Reflections on Reading a Biography of Desmond Tutu

Reading a biography of Desmond Tutu.  Amazing how South Africa, despite the 30-odd years of violence and strife, has managed to pull itself together and not just explode, Balkans-style.  Amazing how the trite Episcopal/Anglican pop-theology of Bishop Tutu held throughout that time, helped calm and inspire people for decades, helped reconcile bitter enemies once South Africa was re-established as a modern nation. 

For me it’s wonderful endorsement of Christianity – not the hair-splitting, arch-moralistic part of it, not at all – but the pop notions: Forgiveness, Coexistence, Morality.  And that peculiar God of theirs, that hard-to-define, impossible combination – the utterly inhuman Shiva-type destroyer, the heretical, light-filled Egyptian Mono-God, the Old-Testament Tribal Godhead, all in contradiction identified with Christ and Love and Forgiveness!  That God is given center-stage by Bishop Tutu, who speaks for him like a modern-day prophet and mouthpiece, speaks for the God of Justice and Forgiveness and Love, and helped to guide a whole nation to what was and is, really, a Moses-worthy sort of Civil Promised Land. 

Tutu credits a lot of this to African morality – to what is called ubuntu, a spirt of reciprocity, magnanimity, communalism.  The author of the biography, John Allen, or one of his sources quotes a Xhosa proverb on this subject – “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu“, translating it as “A person is a person through other people” – we exist as people because of our communion with people, you might say.  To the extent South Africans have held onto this trait, it has helped, it seems. 

And then what of ubuntu for a spoiled, wimpy, odd American socio-phobe like myself?  How do I (someone like ficititious TV detective Adrian Monk) find myself through other people?  I guess for some of us ubuntu will not be a living, gay, vibrant business.  For folks of my ilk, ubuntu has been in those times where we learned – somewhat bitterly – that we had to be humble to be better, that the basics wouldn’t come easily. 

Who have I learned from?  The list is shockingly narrow.  From my children, each of the three, in trying to help them to get them through their disappointments, to have them avoid absorbing only the lesson of despair, to pick themselves up and move ahead again.  Their tail-chasing troubles have humbled me and my fraudulent built-in expectations of success or serenity or happiness, whether for them or for myself. 

Even my morally- and emotionally-disastrous relationships with women, all failed or aborted, have taught me things, bit by bit; have gainsaid & tamped down mis-guiding expectations of romance or satisfaction.  Other people I’ve parted from, friends who gaily and lightly abused me in expectation of some display of verve and confidence on my part, from whom I parted because I had no such reflex to reply with.  Even their nonsequiturs, intially absurd, inept and oppressive, have often turned out, with time, to have had a certain basis in Chaos, in “the way the world works”.

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