• ESSAYS \ Jan 29, 2022
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    Tutu and Ubuntu Theology: Resisting Apartheid through Forgiveness and Justice - By Dr. Rula Khoury Mansour
Tutu and Ubuntu Theology: Resisting Apartheid through Forgiveness and Justice - By Dr. Rula Khoury Mansour


Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who helped to bring an end to the apartheid regime in South Africa, passed away last month. Throughout his life he insisted that the motives for his tireless work in his ecclesiastical position of Archbishop were religious rather than political. Therefore, in this article, I would like to touch upon the religious values ​​that animated Archbishop Tutu in his pursuit of peace in his country. What is striking in his approach is his attempt to understand God’s way and apply it in his own context through his development of Ubuntu theology, which is derived from his Christian faith and African culture and is a theology that resists apartheid through forgiveness and justice.

What is Ubuntu? And how does achieving Ubuntu assume the achievement of both justice and forgiveness? How are the concepts of forgiveness and justice compatible in the Christian faith? How did Archbishop Tutu resist apartheid by offering forgiveness and demanding justice?

Countless theologians and philosophers have written on the subject of forgiveness and justice. In most of the writings it appears that there is a complex relationship between the practice of forgiveness and the practice of justice together, as if it is only possible to practice one at the expense of the other. Few have succeeded in expressing the wonderful harmony found in these two practices as embodied and taught by Jesus Christ. Archbishop Tutu is one of the few who have succeeded in embodying this harmony between forgiveness and justice. I believe, listening to the voices of both God and context at the same time contributed to his success. Tutu developed Ubuntu theology through bringing together his Christian faith and his African culture.


What is Ubuntu? And how does achieving Ubuntu assume the achievement of both justice and forgiveness?

Ubuntu is an African term meaning “humanity”, often translated as “I am who I am because of who we are”. It suggests that human beings are deeply interconnected, and are fully human only in communion with others. In this concept, belonging to a community enables people to discover, express, and maintain their full humanity. Because the humanity of the individual is linked to other human beings, a person seeks to be moral, compassionate and social and these qualities make him or her attain their personhood. Thus, a person’s behavior becomes subject to thinking about its impact on the well-being of the community and on right relationships.

In Ubuntu, justice and forgiveness are both achieved. Ubuntu assumes that one’s humanity diminishes when others are humiliated and abused. When any abuse occurs, seeking revenge would harm one’s own Ubuntu (own humanity), while forgiveness is what allows the victims to experience the restoration of their full "Ubuntu". Therefore, the community encourages forgiveness because victims regain their humanity when they forgive the perpetrator and it frees them from lives of isolation and desperation. In other words, by forgiving, victims acknowledge the humanity both of themselves and of the perpetrators, because we are human when we are together. If anyone leaves the community due to experiencing abuse, we seek to embrace them back so that they can regain their humanity and we can restore our humanity as well. In this way, the practice of forgiveness is not only limited to the victim who has been wronged, but it also becomes the responsibility of the community who respond seriously to wrongdoing and who participate in the process of accountability, repentance, and forgiveness.

This restoration of humanity through forgiveness achieves justice for both parties. In this context, justice is understood as restoring the fullness of Ubuntu: that is, the humanity of all members of the community. When someone violates the Ubuntu system, society can redeem the lost person through forgiveness and reconciliation. If a person does not repent, they can be “rejected” for some time. Through forgiveness and reconciliation, victims reintegrate the perpetrators into the community, thus reducing the possibility of recurring violence. Therefore, justice and reconciliation are achieved through forgiveness and the restoration of all to a healthy community.

An individual’s capacity for forgiveness and reconciliation is not only a personal virtue but also serves the community, as it enables peace and social harmony. Not having the ability to forgive means not having Ubuntu. Ubuntu sees forgiveness as the only way to achieve justice without losing balance in society, as only forgiveness can realize Ubuntu because it looks forwards toward justice rather than backwards toward revenge. Therefore, the reintegration of the perpetrator into society through forgiveness and reconciliation is seen as critical to restoring relationships, healing, and to the future safety of the whole community.


How are the concepts of forgiveness and justice compatible with each other in the Christian faith?

According to Psalm 85:10, “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” Since mercy (forgiveness) and justice have met on the cross in order to restore our relationship with God, then as followers of the Peacemaker, we are to demonstrate these same concepts in our reconciliation ministries seeking to restore the oppressors and the oppressed into communion.

By offering mercy and forgiveness, we replace anger and revenge through our desire to see wrong-doers led to repentance, because we love even our enemies (Matthew 5:44). Forgiveness transforms our attitude from seeing ourselves as victims seeking revenge or escape to seeing ourselves as peacemakers seeking justice and peace, through resisting evil with good and transforming the perpetrator, even if we ourselves suffer as we do so.

Practicing forgiveness is God’s invitation to participate in the work of the kingdom. Forgiveness is not a private, isolated act, but a social relationship. Forgiveness is part of a larger strategy to overcome evil with good and to achieve peace (Romans 12:21). Forgiveness, then, is embodied in a lifestyle committed to overcoming evil with good. We forgive, even when abusers are unrepentant; there are other better ways to protect ourselves from them rather than through unforgiveness. When we become forgivers, we restore our human dignity, because God created us in His image and likeness.

Peace is not achieved through disregarding truth and justice, but by exposing injustices. The pursuit of justice must be an integral part of the pursuit of peace. Turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, and handing over the coat (Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:39-42) are actions that may inspire both admiration and rejection at the same time, yet they are not positions of weakness, but rather heroic positions. They aim to highlight justice mixed with mercy, by both exposing evil and initiating dialogue in order to persuade oppressors to turn away from their evil ways and follow the paths of truth. Therefore, the pursuit of justice should not be aimed at revenge or compensation, but rather should open the possibility of achieving just peace and living in dignity and harmony.

Biblical justice includes the obligation to give someone what they do not deserve: generosity, mercy, and forgiveness. It suggests that there is no tension between divine justice and mercy; they cannot be separated in order for one to take precedence over the other. If we understand justice in terms of the restoration of relationships, then mercy will help to bring justice. It is through grace and mercy that justice is transformed from being about seeking our rights alone to become something much wider and richer. The justice of God redeems, heals, corrects, and restores sinners to a loving community.

Jesus Christ condemned all kinds of social exclusion and segregation (such as that experienced by Samaritans, Gentiles, sinners, outcasts, and the sick). Through the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), Christ confronted priests, Levites, and anyone who excluded Samaritans (or any other racial group) from society. Likewise, by meeting and conversing with the Canaanite woman, he confirmed that the kingdom of God includes the nations as well (Matthew 15). In the story of the prodigal son, Christ condemned those who were unwilling to welcome sinners and outcasts (Luke 11). Confronting the Pharisees’ philosophy of severance, he invited Matthew the tax collector to be part of the disciples’ community. When the Pharisees grumbled against Christ and his disciples because of they ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus replied that he came to heal sinners and to call them to repentance (Luke 5). Christ’s sharing of food with the untouchable and the unclean, and his healing of the sick on the Sabbath, was an expression of his objection to the ritual practices that divided people into the pure and the unclean.

The concept of justice in the New Testament destabilizes the social, religious, economic, political, and moral context in order to justify the sinner and the wrongdoer and reintegrate them into society. Christ often healed someone through touch and through bringing them back to their community.

Christian peacemaking embraces both justice and mercy. Whereas achieving justice is an attempt to reform, correct mistakes, and create the right relationships based on justice, the pursuit of justice involves standing up for those who have been affected, acknowledging wrongs, and making things right. On the other hand, mercy includes sympathy, forgiveness, and a new beginning. Mercy is meant to support people who have done wrong and encourage them to repent.


How did Archbishop Tutu manage to contribute to the resistance of apartheid through offering forgiveness while demanding justice?

Having explained the two main sources of Tutu's theology, his Christian faith and African culture (Ubuntu philosophy), I will demonstrate how he applied his theology during his service as Archbishop. What is striking about Tutu’s approach is that his vision and practices of peacemaking included a commitment to both justice and forgiveness through active participation in society. He demanded a loving justice that sought to expose injustice and correct mistakes, as well as offering a transformative forgiveness that sought to heal and restore right relationships within society.

Like Archbishop Tutu, many Christians have given their best years of service to model the possibility of an ethnically-integrated society. It is in this context that the churches of South Africa have sought an approach to Christian salvation free from oppression and apartheid, full of God’s love as it celebrates diversity without discrimination, and incorporating a community that reflects the values ​​of the kingdom of God – and this has become the mission of the church.

During Archbishop Tutu’s tenure, the South African Council of Churches supported social justice, demonstrating during apartheid how religious institutions, as grassroots groups, can empower individuals to engage in nonviolence. It sought to provide financial and legal assistance to those who bore the burden of civil disobedience. It also maintained links between the churches of South Africa and the world, publishing statements and documents condemning apartheid and urging the worldwide Church to intervene to help to bring an end to it. Archbishop Tutu and the South African Council of Churches were in the forefront in advocating nonviolence in the struggle in South Africa, which contributed to exposing injustice and ending apartheid.

When apartheid ended in 1994 with the first democratic elections in South Africa, the task of facilitating healing and reconciliation was presented to church leaders for implementation. A pioneering process, called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was launched across South Africa under the leadership of Archbishop Tutu. The Ubuntu philosophy of restoring the humanity of both the victim and the perpetrator and embracing them back into society was one of the basic principles of the commission’s work.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was an official body, approved by the new government to hold court-like “hearings,” where victims of human rights violations were invited to make statements about their abuse, with some selected to be witnesses for public hearings. Perpetrators were also given the opportunity to testify and apply for amnesty for their crimes. Truth and Reconciliation Commission, under the leadership of the Archbishop, promoted truth-telling in exchange for less harsh sentencing to encourage repentance and forgiveness to facilitate the healing process of a society suffering from the horrific effects of apartheid.

Although the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa is imperfect, it is considered one of the most effective post-conflict transitional justice processes in history, characterized by the recognition of individual dignity, fairness, and acknowledgment of violations, and its aim to prevent their recurrence. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission shows how justice in a context of reconciliation, such as speaking the truth publicly, can create a shared memory of past abuses, acknowledge the suffering of victims of oppression and violence, and hold the oppressors accountable in order to contribute to the process of social change. The experiences of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission point “beyond conventional retribution into a realm where justice and mercy coalesce and both victim and perpetrator must know pain if healing is to happen. It is an area more consistent with Calvary than the courtroom.” (Peter Storey).

Changing society requires actions that emphasize human rights, equality, fairness, the power of truth, as well as voluntary sacrifices, such as marches, sit-ins, strikes, collective seminars, statements, civil disobedience, and legislative action, to abolish unjust regimes or create opportunities for new privileges. This is why there is a need for voices, such as Tutu's, that touch the consciences of the dominant groups by exposing injustice in order to lead them to repentance, in the hope that the changing of hearts will lead to a change in thoughts and behavior and will lead to healing and reconciliation. Changing society also requires divine intervention that moves people’s hearts and urges them to reject any injustice in the system, and to search for God’s vision of the political system and civil society.


An Arabic version of the artcile can be found here - http://www.comeandsee.com/ar/post/3002490


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Khoury Mansour, Rula. “Communities of Forgiveness: a Palestinian Christian Perspective.” Ex Auditu: An International Journal for the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, 35 (2019): 122-150. Pickwick, 2020.

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Philpott, Daniel. Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Storey, Peter. “A Different Kind of Justice: Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa.” The Christian Century 114 (1997): 788–793.

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Volf, Miroslav. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.


Rula Khoury Mansour is the founder and director of Nazareth Peace Center and professor at Nazareth Evangelical College