DESMOND TUTU

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
   because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
   to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
   and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
   and the day of vengeance of our God;
   to comfort all who mourn;

[Isaiah 61:1-2 New Revised Standard Version]
The Rev. Terrance Jacob

My dear friend and trusted colleague, the Rev. Terrance Jacob, is from South Africa. In 2016, I was blessed to travel to South Africa with him when he was Director for Evangelical Mission for the Northeastern Ohio Synod, and I was the synod Bishop. It was a memorable trip which gave me valuable insights into the country of his birth. He was the perfect guide.

I thought about our trip on Sunday morning when I heard the news of the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a champion in the struggle against the evils of Apartheid, and the embodiment of hope for the liberation of the oppressed people of that nation.

As the tributes continue to pour in, I sought out Pastor Jacob for some of his reflections. As a young man, he, too, was active in the struggle for racial justice and spent time in prison for that activism. Tutu was his source of strength and courage.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Two simple memories stood out for him. “When I was twenty-three,” Jacob said, “he advised me to spend personal time in prayer BEFORE my activism!”

Then at age 32, Pastor Jacob sent “the Arch,” as he is fondly known to South Africans, a thank you letter, to which Tutu replied with a thank you letter of his own.

“Thank you, Rev. Terrance Jacob, for your kind ‘thank you’ letter.”

It is that sort of humility that endeared him to millions of his compatriots, although to others, he was regarded as “public enemy number one.”

My closest connection with Archbishop Tutu came in 2002, when he gave a lecture at Mount Union College (now the University of Mount Union) in Alliance, Ohio. I was in the audience for that lecture and hung on to the man’s every word.

He spoke of God’s radical love and acceptance of all humankind, no matter one’s status. We are created in God’s image, and we have infinite value. That is gospel.

While I don’t remember everything he said word for word, in the midst of that speech he made one statement that made me sit up and pay attention.

“Remember that God loves…Saddam Hussein!”

I confess that my finite human brain couldn’t conceive of such an idea that even our worst enemies are God’s beloved children.[1]

Keep in mind, this was a few months after 9/11 and America was seething from that devastating attack. US troops had just invaded Afghanistan and President George W. Bush was beginning to develop the case for an assault against Iraq.

The shock of Archbishop Tutu’s declaration sent me scurrying to read more about this man who, up to that time, was a figure about whom I knew truly little beyond what I’d read in newspapers.

To my surprise, the theme of God’s love is a staple of all his writings. It is his default position. Page after page is a variation of the same refrain.

My Desmond Tutu book collection

I have read four of his books and even now I wish I had read more. Tutu writes for the average reader. The bulk of the content is a collection of his sermons and speeches, so these are not abstract theological treatises, but real-life applications of the Gospel to actually lived experiences. My goal now is to re-read these and immerse myself into the essence of this courageous man of God, who inspired a nation and its people to strive for justice and convicted the conscience of its oppressors.

Over the next several weeks, social media sites will be awash in quotes from those who find it fashionable to do such things, because that is what social media does best.

We quote the liberators because it is trendy. And in our mind, it absolves us of the guilt of our unwillingness to take the risk.

May I suggest that the best way to honor the memory of this sainted servant is to actually attempt to live out the gospel. I can guarantee you it won’t be easy. Living the life of service to one who went to the cross is not meant to be easy.

After the fall of Apartheid, Tutu was instrumental in establishing South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was an unprecedented attempt at healing the nation by having the oppressors confess to the atrocities they committed against Black people in South Africa, then hearing words of forgiveness from those who were oppressed.

It was a monumental achievement, but one that was not without its detractors.

It was during those hearings that Archbishop Tutu learned that he had prostate cancer, an illness he would battle for a quarter of a century until succumbing to it last week. He reflected on the experience in the final pages of his book, No Future Without Forgiveness:

“It helped me to acknowledge my own mortality, with deep thanksgiving for the extraordinary things that have happened in my life, not least in recent times…Yes, I have been greatly privileged to engage in the work of helping to heal our nation. But it has been a costly privilege for those of us on the commission and I have come to realize that perhaps we were effective only to the extent that we were, in Henri Nouwen’s celebrated phrase, ‘wounded healers.’”[2]

We give thanks to God for the life of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and we pray that his example may be a wellspring of hope for us, inspiring us to live a life that exemplifies God’s goodness.

+ + +


[I] Tutu, Desmond and Tutu, Mpho. Made for Goodness. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010. p. 134

[2] Tutu, Desmond. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Doubleday, 1999. p. 287

Published by pastorallende

Retired Bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Social justice and immigration reform advocate. Micah 6:8. Fluent in English and Spanish. I enjoy music and sports.

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