Friday, June 02, 2006

Ubuntu and Blood Feud - Collective Responsibility

I am fascinated with the concept of “ubuntu.” I discovered the term in “No Future Without Forgiveness,” Desmond Tutu’s book about the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa, and have found that it permeates much of my thinking. Especially after taking my individualistic self to live in a collective culture in Kosova.


Here is Tutu’s definition:

“(Ubuntu) speaks of the very essence of being human. … (When you possess ubuntu) you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. … It is to say, ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life. It is not, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ It says rather: ‘I am human because I belong.’ A person with ubuntu … does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they are less than who they are.” (p. 31, Tutu.)

This last week I have thought of ubuntu in terms of collective responsibility for each other’s actions. The tradition of blood fued requires the family of a victim to take revenge on the perpetrator's family. At times, however, it extends beyond family to friends. Many times in the U.S., parents are held responsible for their child’s criminal actions. But how does that translate beyond family to friends? How can you possibly hold a friend accountable to the point that you are willing to take responsibility for their actions? Or is that my individualistic cultural upbringing – should we not be responsible for every person’s actions? Is this what ubuntu is about, encompassing both the positive and negative?



Within this terrible tradition of the blood feud, you can see the opposite, the ubuntu that is necessary for peace. And in ubuntu, forgiveness – where we realize that it is best not only for the immediate parties involved, but for everyone, friends, village, state, world. Forgiveness is a radical and revolutionary action. And it is not passive – its concentric rings of affect will be felt worldwide.

Azar Nafisi writes about her experience of being ‘inextricably linked’:

“I saw on television the battered and bruised face of the former head of the dreaded Ministry of National Security and Information, a general known for his cruelty. He had been one of the officials involved in framing and imprisoning my father. It must have been a rerun of his confession scene, for he had been killed a few months before. I can still remember, when my father was in jail, the number of times my mother would curse this general and his fellow conspirators. And now here he was, in civilian clothes, pleading for forgiveness from judges whose stern brutality even he could not fathom. There was not a shred of humanity in his expression. It was as if he had been forced to negate his former self and in the process he had abdicated his place alongside other men. I felt strangely connected to him, as if they complete surrender of his dignity had also diminished me. How many times had I dreamt of revenge on this particular man? Was this how one’s dreams were to be fulfilled?” (­from Reading Lolita in Tehran)

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