On Truth, Reconciliation, Humanity, and Ubuntu

John Dehlin Mormon

The conversation we had last week on my personal blog about Askgramps.org, testimonies, and faith really got me thinking (so a huge thanks to Matt Evans, Michael, Eve, Trevor, Kaimi, Bored in Vernal, Kaimi, Jimbob, Ann, Steve M, RT, Hueffenhardt, Nee, A. Nonny Mouse, DavidH, and the others for inspiring me).

This morning I was listening to another amazing “Speaking of Faith” interview by Krista Tippett — this time about South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation” initiatives that followed Apartheid.

Within the interview, for me, were the most amazing of insights (audio available here — beginning around the 8:15 mark):

Dr. Villa-Vicencio: Look, I think the notion of truth has always been a contested concept. For me, theologically speaking, truth is something that one aspires after. It’s something that you reach towards. And I think religion generally, and Christian theology in particular, is at its all-time low and most oppressive when it has a decisive interpretation of truth, in the sense of a dogma, and says, “This is the truth.” And to the extent that you deviate from this, you know, you’re not a Christian, you’re a heretic or something like that. And pastorally speaking, if you like, what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has done is that its opened a space within which people—we like to use the word, don’t we, ordinary people, rank-and-file people—have an opportunity to speak their truth. Subjective truth may not always stand up to the cross-examination of a court of law. It may not be the forensic truth. But if that is that person’s experience of what happened, we, as Christians, above all, need to listen.

Ms. Tippett: And I think those words truth and reconciliation, that that phrase—I don’t know—can seem pat in the face of the complexity of how powerful the truth is and how many different responses it can cause.

Dr. Villa-Vicencio: I think it is, you know. Some people, especially in the early days of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, somehow thought that what was being suggested is that if we all told the truth, we will all be reconciled. You know, simple as that. You do A, you’ll have B, which is absolute nonsense. Let me put it to you this way, if I may, that if we want to talk about justice or we want to talk about truth outside of the desire to be reconciled, outside of the desire to build a relationship, outside of the desire to move on, if it’s outside of that, then truth and justice can be a very destructive and a very vindictive thing. I think one of the fundamental philosophical roots of the Truth and Reconciliation is an African notion of ubuntu. Ubuntu loosely translated means “humanity.” It means to live together. It is a concept that says, “I am through you and you are through me.” It’s only as we engage in truthful dialogue and in a quest for building a relationship that we can grow as individual people. So to the extent of I am estranged from you, I am less than human. It’s a relationship that is required.

Ms. Tippett: Former director of research for the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission Charles Villa-Vicencio. I asked him what effect the truth, in all its aspects, as he heard it in years of proceedings, had on him.

Dr. Villa-Vicencio: Whoa! Let me preface that by saying that I think anger, I think hatred, I think a desire for revenge is a most understandable human emotion and response. I can fully understand it. I think at a communal, at a political, at a nation-building level, it is a very dangerous thing. And so you ask what impact did it have upon me. You know, I sat and listened to hearings and some of the most horrendous stories told by victims and, goodness knows, told by perpetrators, you know, and I’d find myself sitting there and saying, “My goodness,” you know, “Where do we go from here? What do we do with this person?” And I think I come away from the commission perhaps learning two things, and that is, one, that human beings in certain circumstances are capable of the most outrageously treacherous deeds. And I would like to emphasize that we’re talking about human beings. We’re not talking about Nazis in the Second World War. We’re not talking about white Afrikaners in South Africa. We’re talking about human beings. Every human being—American, South African, Christian, Muslim, Jew—we have within us the capacity to commit some dreadful deeds. We have a little perpetrator within each one of us. And placed in the right context, that little perpetrator becomes an outrageously powerful perpetrator.

You know what else I learned is that even those perpetrators—and I’ve met some bad ones, of all kinds of political persuasions—when you sit down and you talk, they are human beings. There’s introspection. There’s a desire to move on. There’s a quest to regain humanity and to take one’s place with responsibility in society. Let me use this as an illustration. In our office in Cape Town, we had Brian Mitchell, who was the commander of a military unit that went into Trust Feed’s community in KwaZulu-Natal and mowed down a whole group of innocent people—men, women and children. In that same office at the same time, in dialogue with him, was Letlapa Mphahlele, who was the head of APLA, one of the guerilla groups that ordered the massacre in St. James’ Church and in the Heidelberg pub.

These are two people on different sides, both guilty of the most horrendous and unqualified, unacceptable deeds, engaging and talking. That is the beginning, the beginning, not there, the beginning of the journey towards reconciliation. And these people who are honestly, if you like, truthfully disclosing their past, acknowledging who they were. And you know what? Talking about their vulnerability. I heard Mphahlele say to Brian, “My God, where do we go now?” That was the most hopeful question I heard in that conversation.

I didn’t realize this consciously when I first started podcasting and blogging, but these sentiments reflected above (encapsulated in the notion of Ubuntu) live at the core of what I believe many of us have been trying to do over the past year and a half on the Bloggernalce (though I , personally, very often fall far short).

We need more openness. We need more “heart-to-heart.” We need more “expressed vulnerability”. We need more understanding. We need more, “My God. What do we do now?” moments.

We need more Ubuntu.

If Christ did indeed resurrect, it was for this cause. If the teachings of Ubuntu were not central motivators for the atonement and resurrection, then in my mind and heart, there was little point to either.

I hope that I, and that we, will never lose sight of this notion — here, in the bloggernacle, in the churches, in our governments, and in our homes.

I am, through you. You are, through me. We are, through Christ. And Christ is, through us.