NEW YORK -- “THE foremost moral authority of our times", said United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan introducing Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the UN, "had put an end to apartheid without civil war, without genocide, healing wounds of bitter conflict." The jolly, broad-smiling, diminutive looking Desmond Tutu was invited to talk about "Gods Word and World Politics", but he spoke more about the individual, the “moral universe” she inhabits and the politics that challenges it.
The Archbishop’s presence thawed the usually stiff audience at UN events; he was more than a regular pastor tending to a Sunday gathering. With occasional improvisation, his prepared speech could be summed up in his words about love between a man and a woman. Jabbing his finger once at the audience and holding it there, he said with gravity, “Falling in love is an act of faith. It says Im looking beyond the evidence." Recalling an American thinker, Tutu added, "What you are is so loud that I cant hear what you are saying." Tutu wanted political leaders to imbibe this aspect of faith—to look beyond the evidence and love an individual—in relations between countries.
For Archbishop Tutu, an Anglican, “man has been created for the transcendent, for something other than who we are. Others may bend their knees to something less divine than God: to success, to ambition.” Nevertheless religion, Tutu added, time and again had been used to mobilize hatred and justify horrendous crimes. “Different religions interpreted the divine will differently. Religion has the capacity to produce saints and rogues.” The Archbishop was alive to the course of world politics since the fateful events of September 11 and what followed—the global war on terror, when he lamented the treatment of Muslims and asked Christians in general to reflect on the history of persecution within their own religion.
“Perhaps some terrorists are Muslims, then we end up suspecting all Arabs; then suspecting all of Middle Eastern origin as we feed our growing xenophobia.” Tutu said quite many in the West had been surprised that Bosnian Muslims were racially similar to them and looked not like Muslims. And they had asked, “How come they look exactly like us!” Tutu indulged in self-flagellation also and listed the atrocities committed in the name of Christianity. He said Christians should feel vilified if their faith was compared to the fundamentalists who killed doctors who performed abortions, or the Ku Klux Klan that use the burning symbol of the deeply revered Cross.
“We would be appalled if we thought these fringe groups represented Christianity. The most devout Christians have been slave owners; it was Christians who gave the world Nazism in Germany, fascism in Spain. Christian leaders ordered atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, imposed apartheid. Christians are at one another’s throat in Northern Ireland. We who are Christians have to hang our heads in shame. There is no war between people of different faiths, per se, there are adherents of different faiths who engage in nefarious activities.”
The 73-year-old Tutu said he had been castigated for committing the “heinous crime” of mixing politics with religion when he often replied: “The privileged were enamored with their favourite dictum of sacred/secular, holy/profane, spiritual/material. But the oppressed thought I wasnt being political.” Tutu was ordained in1960 and in 1975 appointed the first black Dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg. In 1984, the Nobel Committee selected him for the Peace Prize recognizing his struggle against apartheid. The Committee noted that it was its “wish that the award should be regarded not only as a gesture of support to him….but also to all individuals and groups in South Africa who, with their concern for human dignity, fraternity and democracy, incite the admiration of the world.” In post-apartheid South Africa, Tutu chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was set up in 1995 to investigate and establish human rights violations since March 1960 when the apartheid laws (first put in place in 1948) assumed grander proportions: police repression and territorial separation. The Commission had the mandate to grant amnesty to persons who acknowledged they had violated human dignity and offered an opportunity to the victims to relate their sufferings.
God is the source of Tutu’s concern for human dignity and welfare. “The Judeo-Christian faith says we are made in Gods image,” Tutu intoned. “You,” he said sweeping his hand at the few hundreds in the audience, “and all of us are Gods viceroys. To treat one such badly is very blasphemous. It’s almost as if you are spitting on the face of God. Faith teaches us that we all make a family. That all, all, all….all rich/poor, white/black, red/yellow, educated/not educated, gay, lesbian/so-called straight all, all…are held in His embrace.” Punching the tomb-like silence that followed these words, the preacher in Tutu emerged in full bloom, “You know my friends it is a radical thing. Arafat/Sharon, Bush/Bin Laden belong in Gods family. And all faith teaches us is that there is a moral universe. Evil can never have the last word. The powerful, unjust will bite the dust and get their comeuppance. Those who rule must know power is for service, not for self-aggrandizement.”
Tutu said he wanted to organize a women’s movement to take over the world. “Women nurture life,” he said. The Archbishop, however, was evasive in answering a direct question on same-sex marriages. Instead he complained that people usually don’t want to sort out the complex nature of things. “We dont like subtleties, we dont like ambiguities.” At the UN Tutu was arguing the case for love and told his fellow African, Kofi Annan, flanking him, that the UN’s work was God’s work.