Monday, July 06, 2009

Book Review: Ubuntu--I in You and You in Me

Ubuntu is all the rage in my circles these days, it seems. An African worldview roughly characterized by John Mbiti as "I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am," ubuntu is of late regularly lifted up as a potential corrective against the dehumanizing elements of individualism running rampant in the West, among which are surely the rampant entitlement and self-absorption I critique in my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville. Having swum in these Western waters all my life, I was glad for the opportunity to read and review Ubuntu--I in You and You in Me by Michael Battle, which was offered me by the fine folks at Seabury Books.

Battle, currently living in LA as a theologian at the Cathedral Center of St. Paul, was ordained by Desmond Tutu and served for two years in South Africa as a parish priest. One of my favorite essays ever was an address by Tutu to a graduating class of new priests, and I can picture Battle sitting in that class, beaming as Tutu paints an endearing picture of pastoral ministry. I began reading Tutu's No Future Without Forgiveness--his chronicle of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission in post-Apartheid South Africa--earlier this year; he writes briefly there about ubuntu as a distinctly African context for understanding Christianity. Battle picks up this brief sketch and delivers a full-length treatment here.

Battle is clearly a disciple of Tutu; 82 of his 189 endnotes are Tutu references. This was distracting for me, I admit; many of the quotations I had read quite literally a week previous. I was struck, particularly early on, by Battle's starry-eyed devotion to Tutu, which threatened to extrapolate out to an uncritical wholesale appropriation of ubuntu for a Western context. Here ubuntu comes to save the day, I sang in my head, in an admittedly sarcastic tone. But the book gradually turned from paean to a nicely integrative analysis of how ubuntu might reasonably manifest in the West: what are the problems that ubuntu would confront, where would ubuntu prove inadequate, and so on. While the book falls short of being terribly practical--there are no incremental steps toward an ubuntu-driven church, for example--it is helpfully analytical and synthetic, even bringing Simone Weil into the mix in a way that makes me want to take her up and read for a while, if only my pastor would stop assigning books to us.

Some key insights that (a) contextualize ubuntu in its original setting and (b) showcase its offering to the West:

1. Self-identity is not optimally formed through competition.
2. Community is elusive and requires skill to see it. . . .
5. The development of a "communal self" requires practice. (p. 6)

*Ubuntu reveals that all of life contains the possibility of meeting God. . . .
*Because of God's communal nature, God is not limited by any single word, image, idea, or experience. . . .
*Any form of spirituality must always be reflective of relationality. (pp. 108-9)


"Unlike many Western forces which seek to 'establish' who a person or community is," Battle observes, "Tutu's Ubuntu excludes Western tendencies of grasping competitiveness. The beauty of Ubuntu is that instead of being manipulative and self-seeking that person is 'more willing to make excuses for other' and even discover new meaning in other persons" (p. 35). Well, bully for ubuntu, I thought. The harumphing Western cynic in me quickly called up mental images of intertribal violence and tyrannical governments that seem to run rampant on the African continent. Battle is not naive about these realities, and indeed it's here where the shortcomings of an African worldview not baptised Christian come into view, just as Western worldviews not run through a Christian wash become cultural crises: In Africa, for example, personhood is progressive--one's personhood is only gradually realized. "For many African people," Battle writes,

you are not human merely by being an [sic] biological entity. To grow in personhood is to become more of a person and hence to become more worthy of reverence and respect.

When people are not believed to be people, it is relatively easy to justify doing them harm. (p. 130)

So, yes, ubuntu can't in and of itself come to save the day. Neither, I hasten to add, can Western worldviews. Battle rightly observes that for many Westerners, "their schedules could never create the coincidence of life together" (p. 24). For all its ballyhooed advances in technology made possible by Enlightenment sensibilities, Battle observes the West through the eyes of ubuntu and, borrowing from Albert Borgmann, comes up with some insightful theological questions, among them

Why do 90 percent of all families or households watch TV after dinner? Is it because they decided that's the best way to spend their time? No, something else is at work here. . . . [W]hat happens when technology moves beyond lifting genuine burdens and starts freeing us from burdens we should not be free from? . . . Consider the burden of preparing a meal and getting everyone to be at one place at the same time. Or the burdens of being honest, reading poetry, exercising regularly, writing letters--gathering our thoughts and setting them down in a way that will be remembered. . . . These are activities that have been obliterated by the readily available entertainment offered in a technological culture. (p. 18)


Christianity offers both ubuntu and Western sensibilities a redemptive corrective to their respective blind spots. In the Eucharist and in baptism, we experience communion--empathy bordering on identity--with God. Because God is, therefore we are (p. 21). And other Christian practices such as confession and forgiveness recalibrate our sensibilities so that we identify less with our stuff and more with our brothers and sisters--not to mention seeing one another as brothers and sisters rather than, as with an abused ubuntu, not-yet-humans who will merit our full engagement only after they achieve some level of maturity or sophistication (p. 139).

Ubuntu is an appealing idea, exactly the sort of thing that a starry-eyed Westerner would be tempted to appropriate and incorporate uncritically. To do so is to degrade ubuntu itself and really to be all the more uncritically Western. Battle offers a good introduction to ubuntu that ultimately reminds us that it's the life and ministry of Jesus, not the worldviews that we unconsciously latch onto, that ultimately lead us in the way everlasting.

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