The Lived Theology of Desmond Tutu
Peter Zylstra-Moore Third World Theology November 12, 2009
Dear Child of God, before we can become God’s partner’s, we must know what God wants for us. “I have a dream,” God says. “Please help Me to realize it.” It is a dream of a world whose ugliness and squalor and poverty, its war and hostility, it greed and harsh competitiveness, its alienation and disharmony are changed into their glorious counterparts, when there will be more laughter, joy, and peace, where there will be justice and goodness and compassion and love and caring and sharing. I have a dream that swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, that My children will know that they are member of one family, the human family, God’s family, My Family. In God’s family, there are no outsiders. All are insiders. Black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, Jew and Arab, Palestinian and Israeli, Roman Catholic and Protestant, Serb and Albanian, Hutu and Tutsi, Muslim and Christian, Buddhist and Hindu, Pakistani and Indian—all belong.1 (Desmond Tutu)
1 Tutu, Desmond, God has a Dream, 19-20
The last sermon I shared with my home church as a youth pastor was on homosexuality. It was a pointed sermon on both what I perceived as the sinful reality of homosexuality, but also on the church's call to love sinners. As I continued to seek God, I eventually began to question whether on this issue like other issues in Church history, from colonialism, to woman's rights, to civil rights most of the church, myself included were, when historically relevant, on the side of injustice. I began to resonate with the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: (The Christian Church is) “the greatest preserver of the status quo” , “one of the chief exponents of racial bigotry... I can conclude that the church, in its present state, is not the hope of the world. I believe that nothing has so persistently and effectively blocked the way of salvation as the church.”
As I read about how Jesus balanced traditions and their
authority, with the prescient social issues of his time, I came to study social leaders from both the first and third worlds and how they spoke to the issues affecting the developing world.3 I wanted to understand what it was about certain people’s faith (or beliefs) that allowed them to speak prophetically. This desire soon led me to the works of Desmond Tutu whom I quickly came to love. If the church is to become the hope of the world it must begin to listen to it's prophets, people like Desmond Tutu. This paper will look at Desmond Tutu’s liberating theology as demonstrated in his writing and in his actions, the varying influences contributing to his theological understandings and conclude by exploring what this means for the church. Theology For Tutu, faith and truth are discovered and nurtured through stillness and contemplation. Theology begins in contemplative prayer and meditation. “We can hear God's voice most clearly when we are quiet, uncluttered and undistracted—when we are still.”4 Tutu is often asked about the source of his joy and quickness to laugh, despite his real experiences of injustice. He replies that “I can honestly say that it comes from my spiritual life—and from
2 King Jr, Martin Luther, http://mlk-
kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/news/article/volume_vi_martin_luther_king_jr_questioned_issues _of_faith_new_volume_revea/ 3 I understand the third world loosely as those who are excluded in some way (economically, socially) from the first world (the accepted rights, power, etc) of the minority who hold power in our world. 4 Tutu, Desmond, Ibid 100.
specifically these times of stillness.”5 The importance of the contemplative life marked his influence on organizations he was involved in. While heading the South African Council of Churches (SACC), Tutu introduced to the staff compulsory prayers, regular Bible studies, monthly Eucharists, and silent retreats.6 Through contemplation Tutu has been led towards a clear and consistent picture of what “God's dream is for the world.” Tutu believes that we are called to transfigure the world towards God’s dream; a world where “there will be more laughter, joy, and peace, where there will be justice and goodness and compassion and love and caring and sharing.”7 The foundation of this dream is loving community. The basis for our ability to love comes from understanding and contemplating God’s unconditional love for us. It is through this knowledge that we are able to love ourselves and therefore others.8 Tutu actively sought to help his peers develop this self-love. A bishop described the impact of Tutu as General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches: “We bishops were encouraged to discover... the truth about ourselves ... the child within, the more feminine traits, the authentic person. Out of this emerged a leadership more free to acknowledge human frailty, to laugh or cry, not to take ourselves too seriously...(H)e brought a new and wholesome liberty into (our) lives.”9 Tutu's comfort with himself came from his understanding of God's unconditional love. This confidence allowed him to help others become comfortable with themselves. Tutu believes that with God's unconditional love, comes our need for God. As our capacity to love ourselves unconditionally grows, so does our capacity to love others. For Tutu, love requires freedom to choose, which has very real world consequences. It is Tutu's belief that though we are all capable of incredible evil comparable to the perpetrators of apartheid in South Africa or genocide in Rwanda, this is not the normal state of affairs. Following Ghandi, Tutu suggests that for every evil act, dozens of good acts go unnoticed. It is
5 Ibid 101 6 Allen, John, Rabble Rouser for Peace, 169. 7 Tutu, Desmond, pg 20 (This section will largely depend on what Tutu describes as “the
cumulative expression of my life's work” (pg IX)) 8 Ibid 29. 9 Ibid, 279.
because evil deeds are the exception that they are considered newsworthy.10 For Tutu, it is this incredible gap between the loving choices God wants us to make, and the evil we are capable of committing, which leads him to suggest that to be authentically human is to make such choices. This inherent choice at the very centre of humanity, despite setbacks, is the reason for Tutu that the universe is moving towards increasing freedom. Regimes and systems that extend certain peoples' freedoms over others' will ultimately fail. This is why, for Tutu, the political expansion of freedom is a religious experience. “Our elections turned out to be a spiritual, even a religious experience...People waited for a very long time...(in fact it became) a new status symbol.” The fact that their was no violence, or that people that had “known separation and apartheid for so long,” now stood in line, shared newspapers and stories together made the experience spiritual. “People entered the booth one person and emerged on the other side a totally different person...Yes, our first election turned out to be a deeply spiritual even, a religious experience, a transfiguration experience, a mountaintop experience.”11 For Tutu, freedom is not strictly in the North American sense of individual rights,12 but is intended and necessary as the basis for all authentic relationships, with God and with each other.13 For Tutu, God’s intention is not for an individualistic freedom but rather equal freedom of place for people within the context of relationships. The goal of freedom is to move the world towards God’s dream for it, to move it towards loving relationship. Thus for Tutu, leadership whether political or otherwise is meant to be democratic and consensus-building. As leader of the SACC, Tutu would often send arguing leaders away overnight to come to a shared compromise, rather than allowing for divisive votes.14 Internationally, he has “urged governments to negotiate (even) with those they regarded as terrorists.”15 The goal is not only justice but also relationship. 10 Ibid. 12-13
11 Tutu 6, 7.
12 Ibid 28. Tutu recognizes that the West has lost it’s notion of interdependence in becoming
a highly individualistic society. 13 Ibid. 13 14 Allen, John, 279. 15 Allen, John, 381.
At the basis of freedom is the goal of reciprocating the unconditional love of God. Tutu recognizes this love is bigger than our prejudices. If we understand the unconditional love of God, we also understand that “God's love is too great to be confined to any side of a conflict or to any religion. And our prejudices, regardless of whether they are based on religion, race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation or anything else, are absolutely and utterly ridiculous in God's eyes.”16 In fact, Tutu suggests “Our God is a God who has a bias for the weak, and we who worship this God... have no option but to have a like special concern for those who are pushed to the edges of society, for those who because they are different seem to have no voice.”17 Tutu has been incredibly prophetic in calling prejudices what they are whether they are prejudices directed at him as in the case of apartheid, or prejudices that are directed towards others. He was involved in pushing the South African Council of Churches to accept women in leadership positions. Tutu would eventually be a voice for attempting to change the South African Anglican Church's position from accepting celibate homosexuals to allowing homosexuals to consummate their love. Tutu suggested that “given the kind of treatment homosexuals get in society...it would be one of the most stupid things to say, 'That this is what they want to be.'” In apartheid blacks “were being blamed and made to suffer for something we could do nothing about. It is the same for homosexuality.” Therefore, “Why should we want all homosexual persons not to give expression to their sexuality in loving acts?” The end of injustice was not just passive in the sense of not actively violating someone else but active, in bringing to end pain and suffering. Tutu is able to praise the end of apartheid while criticizing the ANC for the way poverty has actually worsened in South Africa. His sense of right and wrong is grounded in the real world of suffering. This at times has placed Tutu in heated debates within the church, on issues such as contraception in response to the AIDS problem.18 Understanding God's unconditional love not only undermines our prejudices and calls us to repentance for them, but it also calls us to love
16 Ibid 43, 44. 17 Ibid 66 18 Allen, John 150.
those who have wronged us. Because God loves even our enemies, the goal must be restored loving relationships or reconciliation. The pathway for Tutu “is based on forgiveness, and forgiveness is based on true confession, and confession is based on penitence, on contrition, on sorrow for what you have done” “and reparation.”19 Of course reconciliation is a two-way street but it begins with an individual choosing to love (which does not necessarily mean like), and as we choose to “act lovingly you can begin to feel love.” Tutu suggests that our ability to love comes from our recognition that we are or could be “the aggressor rather than the victim” and are “all flawed.”20 This humility leads to generosity in the recognition that what we have is not earned outside the support of our community and nor is it individually ours. Pursuing the reconciling love of God called Tutu to at times work as a pastor, or General Secretary of the South African Council of Church's, or the Archbishop of Capetown. At other times it called him to get involved in healing South Africa's brokenness through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Africa. Tutu's own unconditional and reconciling love led him to love and to cry with both victims and oppressors as people sought reconciliation. For Tutu, the pathway to loving and restored relationships also involves active confrontation of injustice. In fact, because real relationships requires equality and freedom from guilt requires an end to injustice, the end of injustice is freeing for both the oppressor and oppressed because freedom is indivisible.21 Thus their is a need to end injustice. Tutu's active resistance to injustice was most often accomplished through non-violent active resistance. Though Tutu empathized with violent responses to the injustice of apartheid, he condemned violence on either side of the apartheid struggle. Tutu's nonviolence was an active non-violence that directly condemned, protested, and deliberately disregarded and disobeyed apartheid laws, and called for the world community to disinvest and sanction Apartheid South Africa.22 For Tutu, non-violent resistance is a more peaceful means to accomplish a goal, is often more realistic in accomplishing it's goals, and is very often the only way
19 Tutu, 53,57 20 Ibid 81 21 Ibid, 7 22 Allen, John, 174.
resistance can avoid perpetrating a greater injustice than that which it opposes. For Tutu this does not mean that violence is never warranted in opposing injustice but rather that most of the time it is unwarranted.23 Tutu has since called for support to similar disinvestment and sanctions towards Israel, and called for non-violent active resistance by Palestinians in response to the expansion of settlements into the UN recognized Palestine and also more recently in response to the Gaza Massacre.24 Because for Tutu, the goal is loving relationships, the pathway towards that goal is also relational. It is not just God working, but God working through his people. God needs us. God is in the world transfiguring it towards freedom, familial relationship25, and love, and in this he actually needs our help.26 We continue to hear God’s dream through prophets throughout history, through Jesus, and today from great leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Tutu learned about God and his dream not only through meditation but also from his experiences of God in others. Tutu’s Theological Influences: Tutu’s is strongly influenced by the Bible, African expressions of Spirituality (Christian and traditional), Black liberation theology, historical experiences of God, and through people. These influences all interact relationally with each other, because for Tutu, no person or tradition could sum up an omniscient God. Similarly, no person or tradition could be completely opposed to God. This is not to suggest that Tutu does not hold strong definitions of truth, but rather that we, and our traditions at times reflect and other times fail to reflect God. Spirituality is discovered through the living presence of God in all persons and traditions. For Tutu it is equally important that theology be contextual. People should not take theology and questions from one setting and carry them into very different settings with very different questions. Instead we must seek to contextualize theology to answer “the all consuming questions.” Thus theological importance is synonymous with social and practical relevance.
23 Allen, John. Pg 174, 212. 24 About Desmond and Leah Tutu, http://www.tutu.org/bio-desmond-tutu.php
25 See initial quote, and see also Tutu, 20, 25 26 Ibid 15
Tutu sees scriptures as incredibly socially relevant. He consistently uses the language and stories of scriptures to communicate spiritual truths. But more than just language, he sees God as active in scriptures in speaking to injustice, and in reconciling and transfiguring brokenness. Tutu sees the God of the Bible, of the Exodus, and the God of Jesus as “a God of justice and liberation and goodness.”27 It is this understanding of God which he understands personally, and sees reflected in much of the Bible which also allows Tutu to criticize scriptures as well. Part of this criticism is directed at interpretations of scriptures that “focus on concrete images of God and on overly literal readings of the Bible.” For instance for Tutu, Jesus' resurrection is “not (about) the revivification of a corpse” but rather the reality “that Jesus Christ is risen”, that he is “accessible to me” and continues “to make a difference to me.”28 Part of Tutu's criticism is directed toward scripture itself; and how Christians fail to recognize that “it was written by human beings” and is “not something dropped from heaven, written by the hand of God.” Thus Tutu can allow the Spirit of God to criticize “the parts of the Bible that have no permanent worth.”29 One of Tutu’s social theological influences is African theology. Tutu believes that one question Africans needed to answer was how to “replace an alien, imported way of expressing their faith with one that was authentically African.” Tutu responded critically to the aspect of missionary activity that forced Africans to condemn “virtually all things African(...). (E)ven(...) their beautiful African names were considered heathen.”30 Tutu sees how African Christians are“shuttling back and forth between worlds, during the day being respectable western-type Christians and at night consulting traditional doctors.”31 Tutu stands with African traditions in suggesting that the west has lost something in our overemphasis on individuality. We have lost our link to
27 Allen, John. 164. 28 Tutu, Desmond, 107 29 Ibid 106
30 Allen, John, pg 136. 31 Ibid.
our community, and our ancestors: Humanity “is linked backwards to the ancestors whom he reveres and forward with all generations yet unborn.”32 One of Tutu’s most common references to African spirituality is the Bantu concept of ubuntu. Ubuntu recognizes that the essence of being a person is, “that we are people through other people... (and) (t)hat we can’t be fully human alone. God keeps trying to make us realize that we are made for interdependence, we are made for family...(for) embrace... generous(ity)...compassion.” He suggests if we truly embraced ubuntu, war, oppression and inequality would quickly end.33 Tutu’s social theology was also influenced by black liberation theology. The second most important question Tutu sees facing African Christians is “how to liberate people from bondage.” Thus he sees the need to integrate African and black theology. Tutu says, “I fear that African theology has failed to produce a sufficiently sharp cutting edge... Very little has been offered that is pertinent, say, about the theology of power in the face of the epidemic of coups and military rule, about development, about poverty.” In the same way that African Christianity needs to be discovered through African spirituality, ‘black’ empowerment needed to come from black theology. Tutu wrote, (M)ost reactions to blackness are negative ones. This borne out to a great degree by language... a rotten mood... (is a) black mood, the bad exception is the black sheep... (G)ood angels are white, the devil and his angels are black...black... (means) death, ... white...life... (I)t is not long before... a black person wonders whether you are not as they depict you... The term “black” has been quite deliberately adopted so that we can describe ourselves positively. It is an assertion of our personhood, our identity in its own right, not (against) ... anyone else. We have to say it over and over again... until we believe it... We matter, we are alive and kicking and black is beautiful... Black theology is an engaged not academic, detached theology... relating to real concerns... Black theology... is to ask whose side is God; it is to be concerned about the humanization of man, because those who ravage our humanity dehumanize themselves in the process... It is a clarion call for man to align himself with God who is the God of the Exodus, God the liberator, who leads his people, all his 32 Ibid. 137 33 Rodger, Ann, A Grand Reception for Archbishop Tutu,
people, out of all kinds of bondage-political, economic, cultural, the bondage of sin and disease, into the glorious liberty of the (per)sons of God.”34 Tutu is influenced and sees the need for “African Christians” to be influenced by theologies that are their own, and that speak clearly and ethically to racism and abuses of power. Tutu suggest that “all of God’s Children and their different faiths help us to realize the immensity of God,” that we learn about the social theology of God from learning to see him in everyone even those who do not “believe in God.” This is why Tutu was so inspired by the prophets of his time, in Ghandi and then Martin Luther King Jr, in determining what non-violent direct action might look like against apartheid. This is also why Tutu says that the agnostic Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist leader through his patience and love despite exile for nearly 50 years is the image of God. “Although others would be embittered, the Dalai Lama is filled with ‘bubbly joyousness’. ‘You have to be totally, totally insensitive not to know you are in the presence of someone who is holy and good.’” He suggests that God cannot therefore be understood fully in any person or religion, nor does any person or religion fail in any way to somewhat reflect God: You do not have to believe in God to know that stealing is bad... (In fact) all of us are fundamentally good. The aberration is the bad person. God is not upset that Gandhi was not a Christian, because God is not a Christian. All of God's children and their different faiths help us to realize the immensity of God. No faith contains the whole truth about God. And certainly Christians don't have a corner on God. All of us belong to God. Even the nonbeliever is precious to God.35 For Tutu, faith requires restoring the image of God and the inherent value of your self and your tradition, while learning from other people’s faith and tradition, in “realiz(ing) the immensity of God.” “Distinct world view(s) (are) not necessarily better or superior to those of other people. It is just different and needs to be balanced by those of other people.”36 34 Allen, John, pg 138-139. 35 Tutu, Desmond, Questions and Answer on Desmond Tutu's God Has a Dream,
http://www.godhasadream.com/media/Desmond_Tutu_Q_and_A.pdf 36 Tutu, Desmond, An African Prayer Book, pg XIV.
Conclusion Tutu's life cannot be understood outside of this simple theology which begins with a relational understanding of God, who loves us and who seeks for us to have free and loving relationships with Herself, and with each other. I believe that much of what allows Tutu to speak prophetically and consistently in a liberating manner is the way he understands God's unconditional love for him. In his struggle to liberate black South Africans this led Tutu to point them towards their own worth in themselves, and in their traditions. This required an understanding of authentic African spiritual traditions, and in their own expressions of Christianity, whether in American Black Theology or African Theology. Rooted in the Christian tradition, Tutu is obvious, that liberating one's own traditions does not mean a denial of real truth in other traditions. This is also apparent in his unapologetic support for biblical reconciliation through repentance, forgiveness and reparation. Tutu has not allowed his own situation of oppression to narrow his definitions of liberation to his own cause. Tutu manages to balance a strong respect for tradition with genuine questions of what justice looks like today. If the Christian church is going to move from being “the greatest supporter of the status quo” to a prominent voice for justice, it must begin by helping the marginalized love themselves and their histories. We need to relate with others equally. This requires a real intention to learn something new about God or truth through others, and genuinely engaging with them in our movement towards truth. This is more than a superficial affirmation that others may have something to teach us about our own traditions, rather it is recognition that there are profoundly new and beautiful things in the
incredible mix of people around us. Faith needs to be about seeking and questioning God, rather than defending our god. In the same way that most prophets, from the Old Testament, to Jesus, and also the many different reformers in church history, aligned themselves with the marginalized and were ostracized for it by the official Church (of their time), Tutu to the extent that his perspectives are actually known is a controversial figure. If the church is going to contribute to the realization of God's Dream it needs to begin learning from rather than stoning its' current prophets.
About Desmond and Leah Tutu, recovered November 10, 2009, http://www.tutu.org/bio-desmond-tutu.php Allen, John, Rabble-Rouser for Peace; the authorized biography of Desmond Tutu, Free Press, New York, 2006. King Jr, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King Jr, January 8, 2008, http://mlkkpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/news/article/volume_vi_martin_luther_king_jr_que stioned_issues_of_faith_new_volume_revea/ Rodger, Ann, A Grand Reception for Archbishop Tutu, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 26, 2007, http://www.postgazette.com/pg/07299/82862885.stm#ixzz0W7Gb00Kj Tutu, Desmond, An African Prayer Book, Doubleday, Toronto, 1995. Tutu, Desmond, God has a Dream, Doubleday, Toronto, 2004 Tutu, Desmond, No Future without Forgiveness, Rider, London, 1999 Tutu, Desmond, Questions and Answers for Desmond Tutu's God has a Dream, recovered November 8, 2009, http://www.godhasadream.com/media/Desmond_Tutu_Q_and_A.pdf Tutu, Desmond, The Rainbow People of God; The Making of a Peaceful Revolution, Doubleday, New York, 1994.