Desmond Tutu Was Badass

Desmond Tutu was badass.

For the last week, from political and religious leaders, peace makers and activists, people of all faiths and no faith at all, accolades and tributes have poured out from all over the globe for the diminutive cleric with the infectious smile, a twinkle in his eye and disarming giggle, who often wore a fisherman’s cap and a T-shirt that read, “Just call me Arch,” who died of cancer at the age of 90 the day after Christmas.

We activists for Palestinian justice are not surprised by NPR, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and other so-called “liberal” mainstream media outlets downplaying, at best, or ignoring, at worst, Tutu’s scathing criticism of Israel’s apartheid regime, captive as they are to the Israel Lobby; but (and perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by this either) what has galled me has come from many of his admirers.

At least those who hated him recognized his power. It’s many of those who admire him, neutering him of his power, turning him into a sweetly smiling, giggling, laughing, dancing old man, even as they applaud his work dismantling apartheid, preaching of peace and reconciliation. But they forget that he was hated and vilified, his confronting the powers at the risk of his own life, the invective, the death threats against him, the hard realities of speaking truth to power.

It happened to Gandhi.

It’s happening to Dorothy Day, who’s now being considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church.

It is happening, in his lifetime, to the Dalai Lama, with whom I had the privilege of spending a couple of days.

Hell, it’s happening to Martin Luther King, Jr., who gets quoted positively (selectively) by Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson.

And it’s happening now to Desmond Tutu … even though he described the Bible as the most subversive document in history, citing Moses’ leading of the Jewish slaves out of Egypt. He challenged the South African, self-described Christian government over human rights abuses, and repeatedly broke the law by leading protests and boycotts. “I’m not defying the government; I’m obeying God,” he said.

In one of his most well-known little parables, he said, “We had the land, and they had the Bible. Then they said, ‘Let us pray,’ and we closed our eyes. When we opened them again, they had the land, and we had the Bible. Maybe we got the better end of the deal.”

Hey, I get it – the necessity to elevate these charismatic figures to sterile, saccharine sainthood, caricatures of themselves, because the blinding light of their prophetic moral clarity, their fierce righteous laser-focus on the truth, is too difficult for most people to bear.

Each one of them found it difficult to live up to their public personas; Dorothy Day implored, “Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” So say they all.

Their admirers get to have it both ways – they stand on the side of the angels while not wanting to get their hands dirty, not wanting to pay the price they paid. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it, “cheap grace – grace without discipleship, grace without a cross.”

O how we love to demote our prophets and make them saints.

Desmond Tutu was badass. Maybe his life was his way of living up to his African name, Mpilo, “Life,” given him by his parents as a prayer of sorts, a sign of hope as they had lost a child shortly before his birth.

Can we even begin to conceive the inner strength it took to walk the long and arduous South African Black struggle for freedom, a moral fortitude steeled over a lifetime?

He was sickly as a boy, suffered with polio, later as a teen hospitalized with tuberculosis for 18 months. Later, while a teacher, he resigned from his high school position to protest the Bantu Education Act, which lowered education standards for Black students.

Well-known is his condemnation of apartheid as “vicious,” “evil,” comparing the apartheid white government to the Nazis. He called for foreign investors to pull out of South Africa and for Western governments to economically, politically, and culturally isolate the apartheid government using the tools of boycott and sanctions. When he was criticized, saying that sanctions would only hurt the Black population of the country, he replied that Black people were already suffering, “it is better to suffer with a purpose.”

Tutu and members of his family were repeatedly arrested and harassed. His passport was confiscated and police followed him wherever he went. In an interview with the New York Times, he said,

“I like to be liked. It was very, very painful to be hated. Why did they hate me? Because I was in their view Ogre No. 1, Public Enemy No. 1. Because I was regarded as Mr. Sanctions.”

From participating in multiple protests and demonstrations, to mediating between the African National Committee (ANC), the primary Black resistance movement headed by Nelson Mandela, and the government; from walking a fine line between supporting the goals of the ANC and rejecting its violent tactics, to hiring lawyers to represent Black defendants who had broken unfair security laws and those detained without trial – all this and more were major components of his ministry as General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, Bishop and Archbishop.

In a 1988 address to the government, he proclaimed:

You have already lost! I’ll say it nicely: you have already lost! We invite you to come and join the winning side! Your cause is unjust. You are defending what is fundamentally indefensible, because it is evil. It is evil without question. It is immoral. It is immoral without question. It is unchristian. Therefore, you will bite the dust! And you will bite the dust comprehensively.

As much as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is admired as a model in our day, it was not a foregone conclusion. Many had hoped to follow the post-World War II example of the Nuremberg Trials, placing those accused of horrific human rights violations on public trial. Tutu and others prevailed and began the Commission’s hard work of restorative justice, modeling for the world that restorative justice is a much more difficult, much more harrowing (but in the end, a much more rewarding) journey than retributive justice. Its task: to investigate the torture, bombings, murder, and other crimes committed during the previous white government’s apartheid rule, to listen to the accounts of injustice (which often caused Tutu to break down in tears), and to hold accountable the perpetrators, resulting in repentance, forgiveness, and compensation. Truth, the full truth, is the only thing that can set a person, can set a people free. The telling of the truth, the living into it, has within it its own form of reconciliation. Tutu described it this way, “You are overwhelmed by the extent of evil, but it is necessary to open the wound to cleanse it.”

That night in February 1990, when Nelson Mandela was released from 27 years of imprisonment, he spent it at Tutu’s bishop’s residence in Cape Town. Yet this did not restrain Tutu’s criticism of the post-apartheid government of the former liberation movement African National Congress (ANC) which came to power under Mandela in the first fully democratic elections in 1994. Shortly after the elections, he publicly rebuked Mandela’s government for “having stopped the gravy train only long enough to get on.” Mandela complained, but soon afterward announced salary cuts for himself, his cabinet and Parliament.

And at a 1997 public hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that he chaired, he implored Nelson Mandela’s former wife and leader of the ANC, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, to repent of her involvement in the practice of “necklacing,” the torturing and execution of Black informants of the apartheid regime (in 1986, she had famously declared, “With our boxes of matches, and our necklaces, we shall liberate this country"). Although by this time she no longer held an official office with the ANC, she was still a formidable political presence and symbol of the resistance, so Tutu’s public admonishment appalled resistance leaders who were still reeling from the fall-out of white rule, especially among South Africa’s younger generation; he was labeled a “sell-out,” and the work of the Commission condemned as not tough enough.

He continued his criticism of the various post-apartheid Black governments. In 2004, he accused President Thabo Mbeki, Mr. Mandela’s successor, of pursuing policies that enriched a tiny elite while “many, too many, of our people live in grueling, demeaning, dehumanizing poverty.”

 In a 2010 New York Times Magazine interview, he criticized the Jacob Zuma government:

I think we are at a bad place in South Africa and especially when you contrast it with the Mandela era. Many of the things that we dreamed were possible seem to be getting more and more out of reach. We have the most unequal society in the world.

And he added 2011,

This government, our government, is worse than the apartheid government because at least you were expecting it with the apartheid government…. Mr. Zuma, you and your government don’t represent me. You represent your own interests. I am warning you out of love, one day we will start praying for the defeat of the A.N.C. government. You are disgraceful.

And he warned that he would pray for its downfall when they cancelled a visit by the Dalai Lama. In response, the National Police Commissioner ordered him to “go home and shut up. You’re not a vice-Jesus Christ.”

Neither was he afraid to take on world leaders. He refused to participate in a summit in Johannesburg because former British Prime Minister Tony Blair would be a speaker. He was unsparing in his criticism of Blair and President George W. Bush. On Iraq, he wrote: “Those responsible for this suffering and loss of life should be treading the same path as some of their African and Asian peers who have been made to answer for their actions in the Hague.” And in 2017, he called on the Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi to speak out against attacks on the Rohingya people. Tutu was emphatic in an open letter: “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.

He preached restraint but, as he put it in a 1980 Christian Century article, “I am a man of peace, but not a pacifist.” And he further elaborated a couple of years later in additional interviews, “Blacks don’t believe that they are introducing violence into the situation. They believe that the situation is already violent.” And,

I will never tell someone to pick up a gun, but I will pray for the man who picks up the gun, pray that he will be less cruel than he might otherwise have been, because he is a member of the community. We are going to have to decide: If this civil war escalates, what is our ministry going to be?

Yes, Desmond Tutu was badass. And of course, after his own South Africa, he retained his sharpest criticism of the State of Israel as an apartheid state (agreed with by leading human rights organizations around the world), which was met with vitriol when he was alive and silence from the mainstream press in his passing and even by his supporters who want to preserve his memory as a jolly spiritual leader who preached compassion.

 I have witnessed the racially segregated roads and housing in the Holy Land that reminded me so much of the conditions we experienced in South Africa under Apartheid. I have witnessed the systemic humiliation of Palestinian men, women, and children by members of the Israeli security forces. Their humiliation is familiar to all black South Africans who were corralled and harassed and insulted and assaulted by the security forces of the Apartheid government.

He served proudly as Global Patron of the Sabeel Palestine Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem.

The Israeli government refused to grant him entrance into Gaza as a co-leader of a UN fact-finding mission investigating the November 2006 Israeli attack that killed 19 Palestinians, including seven children.

In 2010 he unsuccessfully urged a touring Cape Town opera company not to perform “Porgy and Bess” in Israel, comparing Israeli apartheid policies to those of his homeland.

And in an exclusive 2014 article for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz (you can read the entire article here), he condemned “the daily violations of human dignity and freedom of movement Palestinians are subjected to at checkpoints and roadblocks. And Israel’s policies of illegal occupation and the construction of buffer-zone settlements on occupied land,” and urged international support for the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, similar to those that brought down the South African apartheid regime, opposing Israel’s occupation.

What ultimately forced these leaders together around the negotiating table was the cocktail of persuasive, nonviolent tools that had been developed to isolate South Africa, economically, academically, culturally and psychologically. At a certain point – the tipping point – the then-government realized that the cost of attempting to preserve apartheid outweighed the benefits…. Those who continue to do business with Israel, who contribute to a sense of 'normalcy' in Israeli society, are doing the people of Israel and Palestine a disservice. They are contributing to the perpetuation of a profoundly unjust status quo.

And he concluded:

We must be very clear that the people of Palestine have every right to struggle for their dignity and freedom. It is a struggle that has the support of many around the world.

So yes, remember his gentle and compassionate spirit, his laughter, the twinkle in his eye, even his dancing – sure!

But for God’s sake, especially those who want to honor his memory, let us raise our voices with his, in the words of Nelson Mandela, who said that Tutu’s voice “will always be the voice of the voiceless.”

While celebrating his message of reconciliation, let us not forget his moral clarity, his fierce resistance to injustice, his condemnation of the corruption of power, the tenaciousness of truth. And the price he paid for holding fast to the truth.

It is easy to celebrate the man. How many of us will count the cost he paid, the cost we will have to pay, the vilification, the rejection, “a voice crying in the wilderness” – how many of his friends will pick up that solitary cross, then take up his fight now that he’s gone?



3 January 2022

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