“We can only be human together”, so says former Archbishop of South Africa, Desmond Tutu. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was the Anglican Archbishop during apartheid in South Africa. He was an ardent advocate for nonviolence and peace during a time of great divide, anger, anguish, and violence between races in South Africa. Yet, he remained a devout believer in god and the teachings of peace and justice. The things he saw, the violence, the anger, were horrifying. Yet he still remained a firm believer in this concept of Ubuntu.
Ubuntu addresses an idea that is central to African philosophy, which is the essence of what it is to be human. According to a book entitled “Believe” which contains quotations and inspiration from the life of Tutu,
“The definition of this concept has two parts. The first is that the person is friendly, hospitable, generous, caring, and compassionate…because of this they express the second part of the concept, which concerns openness, large-heartedness. They share their worth. In doing so my humanity is recognized and becomes inextricably bound to theirs”
Essentially, we are only human because of our relationships to others, and we cannot exist in a vacuum. “A person is a person because of other people.” To explain this, think of a family. Without your family, without the love and care you were raised into, would you be the person you are today? Who teaches you how to be human? Other humans, whether it is your community, your family, or your friends.
Our humanness also relies on how others see us, and how we treat others. The compassionate Tutu, in his forward to “Believe”, states,
“Anger, resentment, a lust for revenge, greed, even the aggressive competitiveness that rules so much of our contemporary world, corrodes and jeopardizes our harmony. Ubuntu points out that those who seek to destroy and dehumanize are also victims, usually, of a pervading ethos, be it a political ideology, an economic system, or a distorted religious conviction. Consequently, they are as much dehumanized as those on whom they trample.”
It was this concept that allowed Tutu to see the perpetrators of violence and injustice during apartheid as victims of a broken system, suffering as much as those who he fought for. They were being as much dehumanized by the violence they were perpetrating as those they harmed. This is an incredible compassion which is almost impossible to conceive, and was wrought by the power of Ubuntu.
We are all human together, we are only who we are because of our relationships and love for others. Without that, we cannot fully realize our full human potential. This is so powerful, that it allowed Tutu to work for nonviolence and peace when he was in the midst of nothing but violence and anger.
If he can have compassion, and seek to see the humanity in those who opposed him, surely, we can do the same in these troubled times. We must seek to understand that those who work against the health of the planet and the health of future generations do not necessarily want to jeopardize the future—they are merely caught in a pervading ethos which prizes money, quick fixes, and power, over community. It is only by seeking to truly understand what drives those who seek to stop our movement that we can seek to win them to our cause. Tutu put It very well when he said, “My father always used to say, ‘Don’t raise your voice. Improve your argument.’ Good sense does not always lie with the loudest shouters, nor can we say that a large, unruly crowd is always the best arbiter of what is right.’” Let us seek to understand, rather than shout.
We can only be human together, Tutu says. I am keeping those words written on my heart, as I seek to move toward a beautiful future, together with my fellow eco-warriors and citizens of planet earth—and members of humanity.