Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Advent Week IV: Joy


First of all, gentle readers, I apologize for apparently getting my advent weeks out of order. There are at least 2 historic Advent calendars, but I apparently conflated them and put Hope, Joy, Peace, and Love in an order no one uses. This is what happens when a Baptist (not a tradition known for liturgical correctness) tries to reflect on the ecumenical Christian calendar. I’ll work at doing better next year. ūüôā

But I am very happy to have Desmond Mpilo Tutu, retired Archbishop of Capetown in the Anglican Church of the Province of Southern Africa, as my witness to the Incarnation who represents Joy–even if I put Joy in the wrong week. ūüôā From the time I first became aware of Tutu (c. 1982), I noticed in him the great joy of Christian faith–even in the midst of nonviolent struggle against great oppression; even as the recipient of so much hate.¬† When the late (and, by me, unlamented) Jerry Falwell, acting at the prompting of the Reagan admin., denounced Tutu as a Communist and phony Christian, I was so horrified that I dared something I had never done: I wrote to both of them.¬† At the time, I was an unknown student at an unknown, small, conservative, Christian college–recently out of the U.S. Army with a conscientious objector discharge and trying to follow my calling to serve God wherever that might lead.¬† I didn’t know, then, that there were Baptists in South Africa and that Tutu, with his broad ecumenical experience, would know enough about Baptist polity to realize that Falwell was not–could not–speak for other Baptists. I knew that, often enough, Christians in other, more heirarchical traditions, did think that famous (or infamous) Baptist preachers could speak for other Baptists and give official pronouncements of doctrine, ethics, public policy, etc.¬† I could not let this brave Christian leader think that Falwell’s horrific and bigoted pronouncement represented some general feeling of Baptists. I wrote Rev. Falwell and was polite as I knew how to be, but basically called on him to repent for his obvious racism. I never received a reply.¬† I also wrote Tutu, then the Bishop of Johannesburg, in care of the South African Council of Churches. To my surprise, I received a personal reply–which remains one of my fondest possessions. As he thanked me for my prayers and support, joy and Christian love leaped off the handwritten pages of stationary.¬† That was May, 1985 and my involvement in the U.S. “Free South Africa” movement dates from that moment. I have since read most of Tutu’s writings and a few secondary sources, although I cannot be counted a Tutu scholar.¬† What follows is a bare bones account of his life and work–with an emphasis on how he witnesses to the joy of Incarnation.

Desmond Mpilo Tutu was born in Klersksdorp in the Republic of South Africa in 1931–a time when South Africa was ruled by whites for whites, but prior to the Nazi-like racism of the Afrikaaner policy of “apartheid.” When he was 12, the Tutu family moved to Johannesburg where he was educated in segregated schools (Bantu schools). The young Tutu wanted to become a physician, but the family could not afford the education and so he decided to follow his father in becoming a schoolteacher. He underwent teacher training at Pretoria Bantu Normal College (1951-1953) and then taught at the Johannesburg Bantu High School and then Muncieville High School (where he met his wife, Leah) until 1957 when he resigned in protest of the Bantu Education Act–an act which would consign poor South Africans (especially non-whites) to inferior education.¬† In 1958, he followed a vocational leading into the Anglican priesthood, studying as a candidate for ordination at St. Peter’s Theological College, Rosettenville, receiving his Licentiate in Theology in 1960 (the year of the Sharpeville Massacre–when¬†white South African police fired live ammunition on black schoolchildren who were unarmed and nonviolently protesting the conditions of their schools!)¬†and becoming an ordained Anglican priest in 1961.¬†¬†He was chaplain at the University of Fort Hare (one of the places where Africans could get quality education in Southern Africa) which was a hotbed of dissent and anti-apartheid resistance at the time.¬† Tutu’s superiors thought that he was becoming “too political” in his involvement with those committed to the struggle.¬† They suggested he resign as chaplain and sent him to London to pursue further studies while things cooled off.

¬†Tutu matriculated at King’s College, University of London from 1962-1966, earning a Bachelor of Divinity degree (with highest honors) and Master of Theology degree while serving as a part-time curate or pastor. In 1967, Tutu returned to South Africa and became once more the Chaplain a the University of Fort Hare and a member of the faculty of the Federal Theological Seminary in Alice–and used his lectures to highlight the circumstances of the African population. In 1970, Tutu became Lecturer in the Department of Theology of the University of Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland, continuing his policy of relating his theological lectures to the circumstances of the South African struggle.¬† He wrote a letter to the Prime Minister (Voerster) and described the situation in South Africa as “a powder barrel which can explode at any time.” He was not answered.

In 1972, Tutu returned to Britain as Director of the World Council of Churches’ Education Fund, based in Bromley, Kent.¬† He used his position to highlight the sufferings and injustices of his homeland. (This was not an easy time to be associated with the WCC for many.¬† In the U.S., South Africa, and elsewhere conservative Christians denounced the WCC as “subversive” and made wild accusations that its Programme for Overcoming Racism was using money from churches to finance armed revolutions in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.¬† Although the WCC showed solidarity with struggles against oppression, it is a conservative myth that it ever used money to buy weapons or otherwise support armed guerillas. I can’t speak for other places in the world, but I think one can trace the decline in prestige of both the National and World Councils of Churches in the U.S. to this myth–and the corresponding campaign to defund the councils.)

Tutu returned to South Africa in 1975 and was appointed the Anglican Dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral,¬† Johannesburg–the first African to hold such a post.¬† The very next year, 1976, was the year of the Soweto Uprising.¬† Students and others in Soweto (a segregated non-white “township” next to Johannesburg) protested the government’s rule that Afrikaans be the only language in education. The government responded with deadly force and the nonviolent protest became a riot. As a result of this,Tutu called for a worldwide boycott of South African products.¬† It took years and was full of holes, but international sanctions and citizen boycotts of South African goods, entertainment and sports boycotts of South African venues did slowly put increasing pressure on the white government to end apartheid. (Ronald Reagan reversed the sanctions of the Carter years, themselves incomplete, and preferred a policy of “constructive engagement” which amounted to turning a blind eye to South African injustices because South Africa claimed that all the movements for non-racial democracy in Africa were fronts for Communism! It was in this context that Falwell’s “phony” remark was made.)¬† In 1976, Tutu was consecrated Bishop of Lesotho.

As the South African government kept banning the political parties and organizations of protest and struggle, including the African National Congress, many unions, etc., the struggle against apartheid became more and more a struggle led by the black and “colored” or mixed-race churches (with a few valiant white Christians, too). The World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) suspended two Afrikaaner Reformed denominations for the heresy of theologically justifying racial apartheid.¬† Other global pressures were increased, too.¬† Meanwhile, the vehicle for the church struggle against apartheid in South Africa was the South African Council of Churches, to which Desmond Tutu was elected General Secretary in 1978.

Tutu led nonviolent marches, gave speeches and sermons (which were collected and republished here in the U.S., where I began to read them) that related faith to the struggle against apartheid. But he also was highly critical of those who would use violence or preach hatred against whites. He was repeatedly arrested. The government blamed him for everything–such as when he risked his life to stop the “necklacing” of an informant (this was a horrible practice wherein a mob would surround someone who cooperated with the apartheid regime, stick a rubber tire filled with gasoline/petrol around said collaborator’s neck, and set it on fire) and then was blamed for the attempted murder!

In 1984, in recognition for his leadership in the nonviolent struggle (and in honor of all the thousands who participated in it), Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. (He was the 2nd leader of the anti-apartheid struggle to receive the Nobel: the first was Chief Albert Luthuli in 1960–the Zulu Chieftain who founded the African National Congress and set it on its early path of Gandhian nonviolence.¬† The 3rd Nobel for the anti-apartheid struggle would go to Nelson Mandela, sharing it with F.W. de Klerk, the white president, for their mutual work to end apartheid and introduce multi-racial democracy without further violence.) He has received numerous other awards and honors for his work for peace and justice.

In 1985, Tutu was elected the Bishop of Johannesburg and in 1986 became Archbishop of Capetown–each time becoming the first black African to hold the post.¬†

After the fall of apartheid and the institution of multi-racial democracy in 1989, Tutu began a new role–now, not as one of the leaders of nonviolent struggle for justice, but as a healer of a strife-torn nation. In 1995, Tutu was asked to head South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” which, in place of war crimes trials or cycles of revenge, asked oppressors and victims to tell publicly the crimes they had committed and receive pardons. The cycle of violence had to be broken, not by hiding but by telling the truth and allowing people to begin anew.¬† This has now become a model for similar truth and reconciliation commissions in other war torn or strife torn situations. (I often wonder if the history of my nation would have been different if we had held such commissions after the Civil War or, again, in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and the fall of legal segregation.) For this work, Tutu received the Sydney Peace Prize in 1999.

Since retiring as Archbishop, Tutu has worked with the PeaceJam movement to inspire youth around the world to work for peace and justice. He has also worked to end the plague of AIDS (and its stigma), championed the ordination of women, and called for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people in church and society, called for Middle East Peace (and worked to get Nobel Peace Laureates to mediate between Palestinians and Israelis) and much else.

Joy has permeated his entire life and work–the joy of a witness to the Word Made Flesh.

December 23, 2007 - Posted by | Christian calendar, heroes, love of enemies, peacemaking

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