Desmond Tutu: why his life is an example to us
Along a corridor, lined on each side with menacing notices and schedules, I noticed a diminutive youngish black man taking some notes of lecture times. I asked him if I could help. He answered that he couldn’t quite make out some of the handwriting on the board. When he added that he was doing his Masters in Theology, I rather lamely asked him why I hadn’t seen him at any social occasions. He gave a cackling laugh and smiled at me saying that, apart from his studies, he had only time for his family and the work of anti-apartheid in London. We were in the Theological Faculty of King’s College, London when I was ordinand in the 1960s.
If you haven’t guessed already, this little man was in fact an ordained Anglican Priest from South Africa – Desmond Tutu. Not that I can claim that I saw much of him in those years. Of course, he didn’t become famous until several years later. We never know who we might be talking to. And now, dear Desmond has died, making sure in his plans that his funeral would be as simple, ecological and inexpensive as possible. That’s worth bearing in mind. An example indeed.
Desmond Tutu, on his return to South Africa, was regarded by many as a highly politicised priest; called by his opponents ‘Rabble-rouser’. I’m not sure how a priest [or bishop!] can be anything else but political, as Christianity is about living among those who are suffering or disenfranchised and exposing the forces that create and maintain poverty and division, racial or otherwise. However, Desmond Tutu, who eventually became an Archbishop [‘The Arch’, as he was known], borrowed an insight from Mother Teresa of Calcutta, when she answered a question about whether she was politically involved. Her reply was a definitive ‘No!’, but then added: ‘The Christian must not be caught up in politics but go even deeper than politics can ever go – into the struggle for the truth of God’s Love in this present moment and the essential and pain-staking work of reconciling of those who may appear irreconcilable.’
Forgiveness can take even more than a life-time
This perspective, which guided Desmond Tutu meant that he was prepared to go into the middle of a riot, in his cassock [!] where a young black man was being beaten up by a mob of white students and rescue him. He’s best known for his intimate friendship with Nelson Mandela, from which arose Desmond Tutu’s presiding over what became known as the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission.’ This brought people of different races together, victims and oppressors to face the truth and the facts of injustice and to start the hard and long work of forgiveness.
It’s important to remember that the process was not about moving those who had been deeply hurt and their persecutors to being the best of friends. Forgiveness can take even more than a life-time! Even more, helping those who hurt others to want reconciliation is the hardest step to take. But this moment is the place to start, while you can. Tutu’s personality, laughter and animated conviction provided huge impetus for this work, based on his disciplined spiritual life, inspired as he was by St Francis of Assisi.
The slow work of reconciliation can heal
Perhaps you know of circumstances where friendship and intimacy have been lost through hurt and damaged relationships. Desmond Tutu’s life was an example as to how the slow work of reconciliation can heal, while living with the many failures [if they are failures!] along the road.
What I’ve noticed is that great and, yes, exemplary religious leaders laugh a lot – the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu…
May ‘The Arch’ be an example for you. If you want to know more, there’s a biography by John Allen: ‘Rabble-Rouser for Peace: The Biography of Desmond Tutu.’ Most of all, I have a sense that if gentle, gradual truth and reconciliation are going to happen in someone’s life, it needs to start now. Further, it seems to me this work is urgent!
You have my prayers,