The Theology of Community: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu

Article excerpt

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, South Africa's primary public confessor, articulates why forgiveness is better than retributive justice, spiritually and politically.

The greatest religious challenge in a new South Africa is the maintenance of what has become an amalgam of spiritual and political leadership, especially as displayed in the life and thought of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Now that major spiritual leaders in South Africa are dead, retiring, or moving to more reflective stages in their lives, a split has begun to widen between spiritual leadership per se and spiritual leadership that addresses the political sphere. As South African society looks for the Joshua figures who will succeed Moses, it is crucial that a discussion of spiritual leadership take place in relation to the religious challenges facing a new South Africa. As an African American who lives in the United States, it is a special interest of mine to provide such a discussion, particularly since North American cultures have extreme difficulty in appropriating spiritual leadership that at the same time espouses a healthy political direction.

My immediate concern in this article is that the South African nation has depended heavily on Tutu's voice to articulate why forgiveness is better than retributive justice. What will happen, however, when South Africans are faced with future political crises while having perhaps little recourse to major public, spiritual leaders like Tutu? As ecclesial head of a historically white church, Tutu negotiated strategies for effective action in a society so polarized by race that both Afrikaner and African could each claim God's election. As head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Tutu pressed urgently for restorative justice, not simply to restore black people to a place of flourishing, but to work for the reconciliation of races.

My thesis is that Tutu's role as national confessor operates from a distinctively theological model of forgiveness in which human identity depends on a trinitarian image of God. Not to forgive assumes there is no such image of God among humanity. More specifically, not to forgive assumes no future for South Africa.' Tutu believes in forgiveness and repentance, and practices both, because the context of white justification of apartheid and black political liberation has been shaped by competing claims to God's election. In the end, these claims are reduced to the epistemological privilege of race. Instead of adopting the notion of racial privileging by divine election, Tutu adheres theologically to a metanarrative of God's forgiveness in which conflicting racial identities are expressed and defined in the reconciling concept of imago Dei (image of God) revealed through Jesus Christ, who manifests the plenitude of relational personhood.

In this article, I examine Tutu's crucial, albeit controversial, role in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). My argument is that Tutu acts as both theological and political agent of a utopian community within the context of warring factions. It is vital to see Tutu's theological contributions, particularly his articulation of forgiveness and repentance, in order to understand the impetus for his political involvement. Without such a vision of forgiveness and repentance, there is no future for South Africa.


How will South Africans deal with the legacies of the apartheid era? Upon the final victory of democratic election in 1994, the African National Congress (ANC) tried to answer that question with what they called a "Truth Commission," but their adversary, the National Party (NP), advocated a "Reconciliation Commission." The ANC, Nelson Mandela's party, was concerned about the victims of the apartheid period, while the NP, EW de Klerk's party, sought amnesty for the perpetrators. The result was the "National Unity and Reconciliation Act" of July 26, 1995, which established the "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" (TRC). …