Sabbatical Notes from Pastor Stephen: Ubuntu

I spoke two weeks ago in worship about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Archbishop Desmond Tutu led in South Africa. The Commission allowed people to share their story and hear the stories of others, often the ones who did them and their loved ones harm.

Tutu shares about the story about Mrs. Mhlawuli whose husband was killed. She spoke about the disappearance and murder of her husband, Sicelo. She recounted all the ways his the autopsy showed he had been tortured, from apendages being cut off to having acid poured on his face. Then it was his daughter’s turn to speak. She was eight when her father died. Her brother was only three. She described the grief, police harassment, and hardship in the years since her father’s death. And then she said, “I would love to know who killed my father. So would my brother.” Her next words stunned Tutu and left him breathless. “We want to forgive them. We want to forgive, but we don’t know who to forgive.”

I’m often shocked and outraged by what humans can do to one another. We’ve seen it recently with the war in Ukraine and the reports of the bodies found in graves that have signs of torture and mutilation. But, I am often in awe at humans’ capacity to heal and mend and love. This family wanted to forgive after so much loss and pain. They wanted a new future, a better way of living together with one another and God. I think we all want that, at least I hope we do.

I believe we want this because our inherent nature is to be in good and beautiful communion and community with another. When we witness the anguish and harm we have caused, when we ask others to forgive us and make restitution, when we forgive and restore our relationships, we return to our inherent nature.

Our nature is goodness. God made us good. Yes, we do much that is bad, but our essential nature is good. If it were not, then we would not be shocked and dismayed when we harm one another. When someone does something ghastly, it makes the news because it is the exception to the rule. We live surrounded by so much love, kindness, and trust that we forget it is remarkable. Forgiveness is the way we return what has been taken from us and restore the love and kindness and trust that has been lost. With each act of forgiveness, whether small or great, we move toward wholeness. Forgiveness is nothing less than how we bring peace to ourselves and our world.

I have been shocked, amazed, and overwhelmed by the stories I have heard here. In South Africa, the society came together to intentionally choose to seek forgiveness rather than revenge. It was not unanimous and perfect, there are still problems in South Africa, but that choice averted a bloodbath. For every injustice, there is a choice. Every day, we can choose forgiveness or revenge, but revenge is always costly. We see it in politics and personal life. Choosing forgiveness rather than retaliation ultimately serves to make you a stronger and freer person. Peace always comes to those who choose to forgive. I met so many gracious and kind people of all races and backgrounds here in the rainbow nation, so I see how they were able to come together. Of course there are still disagreements and problems, but the people here are wonderful. I am confident they will continue to find the right way forward together.

In South Africa, I learned that Ubuntu is their way of making sense of the world. The word literally means “humanity.” Our guide had this tattooed on his arm inside a picture of the African continent. It is the philosophy and belief that a person is only a person through other people. In other words, we are human only in relation to other humans. Our humanity is bound up in one another, and any tear in the fabric of connection between us must be repaired for us all to be made whole. This interconnectedness is the very root of who we are.

This is why reconciliation is so important. We belong together and to one another. We are bound to one another, and we must find ways to choose to forgive and reconcile so all those tears in the fabric of connection can begin to be mended.

We can start small. Reach out to those who we need to reconcile with and forgive. Listen to the pain and admit when we have caused it. Choose mercy instead of revenge. Choose connection not separation. Choose love.



District Six


Langa Township

Johannesburg and Soweto

Robben Island

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden

Hagia Sophia

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