Ubuntu Theology

The Heart of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Life Work
Cape Town at sunset
difficult conversations theme image for february 2022

It is difficult work to unpack the sins of racism and discrimination, and to talk about how and why we still need to be in relationship with each other. Leon A. Rodgrigues, director for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging at Luther Seminary, honors the life of one of his spiritual fathers, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who died on December 26, 2021, at the age of 90, with this post. 

During this Black History Month, I want to honor Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who died recently in Cape Town, South Africa. Desmond Tutu, a Black South African and Nobel Laureate, is revered around the world especially for his work to attain peace and freedom in Apartheid South Africa. His love of Christ and his leadership as priest and bishop in South Africa is always characterized by his message of truth, justice and his love for the poor and oppressed. What drove Desmond Tutu was his theology that is often called “The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu.”

Ubuntu is a cultural concept but evident in Tutu’s theological practices and writings because it so deeply points to the practice of community and inclusion. He describes it as “my humanity is bound up in yours.” The concept became very popular in the United States and across the world as people sought ideas to deal with growing conflict and strife and in particular in the U.S., where persistent racial divisions still demand that we have to find better practices in civil and religious life characterized by compassion, deep respect and acceptance of each other. Tutu believed that it was through his Christian faith and the call of the gospel to love each other – to even love our enemies – that Ubuntu, which he grew up with, became even more meaningful. 

He wrote in his book Crying in the Wilderness—a collection of sermons and speeches—that we can only be fully human if we accept the humanity of the other. He stated: a person is a person through other persons, thereby showing that we are all created through divine love, in God’s image and that we bear the spirit of God, even if we don’t recognize it. Tutu lived through the brutality of apartheid, a government practice of separation and oppression in South Africa. He grew up and was subjected to harsh conditions in his communities, racial inequality and as a school teacher experienced the government’s utter neglect of black communities. While the government declared itself as Christian, he realized that their theological practices did very little to oppose their practices of oppression, exploitation and White racial superiority beliefs. Blacks were barred from home ownership, driven off ancestral lands and relegated to menial labor in the gold mines, farms and factories.

When I met Tutu, I was an angry activist, and my resentment drove me to want desperately to get back at the evil government that oppressed me and killed my fellow countrymen. After attending the South African Christian Leadership assembly where I met Desmond Tutu, his theology of love, human value, and non-violence appealed to me. He encouraged us, through Bible studies at his home, to show that we are true witnesses of a gospel that proves our value as humans because Christ gave his life to show it. While people who do evil deeds or oppress fellow human beings, either because of race, gender, economic status or other reasons, often disregard that value and remain ignorant to it, we should live embracing our God-given value. It should be part of our leadership, our faith practices and character as people of God. The lessons I learned from the Arch, as we called him, have shaped my view of reconciliation in Christ and will remain with me as a Christian.

The following is an African prayer often quoted by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Disturb us, O Lord

when we are too well-pleased with ourselves 
when our dreams have come true because we dreamed too little, 
because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, O Lord

when with the abundance of things we possess, 
we have lost our thirst for the water of life 
when, having fallen in love with time, 
we have ceased to dream of eternity 
and in our efforts to build a new earth, 
we have allowed our vision of Heaven to grow dim.

Stir us, O Lord

to dare more boldly, to venture into wider seas 
where storms show Thy mastery, 
where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars. In the name of Him who pushed back the horizons of our hopes 
and invited the brave to follow.

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Leon Rodrigues

Leon Rodrigues

Leon A. Rodrigues is the Director for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging at Luther Seminary. He is a passionate educator and advocate for social justice.

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