An Advent 2 Sermon based on Isaiah 11:1-10 (December 2013)
Inspired by Nelson Mandela and ubuntu
On Thursday, Nelson Mandela died. He was know by many names: Madiba, the respected one; Tata, the father of all; Rolihlahlah – Troublemaker. His three nicknames capture the whole of his life’s work. Madiba – the son of a chief – a traditional African leader. Tata – the father of a nation, he also behaved as a loving father of any child that came his way – black or white. Rolihlahlah – the troublemaker who began his work by sabotaging the systems of oppression that characterized apartheid, who caused trouble by practicing non-violence in prison and then as president, he stirred up trouble by insisting that the path toward healing would be in reconciliation and not retaliation.
At the core of his post-apartheid reconciliation work is the notion of ubuntu. To follow the path of Ubuntu means believing and living as though humanity does not solely originate in from an individual; humanity is given equally and at the same time to you and to me. We give it to each other. Michael Eze, South African scholar describes ubuntu this way: He says, “Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in [each other]: [I am] because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. (Eze, Michael Onyebuchi. (2010). Intellectual history in contemporary South Africa. Palgrave Macmillan.)
Cecil Mlanjeni, one of the millions of victims of apartheid violence takes it to a very basic and practical level: I met you, I don’t know you. Maybe you are stuck. Sometimes you don’t even know the road. I have to show you the road or otherwise take you to where you want to go, and I have to take care of you in such a manner that you feel comfortable. Maybe you are lost in an area that you don’t know; for instance you are in our areas. You don’t know our areas but we come to you and assist you and secure you, so that you feel comfortable. If I don’t have transport to take you somewhere, then I have to ask somebody to take you. That is the soul of ubuntu in practice.
A member of the Human Rights Violations Committee, Pumla Gobodo=Madikizela calls attention to the importance of empathy, saying: Ubuntu is the human capacity to connect with another human being, to be touched, to be moved ay another. I see someone’s pain and want to leave him with some kindness…
Desmond Tutu described people who possess ubuntu as generous, hospitable, friendly, caring and compassionate.
As a philosophy, this sounds lovely. As a sermon or a speech, there is a hopeful ring to these words that can inspire. But how can it possibly play out on the ground? Ubuntu as a dream, yes. But as a reality? It seemed, it still seems impossible. Throughout his life, this is the resistance Madiba faced.
Isaiah faced the same. Jerusalem was in chaos – utterly destroyed by the Babylonians. The religious and political leaders of Israel had been killed or carried off in exile. Yet Isaiah sees a vision of hope – a vision of shalom – a vision that looks like a dead burned out stump with a tiny green shoot growing from the place where tree meets earth. How is it possible that something new could come out of such devastation? How can God’s renewing hope flow through the city, through their lives when everything the people knew and loved was destroyed?
Isaiah sees a new world. A new way of being. Isaiah sees God’s new ruler – a righteous king – one who will work to restore put everything in balance.
The Spirit of the Lord will move, Isaiah says. The Spirit will fall on the one to come who will be wise, strong and who has a powerful reverence for God. This messiah – this savior of Israel will be the kind of judge no one has seen before – a ruler who will usher in a transformed government, a righteous reign – the poor will receive what they need. The meek will find strength. The wicked on earth – those who haven’t paid attention to the needs of those around them, those who have benefitted from the oppressive rule of evil kings – they will hear the words, feel the hot breath of judgement and find they cannot live under this new regime unless they are willing to change dramatically how they live and move as equals among God’s people. This is shalom – healing. balance.
Taken to the most intense extreme: the truth and reconciliation commissions that operated at the end of apartheid in South Africa: These commissions were authorized to offer some level of amnesty to those who participated in the atrocities of apartheid —if they would publicly confess their actions in detail and show some acceptable level of remorse. These commissions were set up in villages and neighborhoods throughout South Africa, holding hearings where soldiers and elected officials confessed and asked for forgiveness in the presence of the same people who had suffered under their oppressive and violent authority.
When Cecila Hlokofa gave testimony at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, describing how her husband and other men were called to a community meeting and then beaten and shot. She was taken and beaten as well. In her closing statement she said: If you did something wrong to me, let me not [say, “Damn you!”] You have to forgive! Whatever you did to me, let me forgive you. That would be ubuntu.”
This path toward forgiveness is perhaps the hardest path for those who seek to live ubuntu. It’s the path of John the Baptist who calls for repentance, the path of Christ who challenges us to forgive 70 x 7 times, to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies and do good to those who have hurt us, to be the unexpected good samaritan. It underscores Isaiah’s vision, too. How else would it be possible for lambs to live with lions, goats and leopards to lie down together, for children to wander among wild beasts without fear. Both predator and prey have to give something up in this vision of a peace-filled world.
Are we ready for reconciliation when it means we need to forgive those who hurt us?
Are we ready to build relationships with people we once considered enemies?
Are we ready to trust people we’ve considered enemies, sharing simple, everyday joys with people we believe have hurt us?
Are we ready to open ourselves to the possibility of change?
Then we are ready for God’s kind of peace?
Quotes about ubuntu drawn from: Gade, C.B.N. 2012. “What is Ubuntu? Different Interpretations among South Africans of African Descent”, South African Journal of Philosophy 31(3), 484-503