Let’s begin from Africa since we set out from there. We human beings, scholars tells us, appear to have arisen in our original strain, in the so-called Dark continent. From the heart of great Mother Africa comes the Ubuntu culture, now also known here in the West, thanks also to shining examples like that of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Ubuntu is a real ethics of Sub-Saharan Africa that has the theme of reciprocal relationships among people at its core. The word comes from the Bantu language and means “humanity towards others” or “benevolence towards others”. It is thus a rule for life based on compassion, loyalty and respect for others. The most well-known phrase of this culture can be translated as, “I am because we are”, that is, “I am who I am, by virtue of what we all are”. The affirmation of one’s self does not therefore exclude but arises from “the we” and the same goes for individual rights which exist alongside collective duties, because Ubuntu exhorts us to mutually sustain and help one another as though driven by an ideal longing and a desire for peace.
At the root of this culture is the belief in a universal bond of exchange that unites all of humanity, so that when one hurts another, they are doing so to the whole world, including themselves. In this sense it is similar to the spirit of the well-known affirmation in the Talmud which says that whoever saves one life saves the entire world. Responsibility is oriented not only horizontally, towards the other, but also vertically, towards past and future generations. This is why, as Professor Dirk Louw of Stellenbosch University in South Africa says, Ubuntu is characterized clearly by a religious dimension: the behaviour of each individual person in fact has to interact with the rest of humanity in a way that is in compliance with respecting and venerating the ancestors, and those who will live according to this principle of responsibility throughout their lifetime, will, in death, be able to reach unity with those who are still living.
In Steven Spielberg’s film, Amistad, released 25 years ago, we see an African tribal chief who enters a Washington, D.C. courtroom in the mid 19th century, and he is not afraid. And yet he is there, alone in a hostile country, defending himself without even knowing the language, from an almost certain death sentence because, he says: I am not alone, my ancestors are with me. “I will call into the past, far back to the beginning of time, and beg them to come and help me at the judgment. I will reach back and draw them into me. And they must come, for at this moment, I am the whole reason they have existed at all”.
All this makes us reflect. At least, it should.
In the varied and vast world of the Web, there is a question that has been floating around in these days and which comes with an answer: “How many people have ever lived on earth? A total of 107 billion people in the span of 200,000 years. In 8000 BC we were just 5 million. Today we number 8 billion living people. And 99 billion dead” . We are unable here and now to verify if these numbers correspond to the truth. If anything, today, not tomorrow, is the time to ask ourselves another question that demands an answer”: “Do we feel the support and at the same time the burden of responsibility for these 99 billion people who preceded us?”. We have to be accountable to them. To them and to those who will come after us. To these, our children, we should hand over the flame that 200,000 years ago was lit for the first time and kept alive by 99 billion men and women like us, our ancestors. Each one exists because we exist. Each of us is part of this “relay” that we can call `”tradition” that goes through history and that from the dawn of time has brought us here, to communicate with mobile phones, to send astronauts into space and create nuclear devices; it gave us Bach’s music and Dante’s poetry, Rembrandt’s paintings and Einstein’s formulas, it created hospitals and leper colonies and planned genocides…. And lastly, it has led us here, to the doors of Kyiv, and of Yemen and Syria, and the list would be long if it included also the countries torn apart by war within great Mother Africa, to whom, as her children, we should listen when she speaks and teaches.
Another African proverb often quoted by Pope Francis, says that it takes a village to raise a child. The village has spoken and it is teaching. It has been doing so for 200,000 years but not everyone heeds the lesson and they are there, on the dramatic threshold, which as Catholics we call free will, because one can take a life, one’s own or that of others, or donate it, even to the extent of loving the enemy and forgiving, as was preached 2,000 years ago in Israel. But that Preacher was welcomed and also betrayed and repudiated, crucified. And yet we feel that precisely in the paradox of his message and his gift, there is the strength to come out of the impasse of that crossroads in order to orient our liberty towards the good.
Because that’s the way it is, we are, each day, as always, at the crossroads: one path leads to the handing off of the flame, to transmit life, culture, beauty, humanity; the other leads to putting out, today perhaps permanently, that flame, so fragile and tenacious, which has been kept alive thanks to the efforts of 99 billion people. 99 billion reasons to ask and fight for peace.