Born: October 7, 1931
Desmond Tutu is perhaps one of the most famous prelates of the 20th century. His elevation to the position as the first black Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, in 1986 placed him directly on center stage in the fight against apartheid, a fight he had been involved with for more than a decade. Once Apartheid was defeated, South Africa’s first democratically elected black president, Nelson Mandela, selected Desmond Tutu to head the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As president of this commission, Desmond Tutu’s life-work of promoting the rights of the disenfranchised according to the Christian values he embraced reached its apex. What prepared and sustained this great religious leader spiritually for the task that providence prepared for him?
One secret was revealed by Egil Aarvik when he presented Tutu with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. Aavik said: “‘One day,’ says Tutu, ‘I was standing in the street with my mother when a white man in a priest’s clothing walked past. As he passed us he took off his hat to my mother. I couldn’t believe my eyes — a white man who greeted a black working class woman!’ When Tutu has in later years been asked why he doesn’t hate whites, he usually replies that it is because he was fortunate in the whites he met when young.” Tutu chose to allow the seeds of love to impregnate and motivate him, rather than the seeds of evil and hate.
Tutu describes his spiritual routine in No Future Without Forgiveness. I found it fascinating that he did not break this routine even on that fateful April 27, 1994, when for the first time blacks could vote in South Africa. “As always,” he writes, “I had got up early for a quiet time before my morning walk and then morning prayers and the Eucharist” (emphasis added). These four things were as important to him as eating. He was faithful to this routine even on the most important days of his life.
Tutu’s inspiration comes from his faith and Sacred Scripture. He admitted once that his faith is what kept him going when he was tempted to give up. And it was in Sacred Scripture that he found the inspiration he needed to address Apartheid. There he found a God who does not tolerate worship from someone who does not love every neighbor, no exceptions included. It is through Sacred Scripture that Tutu interprets and finds meaning in events that he and his country lived through. For example, one question he raised was why a peaceful vote and transition to a black president in South Africa happened when it did, when everyone was predicting a bloody transition based on the violent Apartheid era. He turns to Scripture for a reason, quoting Galatians 4:4: “In the fullness of time God sent his son.” This phrase helped Tutu realize that many people and nations had contributed what was necessary for a peaceful transition to take place at exactly the moment that it did.
An enviable trait about Tutu is that he knows who he is. As President of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a role that had to take into consideration the racial and religious diversity of South Africa, Tutu remained outspokenly Christian. “Very few people objected to the heavy spiritual and indeed Christian religious emphasis of the commission. When I was challenged on it by journalists, I told them I was a religious leader and had been chosen as who I was… I operated as who I was and that was accepted by the commission. It meant that theological and religious insights and perspectives would inform much of what we did and how we did it.”
A phrase used to describe Tutu is “moral conscience of South Africa.” He continues speaking out on behalf of the disenfranchised and at times is heavily critical of his own government. Desmond Tutu is a refreshing voice in the desert of apathy toward the plight of those who have no voice. Like John the Baptist, another voice in the wilderness, Tutu’s inspiration is rooted in God who “does not give up on anyone, for God loved us from all eternity, God loves us now and God will always love us, all of us good and bad… When I realize that deep love God has for me, I will strive for love’s sake to do what pleases my Lover.”