Desmond Tutu “Archbishop of the world” doesn’t do selective justice

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu can be described as the “Archbishop of the world”, said Professor Tinyiko Maluleke at an event in honour of the Archbishop on 4 October 2021. in the week of his 90th birthday.

The event comprised a Courageous Conversation on the Christian church as the site of struggle, and combined a University of the Western Cape-hosted launch of the book Ecumenical Encounters with Desmond Mpilo Tutu: Visions for Justice, Dignity and Peace.

Maluleke, an internationally recognised researcher in religion and politics, as well as black and African theologies, said co-editing the book had impressed on him how many people cherished the intimate encounters they had had with the Archbishop. The image of Archbishop Tutu as “Archbishop of the world” came from almost every one of the 72 accounts in the book of personal memories of the Archbishop, or – in the case of the young contributors, many of whom have not met Archbishop Tutu – encounters with his theology and activism, Maluleke said.

Opening the Courageous Conversation, Foundation CEO Piyushi Kotecha said the documented encounters with the Arch fitted neatly into the Foundation’s knowledge legacy programme, which is aimed at mining the rich legacy left by the Archbishop, who retired from public life in 2010, so that inspiration could be taken from them. The Courageous Conversations are a series of public dialogues focusing on difficult, topical issues and challenges in societies and their institutions.

Kotecha said the recorded encounters captured some of the most significant strands of Archbishop Tutu’s life, focusing on his work in various ecumenical settings, notably leading the South African Council of Churches (1978 to 1984) and the All Africa Conference of Churches.

This was a profoundly formative time in Archbishop Tutu’s life, said Kotecha. He used his position as leader of both entities in the late 1970s and early 1980s to vigorously oppose South Africa’s apartheid system.

In Archbishop Tutu’s time as an active religious leader, the Christian church faced three major struggles – apartheid and its religious underpinnings, whether to allow the ordination of female priests, and how to include the LGBTQi community, said Sarojni Nadar, who holds the Desmond Tutu SARChI Research Chair in Religion and Social Justice at the University of the Western Cape.

Apartheid ended officially in 1994, and Archbishop Tutu himself led the ordination of women as priests in South Africa in August 1992, when, as Archbishop of Cape Town, he ordained two of the first five women to become Anglican priests in the country. (Several women in other countries had been ordained long before this.)

Bishop-elect of Lesotho the Reverend Vicentia Kgabe, said Archbishop Tutu’s ministry and vision are focused on “opening up the house of God”, and that the story of his life’s service teaches that the barriers that stand in the way of the church being fully open to all comers are human, and movable.

“The church still requires that people behave [in certain ways] before they belong and so the struggle still continues. We need to club together to remove the final one,” she said, referring to the ways in which the mainstream Christian church excludes people from the LGBTQi community.

Anglican priest René August said the idea that every single human being is a child of God, which is what Archbishop Tutu preaches, “leaves no room for exclusivity”.

“Just like there are systems alive today that were created by apartheid, there are systems alive today that were created by patriarchy and heteronormativity. Those are the ones we need to move,” she said.

Kgabe said Archbishop Tutu’s opposition to any injustice is deeply embedded in what theologian Michael Battle has termed Archbishop Tutu’s “ubuntu theology”. Ubuntu is a southern African word that expresses the idea that all people are profoundly interconnected.

Former anti-apartheid activist Brian Brown said Archbishop Tutu “doesn’t do selective justice” and that his fight to ensure that the LGBTQi community welcome in the church is part of his belief in the “indivisibility of freedom” – until all people are free, no one can be considered free.

Archbishop Tutu has been a vociferous proponent of forgiveness, but Professor Nico Koopman, theologian and deputy vice-chancellor at Stellenbosch University, said this stance can be easily misunderstood. The type of forgiveness that Archbishop Tutu preaches is “costly” in that it requires confession, contrition, remorse and reparation.

“We have seen a lot of forgiveness in South Africa … [but] our future is dependent on whether we respond appropriately to the gift of forgiveness. The Tutu logic is one that says, ‘I invited you [to be forgiven by me], do you make my forgiveness cheap?’.”

Turning to how religion can be used to counter injustice, Dietrich Werner, senior advisor in theology, ecumenical education and research at the international organisation Bread for the World, said Archbishop Tutu embodies boldness in Christian hope in his belief in the power of prayer to change the world for the better.

Archbishop Tutu’s belief in hope and prayer is sorely needed today, when the world must make radical social and ecologically protective changes, Professor Werner said.

Archbishop Tutu’s daughter, the Reverend Nontombi Tutu, said her father taught her, even when she was very young, that the “best way of living” is to be an outsider, because when one is outside a system it is easier to pick out its flaws.

Archbishop Tutu has given the world a “new image of God”, said Norwegian priest Trond Bakkevig. Now it is up to the world to welcome it. There are many other challenges the church as an institution faces and critiques from the outside and inside can all lead to further changes and healing.