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Sabona: Reflections on the Moral Significance and Imperative of (Truly) Seeing

This last fall, I taught a course introducing the study of religion as a phenomenon to two cohorts of first years for whom this was their first quarter in college. Entitled Ways of Understanding Religion, the course’s goal is to facilitate an analytical understanding of the many ways humanity understands and expresses religion as a key dimension of the human  experience.

Asked to reflect on their prior thoughts on the course they were about to take, many students  expressed being apprehensive at the prospect of studying religion as an academic subject. For some who grew up immersed in their faith, primarily Christianity, the thought of analytically studying their own religion alongside other ways of religion was daunting. Others were apprehensive because they had little prior experience of religion, leave alone the study of it as they had to do in courses such as these that are part of the core curriculum.

To diffuse this generalized sense of apprehension I introduced a South African greeting:  Sabona, which  means “I see you” and to which the response is “I am here.”  I encouraged students for the first few minutes of the second class to introduce themselves to each other and  to greet each other with the Sabona greeting. Beyond the introductory day,  Sabona became the routine way to greet each during class and was often the first thing we said to each other during class.

As the quarter progressed, it occurred to me that Sabona is more than just another exotic word from Africa which I used as a curtain raiser. I realized that that truly seeing and acknowledging each other’s presence is of deeper value beyond saying hello. Routinely using the term in class challenged me to truly see the students as persons not just as numbers and names in my class roster. Often, instead of reading the names from the class roster, I would go around the class and call each student by name and say Sabona … I see you.

It occurred to me also that such calling and addressing each student as a person was important to them. For example, it allowed them to state more precisely their preferred way of  being named. Whereas the roster might refer to a student as Elizabeth, for example, the student might say, “I  am Elizabeth but please call me Beth, or Liz, or Eliza, or Betty” as the case might be. I learned to see the student as he/she preferred to be seen, not as defined in the adminstartive paperwork.

That the students recognized the deeper significance of Sabona also showed in that some wrote “unprompted’ analytical papers reflecting on the impact of Sabona (or rather lack of it) in their own lives and in society. One student for example reflected on having to work extra hard to join a sports team because he was considered too small to participate. The student expressed concern for those who could never work hard enough, for example to overcome the consequences of racist lenses through which they were reduced to the color of their skin.

As I dug around the Sabona concept some more, I found out that beyond our class, others have reached the eureka moment and recognize the deeper philosophical, even ethical significance of  Sabona. Here I offer two examples:

In the 1990s  Johan Galtung[1] proposed a program for Peace Education. He proposed that   equipping children early with conflict resolution skills and nurturing in them what is referred to in the program as “Conflict Hygiene” was a way of prophylactically “Building Positive Peace.”  Since 2005, efforts to implement his proposals have crystalized in what are called “Sabona  Schools” several of which are in Europe.[2] I was truly intrigued by the way this program invokes “Sabona” as a principle worthy of consideration in the peace education project.

Closer home and more recently , john powell (the lower case is intentional) director of  the HAAS Institute at UC Berkley[3] invokes Sabona in his program of diversity and inclusion. Halfway through the quarter I chanced on the HAAS  website and found a video recording of  his keynote speech for a conference entitled  “Building Belonging in Times of Othering” [4] I was truly and pleasantly surprised to see that he too used the Sabona greeting as I had in my class, as an icebreaker to help the audiences feel at home.[5]

However, Sabona was more than an icebreaker for his talk in which he argued that Othering (i.e. seeing those different from us as somehow deficient, inferior, even evil) is one of the biggest  ethical challenges of the 21st century. Listening to him, it occurred to me that failure or refusal to truly to see others for whom they are, beyond the stereotypes, intentional demeaning and objectifying misnomers, is a key if not the key ingredient in the process of othering. In many cases, the “different other” is reduced by the “other-rer” to an arbitrary aspect such as color, gender or age. Thus for example, racists fail to see anything but color in the differently “colored” while heterosexists reduce “the differently gendered” to their sexuality and then continue intentionally and deaminingly to rename / misname them[6] before treating them in unjust, cruel and traumatizing, often lethal ways.[7] Failure or refusal to Sabona others the way they should be seen is therefore a root cause of much of the pain and trauma that “the othered” experience. If this is the case, Sabona, is not just a “convenient way to help audiences feel comfortable.” Rather, Sabona, truly seeing the other as they should be seen, becomes morally significant,  perhaps even a moral imperative.

My inclination to consider  Sabona  a moral imperative was recently reinforced by a blog written by one Rabbi Litman. Reflecting on her experiences as a Jewish member  of the LGBT community, she laments her enduring  invisibility even when she goes out of her way to announce who she truly  is, for example by dressing conspicuously in rainbow LGBT colors. In her words:

“LGBTQ  people well understand this feeling of invisibility as our identity is often unseen.  We are asked about other gender spouses/dates we don’t have or want; about childhoods in a gender that wasn’t ours.  People use the wrong pronouns. Our sexual orientations and gender identities are about so much more than sex/gender. It is often painful for this important aspect of our selves to remain hidden…” [8]

To cushion herself  from the pain and to protest this double invisibility, she decided that: “December would be my personal Jewish- queer “out” month.  I wear a rainbow yarmulke and various signifiers of my Jewish and queer identities – pins, t-shirts, jewelry with various combinations of Jewish/rainbow symbols and declarations. (Yet)  all of this outerwear has almost no impact on the assumptions of Christmas celebration and heterosexuality.  But I feel better in my personal resistance.”[9]

I submit that to the extent that failure to Sabona people as they truly are causes them pain and trauma, Sabona becomes  morally imperative. Failure to Sabona, or refusal to see “the other” for who they truly are is often lethal in many and “unnoticed” instances. One category of people for whom failure in Sabona has been deadly is the homeless (or more accurately unhoused);  a population that is rapidly growing mostly in urban settings globally. Many die lonely and no doubt painful deaths totally unseen and anonymous. Their bodies are collected from the streets  and their remains “disposed of” as Jane or John Doe.[10]

Responding to the  ethical ramifications of this lamentable state of affairs, the Coalition for the Homeless in the US set aside 21st December (the darkest day of the year) as a nationwide memorial day for those who died homeless.[11] For the last two years, I have had the serendipitous opportunity and privilege to attend the San Jose Homeless Memorial Days.[12] For the 2019 memorial, it was truly moving to see that beyond a generalized “memorial service,” the organizers went a step further in “correcting” the society’s failure to Sabona the homeless, albeit posthumously and in retrospect. A team comprising the currently and previously unhoused worked together to create “symbolic” tombstones for the 161 unhoused people who died in the Streets of Santa Clara County in 2019.[13] Even more moving and heartwarming, the team spent the evening of 20th December lovingly writing the names of the deceased, date of birth and date of death on each of the 161 the makeshift tombstones. During the service on the 21st they sang loving songs of goodbye and read each of the 161 names aloud. They read pieces of poetry or letters written by the homeless who had passed on.

Through these tombstones, songs and poetry, we were invited to see the deceased as dignified persons complete with a name! We were invited to grieve and memorialize them not as a  group  of anonymous “indigent” John and Jane Does, but individuals, each of whom was of intrinsic worth before and beyond death. The audience was invited to recognize the moral imperative of Sabona, considering that failure to see the unhoused, impoverished and sick as intrinsically worthy contributed to their untimely painful and lonely deaths. We were alerted not to reduce them to mere objects of pity, or worse. We were urged to act prophylactically and Sabona them in good time to preempt the deaths.

As I conclude this reflections on the moral significance, even imperative of Sabona, truly seeing each other and the world around us, I am reminded of the many voices of moral reason that have in the past pleaded with us to “Sabona” . I recall that Jesus himself  frequently challenged those in society that had “eyes” but couldn’t or wouldn’t see. These included his contemporaries who   were so blinded by the letter of the law that they condemned him for “working on the Sabbath” when in reality he was healing the sick. He modeled what he taught as he freely and unconditionally[14] interacted with social outcasts such as allegedly unclean lepers and an  “unclean” hemorrhaging woman. In his eyes, such so called unclean were as intrinsically and unconditionally worthy of his healing touch as anyone else. Martin Luther King Junior whose vision we celebrate in January, dreamt of a  time when  people would be seen and “valued” for the “content of their character” and not devalued and demonized even killed for the color of their skin. Desmond Tutu reminds us that all are intrinsically worthy because they are made in the image of God. Therefore looking at anyone through racist, sexist or heterosexist lenses is analogous to “spitting” in the face of God. Wangari Maathai nostalgically reminds us to retrieve  the African indigenous moral sensibilities of  yesteryear when Africans did not look at trees and see only timber for their houses or at elephants and see only ivory tusks to make their jewelry and trinkets. Failing to Sabona Nature’s Intrinsic worth, Wangari warned, humans are “digging their own graves” (and the graves of non-human beings who call earth home.) For his part, Gandhi beseeched all to see the “divine spark” in everyone including the so called “untouchables.” Such authentic seeing would make untouchability a moral outrage.

Perhaps as 2019 ends and a new year dawns, we shall recognize the moral significance, even moral imperative of Sabona and commit to truly seeing with the eyes of the heart the intrinsic worth of all, including the different other, however that difference manifests itself.

Perhaps in the new year, we shall learn or re- learn to say Sabona, I see you… This time with a 20-20 Vision…(what an intriguing coincidence!)

Perhaps then we might even be able to sing with enhanced confidence and authentic gratitude Amazing Grace…..I was blind , but now I see…

[1]  For details of Johan Galtung and his career as a Peace Studies  pioneer and his  “Transcend Program”, see  Transcend website link   https://www.transcend.org/galtung/

[2] For a detailed description and evaluation of Sabona as a strategy in peace building, see Ekaterina Trunova:  Learning Conflict Resolution at School: The Sabona Approach. MA Thesis University  of Tromso. November 2011.  https://www.transcend.org/tms/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/sabona-I-see-you.pdf

[3] Recently renamed  “Othering and Belonging Institute.” For details of this program designed to nurture pluralism and hence facilitate a better sense of belonging …. See link https://belonging.berkeley.edu/

[4] The lower case in the name is intentional on his part (similar to bell hooks who also prefers lower case.)

[5] For details see to john powell : Building Belonging in the Time of Othering: link here:    https://belonging.berkeley.edu/video-building-belonging-time-othering-john-powell

[6] Examples of such intentionally renaming /misnaming are many (and often  unspeakably cruel, hurtful and venomous.)  They include for example the multiple demeaning references to immigrants with terms such as “Illegal Aliens “ or worse, terrorists.

[7] Consider for example the movement Black Lives Matter protesting the disproportionately high mortality rates  among Black people, attributable to racism.

[8] My emphasis

[9] For details, see  Rabbi J. Litman : My December Dilemma Blog: https://clgs.org/2019/12/my-december-dilemma/

[10] Methods of disposal include cremation as well as “donation” of the bodies as cadavers for research! For details see “What Happens to the Homeless When They Die” https://thinkprogress.org/what-happens-to-the-homeless

[11]  See Link to coalition of the homeless: https://nationalhomeless.org/

[12] In San Jose, the  Homeless Memorial Service is organized and facilitated by the SILICON VALLEY INTERRELIGIOUS  Council, an organization with which SCU Religious Studies is linked through what we call the Local Religions project. Since 2018, I have been involved both in SIVIC and Local Religions Project. Hence the participation in this event in the last 2 years.

[13]  For  details see story in link https://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/south-bay/san