Archbishop Desmond Tutu — outspoken critic of apartheid, teacher, author, lecturer, Nobel Prize winner, former Archbishop of Cape Town, and Archbishop Emeritus of South Africa — passed in Cape Town on the day after Christmas in 2021. A man of great vision, deep spirituality, sophisticated thinking, and infectious joy, he’s often compared to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandi. But Tutu took issue with those comparisons, once joking that he won the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize mostly because the committee was looking for an anti-apartheid figure whose last name was easy to pronounce.
Desmond Tutu received the Martin Luther King Jr Award for Non-Violence in 1986 for his commitment and role during the struggle against apartheid. Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” But he also understood the need for forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not just an altruistic act, but one born of self-interest. Forgiveness helps give people the resilience to survive and remain human in the face of all efforts to dehumanise them.
On this MLK Weekend, I want to celebrate the life of Archbishop Tutu and consider his thoughts on hope and love, humor, the religious aspect of voting, and the moral potential of surprise. Many of those thoughts arose during an interview Tutu held with journalist Krista Tippett in 2010.
Hope and love
After her interview, Tippett spoke about the value of people who remind us that love is not the softest force but often the fiercest and is, in fact, “able to shift the world on its axis from time to time.” Tutu had this to say about hope and love:
(I)f you are devoid of hope, then roll over and disappear quietly. Hope says, Man, hey, things can, things will be better, because God has intended for it to be so. … At no point will evil and injustice and oppression and all of the negative things have the last word. And, yes, there’s no question about the reality of evil, of injustice, of suffering. But, you know, at the center of this existence is a heart beating with love … we are, as a matter of fact, made for goodness.
Tutu saw struggles for freedom as more than just wanting to change the complexion of those sitting in the capitol. “It was to change the quality of our community, society.” Those pushing for change wanted to see a compassionate, caring, loving society, a society where you might not be rich, but “you knew that you counted.”
In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Tutu was asked how he learned to use humor in leadership.
I have a family that likes pulling people’s legs. They can be very funny. When you have to survive in that environment, you have to be pretty sharp yourself. In South Africa we became experts at conducting funerals, and people were angry and hurt over the mistreatment. But we also had this wonderful capacity to laugh. If we hadn’t, we would have gone crazy. … I’m also aware that I was constantly being prayed for. There were times when I’d say something unrehearsed that surprised me, and I’d wonder, “Did I really say that? That was pretty smart.” But it couldn’t have just come spontaneously. Looking back, I have no doubt that some dear old ladies were kneeling down at Eucharist somewhere, praying to help the people struggling in South Africa.”
Tutu then displayed that well-known humor when Tippett asked him — given all the bad things that continued to happen in South Africa — how he could describe this as a moral universe where God is in charge. He laughed and said, “Well, I mean, you must add that I’ve sometimes said to God, it would be nice for you to make it slightly more obvious that you’re in charge.”
Voting as a religious act
This weekend we are in a fierce debate about who gets to vote, an issue where Dr. King gave his life attempting to open the vote to all. Archbishop Tutu was 63 years old before he was able to cast his first vote in South Africa, and when he was asked about how it felt, he spoke about it in a way that raises the issue into a different context that should make us all pause.
How do you describe falling in love? [laughs] I mean, people asked then, when we voted for the first time. It was an incredible experience. For you, going to the ballot box is really a political act. For us, it was a religious act. It was a spiritual experience, because you walked into the polling booth one person, with all of the history of oppression and injustice, and all the baggage that we were carrying. And you walk, and you make your mark, and you put the ballot into the box, and you emerge on the other side. And you are a different person: you are transfigured. Now you actually count in your own country.
The moral potential of surprise
A readiness to be surprised is a move of character. There is so much uncertainty and fear, and — as Tippett notes — this environment “activates our bodies and minds towards rigid views of enemies and threats and obstacles — and possibilities.”
Desmond Tutu believed in a god of surprises. He believed in a world in which improbably surprising turns of events are a given. And he believed that we can never, in this world, communicate the true nature of God.
Do you really think that God would say, “Dalai Lama, you really are a great guy, man. What a shame you’re not a Christian”? [laughs] I somehow don’t think so. I think God is just thrilled, because no faith, not even the Christian faith, can ever encompass God or even be able to communicate who God is. Only God can do that.
As Krista Tippett wrote in her appreciation, “when Desmond Tutu tells you something about God — whatever and whoever you imagine God to be — you believe him.”
With thanksgiving for the lives of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
More to come…
NOTE: As the country celebrates the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, my posts this week focus on various aspects of understanding, justice, tolerance, love, and reconciliation with the hope they may be useful as we each take our own journeys to create the beloved community.
Image: Archbishop Desmond Tutu (credit: Washington National Cathedral)