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Desmond Tutu – a light in our times

Desmond Tutu – a light in our times

Glynn Cardy 2nd January 2022

This last week Desmond Tutu died.

Hone Harawira tells a story of a trial of Harawira and other anti-tour protestors here in Auckland:

“The day before my court date,” he said.  “I’m sitting out the back in the cells thinking ‘jeez, what am I gonna do?’  Then the brain wave came to me.  Bishop Desmond Tutu had been invited over by the Anglican church to come and do a speaking tour. Interest was still very high in apartheid South Africa.  My mum knew George and Jocelyn Armstrong, who were part of the organisation that brought him over.

“So, I rang my mum and said look, I want Bishop Tutu as a witness.”

The next day Harawira and 10 others prepared to stand trial.

When the time came for him to give his defence, his star witness wasn’t there. “I read my statement. I’d come to the very end and I was dragging it out. Then the door burst open, and someone looked at me with a big smile and just nodded and I knew then. So, I asked the judge: ‘Can you please call my witness?’”

Harawira still laughs at the memory of the stunned faces of the judge, prosecution and jury as Desmond Tutu, in his signature dark suit and purple cleric’s shirt, walked into the courtroom.

“So, he takes the stand and I go, ‘Could you please tell the court your name?’ And then I said, ‘Can you please tell the court your address?’ And he gave an address in Soweto. Instantly, if the room wasn’t already charged, everyone was completely wide-eyed now.

“And then I said, ‘Can you please explain to the court what apartheid is?’. And away he went. He must have spoken for 20 minutes. It was absolutely stunning. You could have heard a pin drop.”

He says that after Tutu had finished, neither he nor the prosecution could think of any more questions.

“As Bishop Tutu stepped out of the dock, all 11 defendants, we all stood up.  Then our lawyers stood up, then the public, the warders from Mount Eden, the police stood up, then the jury stood up.  Half of them were in tears. I f was one of those moments.” 

Archbishop Tutu said he ever really only preached one sermon.  That every person, ever born, was made in the image of God and is loved by God.  All are God’s children, and therefore brothers and sisters to each other.  This is the light of the Gospel.

In his words:

“I’ve always preached one sermon.  And I thought I was preaching it for black people and discovered actually when I went back home that, in an incredible kind of way, the people who perhaps more than others needed to hear that they mattered to God were white people.  Because they, in a remarkable way, have come to think that their worth was extrinsic. It depended on the kind of car you had, the size of your house.  And you said to them, ‘no, no, no, no.  Your worth is intrinsic.  It doesn’t depend on status.  It doesn’t depend on race.  It doesn’t depend on anything. It’s given.

I wonder what is the one sermon I preach?  Or the one sermon each of you preach?  The thing that you really think matters above all else?

I heard Tutu give that sermon in 1982 in Vancouver, Canada, at the World Council of Churches Assembly.  Physically he was a wee wisp of a man, but in charisma he was a giant.  At the Assembly he was among many brilliant scholars and leaders.  He was not the most profound.  But he spoke from his apartheid context where hate, resentment, and suffering could and did so easily reach out consume oppressors and victims.  “Hope” he said, “is being able to see there is light despite all the darkness.”  And then he would speak of love, and wear the biggest grin.

He had the ability to laugh, giggle really at almost anything.  If he read, say, the Christmas story of the angels on the hillside singing to the shepherds and using titles for Caesar (like saviour and prince of peace), he would find this outrageously funny, burst into laughter, and you couldn’t help yourself but to smile and chuckle along with him.

Rowan Williams perceptively wrote that he had a theory, developed after he’d met Tutu a few times, that there are two kinds of egotists in the world.  He writes, “There are egotists that are so in love with themselves that they have no room for anyone else, and there are egotists that are so in love with themselves that they make it possible for everyone else to be in love with themselves.  They are at home in their own skins.  It doesn’t mean that they are arrogant or self-obsessed or think they are faultless.  They have learned to sense some of the joy God takes in them.  And in that sense Desmond Tutu manifestly loves being Desmond Tutu; there’s no doubt about that.  But the effect of that is not me feel frozen or shrunk; it makes me feel that just possibly, by God’s infinite grace, I could one day love being Rowan Williams in the way that Desmond Tutu loves being Desmond Tutu.”

In 1948, when the apartheid regime was voted into office in South Africa, Desmond Tutu was 17.  It was not until the late 1960s, as the future Anglican archbishop of Cape Town approached 40, that the concept of black liberation caused him to widen his horizons, and it was only in the mid-1970s that he aligned himself with the liberation struggle.

Tutu was born in a predominantly Afrikaner farming town 100 miles south-west of Johannesburg.  His father was headteacher of the local Methodist primary school. His mother was a domestic servant.  The children were all given both European and African names and spoke five languages.  At the age of 14 he contracted TB and over the course of 20 months in hospital he developed a lifelong friendship with Father Trevor Huddleston, the Anglican missionary priest from Britain who, as one of the most prominent opponents of apartheid inside and outside South Africa, became his religious inspiration and mentor.

Tutu obtained a teaching diploma in 1953 and a BA degree by correspondence a year later.  He taught at high schools for three years around Johannesburg (1954) before beginning training for ministry.  He was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1961 and he served in an African township.

His entry into the liberation struggle followed the years he spent abroad.  From 1962 until 1966 he was in London, where he studied for a master’s in theology, and worked as an assistant minister in two parishes.  He returned home to a theological teaching position.  In 1972 he left again for a three-year position with the World Council of Churches.  He was appointed the Dean of Johannesburg in 1975.  The next year he was elected and ordained to be bishop of Lesotho, returning to Johannesburg in 1978 to take up the high-profile post of general secretary of the South African Council of Churches.

That appointment he was now in the thick of it.  By March 1978 the South African Council of Churches was becoming a microcosm of a future, non-racial South Africa.  It was a persistent thorn in the government’s side.  It also drew on and gained the support of many Christians worldwide.

Tutu in his irrepressible style aired his own opinions, sometimes provocatively, on world affairs.  He blasted the Soviet puppet regime in Afghanistan and, simultaneously, the US for supporting the Contras in Nicaragua and Israel for bombing Beirut.  In 1979, on a visit to Denmark, he criticised that country’s purchase of South African coal, thereby signalling his support for sanctions.

At times, Tutu was the despair of his friends.  Once he said that if the Russians came to South Africa, they would be welcomed as liberators.  An associate sighed, “He had this habit of going over the top.”  Tutu’s support of international sanctions against South Africa caused a huge eruption among white people and also in his own church.  Some liberal white South Africans classified Tutu’s Nobel peace prize in 1984 as foreign interference.

Soon after receiving the Nobel peace prize, he left the SACC to become the first black bishop of Johannesburg (1985-86).  The electoral assembly of the diocese consisted of 214 delegates – all the clergy plus one layperson from each congregation.  The conservative, mostly white, clergy blocked Tutu, while the black clergy blocked the election of a white bishop.  Unable to deliver the required two-thirds majority, the assembly passed the decision to the synod of bishops, who chose Tutu.

In April 1986, Tutu was elected to the highest Anglican post in South Africa as archbishop of Cape Town, and that September was enthroned in St George’s Cathedral. 

Tutu continued to be a light in the political mire of South Africa.  Arrested for taking part in an illegal march, he was fined, imprisoned for a night and had his passport withdrawn.  When it was returned, he promptly visited the pope, whereupon his passport was temporarily withdrawn again.

Tutu, like Mandela, foresaw the inevitability of liberation.  Both knew that what ultimately mattered (at least for the transition from apartheid to non-racial rule) would be reconciliation among South Africa’s races.  Once the apartheid government accepted the inexorability of change, as it began to do in the ‘80s, demands for justice are replaced by demands for reconciliation.

With the release of Mandela in 1990 and the return of the ANC leaders from exile, Tutu withdrew to the wings.  But Mandela in 1995 invited him to take the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), with a mandate not to conduct Nuremberg-style trials, but to effect reconciliation by uncovering “gross violations of human rights” committed during the apartheid years – by all sides, including the ANC.  

The TRC delivered its final five-volume report to Mandela in November 1998. By then Tutu had been receiving treatment in the US for prostate cancer.  His illness had a profound effect, making him consciously savour his remaining years and turn away from public life, towards his God and his family.

The TRC – the climax of Tutu’s career – was both praised and disparaged.  Historians will long debate what it achieved.  It could have investigated an estimated 100,000 violations of human rights, protracting the hearings endlessly, but it focused on the worst cases, finding time to listen to apologies and semi-apologies from the business community, the media, churches and others.  Tutu himself said that many former white leaders had lied in their testimony.  He also accused the ANC of committing human rights abuses.  For a man of courage like Tutu it was probably his most harrowing time.

Yet he did not refrain from continuing to speak his mind on many issues in the years after – on Palestine and Israel, on Assisted Dying, on Queer Rights.

I conclude with his words:

“We are made for goodness.  We are made for love.  We are made for friendliness.  We are made for togetherness.  We are made for all of the beautiful things that you and I know.  We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders.   All are welcome: black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay, straight, all, all, all.  We all belong to this family, this human family, God’s family”.

Rest In Peace Desmond, we are richer for your coming, and poorer for your going.

Desmond Tutu – a light in our times

Glynn Cardy 2nd January 2022

This last week Desmond Tutu died.

Hone Harawira tells a story of a trial of Harawira and other anti-tour protestors here in Auckland:

“The day before my court date,” he said.  “I’m sitting out the back in the cells thinking ‘jeez, what am I gonna do?’  Then the brain wave came to me.  Bishop Desmond Tutu had been invited over by the Anglican church to come and do a speaking tour. Interest was still very high in apartheid South Africa.  My mum knew George and Jocelyn Armstrong, who were part of the organisation that brought him over.

“So, I rang my mum and said look, I want Bishop Tutu as a witness.”

The next day Harawira and 10 others prepared to stand trial.

When the time came for him to give his defence, his star witness wasn’t there. “I read my statement. I’d come to the very end and I was dragging it out. Then the door burst open, and someone looked at me with a big smile and just nodded and I knew then. So, I asked the judge: ‘Can you please call my witness?’”

Harawira still laughs at the memory of the stunned faces of the judge, prosecution and jury as Desmond Tutu, in his signature dark suit and purple cleric’s shirt, walked into the courtroom.

“So, he takes the stand and I go, ‘Could you please tell the court your name?’ And then I said, ‘Can you please tell the court your address?’ And he gave an address in Soweto. Instantly, if the room wasn’t already charged, everyone was completely wide-eyed now.

“And then I said, ‘Can you please explain to the court what apartheid is?’. And away he went. He must have spoken for 20 minutes. It was absolutely stunning. You could have heard a pin drop.”

He says that after Tutu had finished, neither he nor the prosecution could think of any more questions.

“As Bishop Tutu stepped out of the dock, all 11 defendants, we all stood up.  Then our lawyers stood up, then the public, the warders from Mount Eden, the police stood up, then the jury stood up.  Half of them were in tears. I f was one of those moments.” 

Archbishop Tutu said he ever really only preached one sermon.  That every person, ever born, was made in the image of God and is loved by God.  All are God’s children, and therefore brothers and sisters to each other.  This is the light of the Gospel.

In his words:

“I’ve always preached one sermon.  And I thought I was preaching it for black people and discovered actually when I went back home that, in an incredible kind of way, the people who perhaps more than others needed to hear that they mattered to God were white people.  Because they, in a remarkable way, have come to think that their worth was extrinsic. It depended on the kind of car you had, the size of your house.  And you said to them, ‘no, no, no, no.  Your worth is intrinsic.  It doesn’t depend on status.  It doesn’t depend on race.  It doesn’t depend on anything. It’s given.

I wonder what is the one sermon I preach?  Or the one sermon each of you preach?  The thing that you really think matters above all else?

I heard Tutu give that sermon in 1982 in Vancouver, Canada, at the World Council of Churches Assembly.  Physically he was a wee wisp of a man, but in charisma he was a giant.  At the Assembly he was among many brilliant scholars and leaders.  He was not the most profound.  But he spoke from his apartheid context where hate, resentment, and suffering could and did so easily reach out consume oppressors and victims.  “Hope” he said, “is being able to see there is light despite all the darkness.”  And then he would speak of love, and wear the biggest grin.

He had the ability to laugh, giggle really at almost anything.  If he read, say, the Christmas story of the angels on the hillside singing to the shepherds and using titles for Caesar (like saviour and prince of peace), he would find this outrageously funny, burst into laughter, and you couldn’t help yourself but to smile and chuckle along with him.

Rowan Williams perceptively wrote that he had a theory, developed after he’d met Tutu a few times, that there are two kinds of egotists in the world.  He writes, “There are egotists that are so in love with themselves that they have no room for anyone else, and there are egotists that are so in love with themselves that they make it possible for everyone else to be in love with themselves.  They are at home in their own skins.  It doesn’t mean that they are arrogant or self-obsessed or think they are faultless.  They have learned to sense some of the joy God takes in them.  And in that sense Desmond Tutu manifestly loves being Desmond Tutu; there’s no doubt about that.  But the effect of that is not me feel frozen or shrunk; it makes me feel that just possibly, by God’s infinite grace, I could one day love being Rowan Williams in the way that Desmond Tutu loves being Desmond Tutu.”

In 1948, when the apartheid regime was voted into office in South Africa, Desmond Tutu was 17.  It was not until the late 1960s, as the future Anglican archbishop of Cape Town approached 40, that the concept of black liberation caused him to widen his horizons, and it was only in the mid-1970s that he aligned himself with the liberation struggle.

Tutu was born in a predominantly Afrikaner farming town 100 miles south-west of Johannesburg.  His father was headteacher of the local Methodist primary school. His mother was a domestic servant.  The children were all given both European and African names and spoke five languages.  At the age of 14 he contracted TB and over the course of 20 months in hospital he developed a lifelong friendship with Father Trevor Huddleston, the Anglican missionary priest from Britain who, as one of the most prominent opponents of apartheid inside and outside South Africa, became his religious inspiration and mentor.

Tutu obtained a teaching diploma in 1953 and a BA degree by correspondence a year later.  He taught at high schools for three years around Johannesburg (1954) before beginning training for ministry.  He was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1961 and he served in an African township.

His entry into the liberation struggle followed the years he spent abroad.  From 1962 until 1966 he was in London, where he studied for a master’s in theology, and worked as an assistant minister in two parishes.  He returned home to a theological teaching position.  In 1972 he left again for a three-year position with the World Council of Churches.  He was appointed the Dean of Johannesburg in 1975.  The next year he was elected and ordained to be bishop of Lesotho, returning to Johannesburg in 1978 to take up the high-profile post of general secretary of the South African Council of Churches.

That appointment he was now in the thick of it.  By March 1978 the South African Council of Churches was becoming a microcosm of a future, non-racial South Africa.  It was a persistent thorn in the government’s side.  It also drew on and gained the support of many Christians worldwide.

Tutu in his irrepressible style aired his own opinions, sometimes provocatively, on world affairs.  He blasted the Soviet puppet regime in Afghanistan and, simultaneously, the US for supporting the Contras in Nicaragua and Israel for bombing Beirut.  In 1979, on a visit to Denmark, he criticised that country’s purchase of South African coal, thereby signalling his support for sanctions.

At times, Tutu was the despair of his friends.  Once he said that if the Russians came to South Africa, they would be welcomed as liberators.  An associate sighed, “He had this habit of going over the top.”  Tutu’s support of international sanctions against South Africa caused a huge eruption among white people and also in his own church.  Some liberal white South Africans classified Tutu’s Nobel peace prize in 1984 as foreign interference.

Soon after receiving the Nobel peace prize, he left the SACC to become the first black bishop of Johannesburg (1985-86).  The electoral assembly of the diocese consisted of 214 delegates – all the clergy plus one layperson from each congregation.  The conservative, mostly white, clergy blocked Tutu, while the black clergy blocked the election of a white bishop.  Unable to deliver the required two-thirds majority, the assembly passed the decision to the synod of bishops, who chose Tutu.

In April 1986, Tutu was elected to the highest Anglican post in South Africa as archbishop of Cape Town, and that September was enthroned in St George’s Cathedral. 

Tutu continued to be a light in the political mire of South Africa.  Arrested for taking part in an illegal march, he was fined, imprisoned for a night and had his passport withdrawn.  When it was returned, he promptly visited the pope, whereupon his passport was temporarily withdrawn again.

Tutu, like Mandela, foresaw the inevitability of liberation.  Both knew that what ultimately mattered (at least for the transition from apartheid to non-racial rule) would be reconciliation among South Africa’s races.  Once the apartheid government accepted the inexorability of change, as it began to do in the ‘80s, demands for justice are replaced by demands for reconciliation.

With the release of Mandela in 1990 and the return of the ANC leaders from exile, Tutu withdrew to the wings.  But Mandela in 1995 invited him to take the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), with a mandate not to conduct Nuremberg-style trials, but to effect reconciliation by uncovering “gross violations of human rights” committed during the apartheid years – by all sides, including the ANC.  

The TRC delivered its final five-volume report to Mandela in November 1998. By then Tutu had been receiving treatment in the US for prostate cancer.  His illness had a profound effect, making him consciously savour his remaining years and turn away from public life, towards his God and his family.

The TRC – the climax of Tutu’s career – was both praised and disparaged.  Historians will long debate what it achieved.  It could have investigated an estimated 100,000 violations of human rights, protracting the hearings endlessly, but it focused on the worst cases, finding time to listen to apologies and semi-apologies from the business community, the media, churches and others.  Tutu himself said that many former white leaders had lied in their testimony.  He also accused the ANC of committing human rights abuses.  For a man of courage like Tutu it was probably his most harrowing time.

Yet he did not refrain from continuing to speak his mind on many issues in the years after – on Palestine and Israel, on Assisted Dying, on Queer Rights.

I conclude with his words:

“We are made for goodness.  We are made for love.  We are made for friendliness.  We are made for togetherness.  We are made for all of the beautiful things that you and I know.  We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders.   All are welcome: black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay, straight, all, all, all.  We all belong to this family, this human family, God’s family”.

Rest In Peace Desmond, we are richer for your coming, and poorer for your going.