Writer’s Ink: Ubuntu
by Patricia Bruininks
On my right shoulder blade.
At the Missing Piece studio.
These are two answers to the question, “Where did you get it?”, which is often asked after someone learns that I have a tattoo.
The word ubuntu surrounded by three flowers shaded with orange and yellow.
This is the answer to “What is it?” And before being asked what it means, I explain that ubuntu is an African word that means “a person is a person through other persons.” My humanity is tied up in your humanity. We’re all in this thing together.
The answer to the question, “Why did you get it?” is a bit longer; it speaks to my spiritual journey and the joy, love, and hope that I eventually found in Christianity:
I was raised in the Southern Baptist Church in northeast Tennessee. I dutifully attended church three times a week, and the majority of my social life centered around church activities. Religious teachings primarily focused on “being saved” and I was charged, as all church members were, with the responsibility of witnessing to the “unsaved.” My interactions with this outgroup were to always incorporate some version of proselytizing, regardless of that person’s interest in hearing about the love of Christ. If I failed to share the word of God and that person died without converting, I would face judgment day with his or her blood on my hands. I remember fire and brimstone sermons that scared the hell out of me. I remember my devotion to God being scrutinized under a microscope. Despite the fact I had undergone believer’s baptism, I never felt good enough to be in the saved group.
As I became more educated, I had more doubt about Christianity. In fact, I was halfway through my graduate studies when, for the first time, I understood what it would feel like not to believe in God. This was an informative – albeit very unsettling – experience. I never lost my faith in the existence of God, but I did lose my faith in organized religion. As a social psychologist in training, I had become too knowledgeable about persuasion tactics, misplaced obedience to authority, and powerful patriarchal systems to trust what was being said from the pulpit.
For several years, I didn’t really know what to do with Christianity. I still prayed and read the Bible, but not as regularly as I had before. At the time I was teaching at a church-related – but not Christian – college, and during my five years there, a few opportunities came my way that guided me to where I am now. One of those opportunities was getting to co-teach a course on love with a professor in the religion department. We explored this topic through evolutionary and psychological theories (my part), and Buddhist and Christian teachings (his areas of expertise). It was through teaching this course that I first encountered the word ubuntu.
We taught the book No Future Without Forgiveness by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In it, Tutu describes the development of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a committee designed to address the human rights abuses that took place during apartheid in South Africa. Instead of putting the perpetrators on trial, the commission practiced restorative justice: in exchange for amnesty, violators fully admitted their crimes in the presence of their victims. This often led to asking for and receiving forgiveness from people they’d caused to suffer. Ubuntu was at the heart of this astounding historical event. In cases when the victims offered forgiveness, they gave a gift to the assailant and to themselves. Tutu explains that if we are all connected, then doing something good to someone is doing something good to oneself. If I am to be a person through other persons, then the better I treat others – no matter who they are or what they may have done – the better person I become.
Tears streamed down my face. Ubuntu was the most beautiful idea I had ever encountered. God wasn’t up there just waiting for me to screw up; he was delighting in the beauty of my existence. He is up there experiencing unconditional love for every single person, whether they know him or not and whether they obey him or not. I didn’t need to “be good” to please him; rather, obedience was the path through which I could continue to deepen my understanding of love. And by deepening my love for God, I would deepen my love for others, ingroups and outgroups alike. My view of Christianity was forever changed; ubuntu had rocked my world.
Fast forward a few years, and I am now teaching at Whitworth. I had been entertaining the idea of getting a tattoo for a while; it appealed to the rebellious streak that still resided in this 40-something woman. I wanted it to be meaningful, something that I would want to share with the world for the rest of my life. I finally decided on ubuntu. One afternoon I went to the Missing Piece Tattoo and met with the owner, Zach. He really listened to me when I explained what the word meant – what it meant to me – and he captured it beautifully. The artwork turned out better than I could have expected. In the matter of three hours he had designed the tattoo and I was branded as belonging to this new Christianity.
I often tell my students that the Christianity I now believe in is not the same religion of my youth. While it is a long process to lose the fear of judgment and feelings of inadequacy, I have come far. The best thing is that I no longer feel pressured to awkwardly bring up Christianity. Instead I can just focus on loving others and learning from them. As the saying attributed to St. Francis of Assisi goes, “Preach the gospel often, and if necessary use words.” My word, sometimes visible in the summer months, is ubuntu.
“I like your tattoo. Can you tell me about it?”
Of course, I would love to . . .
Patricia Bruininks grew up in northeast Tennessee. She left the South to attend Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, eventually graduating from nearby Hope College. She pursued her doctoral work in Social Psychology at the University of Oregon, becoming a lifelong Ducks fan. Before coming to Whitworth, she taught for 5 years at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. Dr. B is married to Mr. B (Jim) and has two grown sons, one daughter-in-law, and two rescue pets (one cat and one dog). Her hobbies include crossing national parks off her bucket list (23 down, 36 to go), reading for fun (mostly in the summer months), and watching edifying TV shows like The Walking Dead (for the psychology, of course). She is Associate Professor and Department Chair of the Psychology Department.