of justice on earth as it is in heaven.

But those in our political and social world who talk the loudest about their Judeo-Christian zeitgeist are the very ones who ignore anything in Scripture that commands us to leave judgment to God and to love one another as much as we are loved by God.

A recent article in The New York Times described a study that suggested that people who do not feel awe tend not to look outside themselves.  Professors Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner wrote about their research into Professor Keltner’s hypothesis that “awe is the ultimate ‘collective’ emotion, for it motivates people to do things that enhance the greater good. . . .awe might help shift our focus from our narrow self-interest to the interests of the group to which we belong.”

Their experiments found that people who reported feeling awe on a regular basis were more generous than “awe-deprived” people. In an experiential experiment, they found people who were awed by Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus trees were more helpful when a passerby “accidentally” tripped and fell.

Awe is transcendence, and transcendence is reaching out to something outside of ourselves, something greater than ourselves, something that brings a feeling of connectedness.

The transcendence of gospel music is a direct outgrowth of negro spirituals and the ability of a people enslaved to rise above de-humanizing situations to experience awe. I would guess that in every culture that is or has been subjugated by white Western culture you will find examples of rituals and totems and beliefs that binds its followers together in expressions of awe. It is not just a matter of religion, for I know fundamentalists Christians who are so certain of their salvation that anything awesome here on earth is unseen, and I know humanists and non-religious people who experience plenty of awe in their daily lives.

The phrase “shock and awe” is usually used in a military sense, but what if racists could be shocked out of their prejudices and awed into seeing themselves as part of the whole? One might hope that the convulsions in Ferguson and Baltimore and Staten Island and Cleveland would at least have the redeeming factor of providing that shock. What would it look like if they did?



5 thoughts on “The Moral Universe – Ubuntu

  1. I discovered this word, “Ubuntu,” for the first time when I was reviewing a book by an African writer last year for Library Journal. It struck a chord with me too. I’ll have to try to remember which one it was and send it to you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Debra

    I was introduced to the word through the Ubuntu operating system. It is hard to believe we live in a world where the idea of sharing and connecting with others has become something novel but so it goes. Thank you for the reminder to remember James Byrd Jr. The more things seem to change the more they actually stay the same. Sadly, the U.S. has a long way to go before it can be called a post-racial society. It does seem odd that the people most likely to trumpet their Christianity are the ones who seem the most spiritually meager. I think that is because their form of Christianity is a new iteration fused and subordinate to their real religion which is global capitalism.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for your insight, Debra. I do agree with you, but I also have hope that the new prophets, Bryan Stevenson and Pope Francis among them, are being listened to and may change one heart at a time.


  4. Yes, it is a perfect term. Debra writes a lovely blog about wildlife and environmentalism in her part of the world (Texas, I think). Her photographs of birds and plants and insects are really beautiful.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s