The moral example of Desmond Tutu

By Howard Anderson

Archbishop Emeritus, Desmond Tutu was at the National Cathedral for five days to help us celebrate our Centennial year. He was given the first annual Cathedral Prize for The Advancement of Religious Understanding and Action. This physically diminutive man, in his 76th year has more energy, ideas, joy and wonder at the world than any three or four of us. What struck me most about him as I was privileged to spend much of his five day sojourn here with him, was the way he moves through time and space.

He prays! He prays in a daily Eucharist. He prays before and after any event, auto trip, talk, visit or meal. He prays for hours each day! In John Allen’s excellent and authorized biography of the archbishop, aptly entitled Rabble Rouser For Peace, it is revealed that over his entire ministry he has dedicated hours each day to simply sitting in prayer, listening to what The Holy One might have to say to him. He waits with great patience. He waits in silence or in outwardly voiced prayer. He waits with a smile on his face. He is not impatient like so many of us.

I was driving him to the White House for a meeting while he was here. The traffic was bad, and I was feeling responsible to find a way to get him through it. He seemed not to be noticing much of anything, because he was working on his address on “The Spirituality of Reconciliation,” but without looking up, sensing I suspect, my anxiety, patted my hand and said, “Father, count to ten slowly. Breathe. God will get us where we need to be when we need to me there. Be patient.” And I realized how right he was. I often repeat that one of my favorite theologians, Lilly Tomlin, has said, “The trouble with this rat race of a life of ours, is that even when you are winning, you are a rat!” Even more poignant is the reminder from Brother David Steindl-Rast in his book Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer: An Approach to Life in Fullness, that the two Chinese characters for busyness are “heart,” and “killing.” Clearly, the Archbishop has this in mind, as he moves peacefully through a most hectic schedule that would wear out someone in their forties, let alone someone in their seventies.

But what is most striking about Archbishop Tutu, is what a radically different vision of how God works in the world, and what the Church should be he has than some of the other Primates of Anglican Provinces in the Global South, and Africa in particular. Let’s compare. Archbishop Tutu was the Primate of the Province of Southern Africa. Archbishop Peter Akinola is Primate of the Province of Nigeria. Comparing the two you see stark differences in the spirit of the province as seen in the stances and theological positions each primate takes. One could scarcely believe that these two men belong to the same religion, let alone the same Communion on the same continent.

In his address to the National Cathedral, Archbishop Tutu spoke of a loving God whose divine intention for us is liberation. He speaks of a God who loves us as we are, yet calls us far beyond where we are to do God’s work and live a life emulating God. We are to combat injustice, oppression, evil, “those aberrations of divine will,” and live lives where the norm is the good, love, compassion, laughter, generosity, caring. Most poignantly, Archbishop Tutu challenged us to love those we would call enemies, and in a moving set of stories told of forgiveness offered by victims of the violence of both the Apartheid government and the liberation movements, sins and harm far beyond the human threshold, but through God’s Holy Spirit, they were able to move on, even befriending those who harmed them or tortured and killed their loved ones. The message is about a God infinitely mysterious, infinitely beyond any human ability to emulate, and yet, so loving and forgiving that we would still strive to “Be ye perfect as Your Heavenly Father is Perfect,” (the title of one section of his address).

When I read Archbishop Akinola, and for that matter, people like Bishop Duncan, I see a model of a God I do not recognize. A God who would ask God’s people not to emulate compassion, or combat injustice, oppression and evil, but rather, to judge those who fall outside of what can only be called a modern version of purity codes. It is an Old Testament God of wrath, of judgment, of tribe and clan that emerges. “You aren’t as we are and so we will not reach out to you. In fact, we want nothing to do with you. It is as if the Body of Christ’s arm is saying to the foot, “we have no need of you. You are not an arm and so be gone. We will not only not share Eucharist with you, we will condemn you and try to harm you because God is on our side. You are wrong. We are right. We are righteous.” What sort of God is it that Archbishop Akinola proclaims? I do not recognize that God. This is not the God revealed in the “big story,” the whole sweep of Scripture. Let us grant Archbishop Akinola the dubious claims he makes. Is he not duty bound to pursue the apostate Episcopal Church rather than dismiss it to such an extent that he will not even engage in important mission with us?

There is none of this venom in Archbishop Tutu. He speaks for a Church, the province of Southern Africa that is deeply engaged in combating oppression, disease, sexism, even homophobia, those things which harm the children of God. And Archbishop Akinola? He has advocated for a law that would criminalize any manifestation of same-sex affection. Where is reconciliation in that? It is power being exerted against the marginal, the rejected, the despised of his society. Didn’t Jesus reach out to those who were rejected by the Temple?

It is about time that voices other than those of Archbishop Akinola and other “neo-Puritan” Primates from the Global South are heard. We all know that the terrible carnage of colonialism will lead to a rejection of the colonizing power’s ways. We all know that the missionary society that was responsible for evangelizing an area has great impact on the theology which emerges. But are we not, as Anglican Christians, called by bonds of affection to forebear in love with one another even when we differ? I think Archbishop Tutu’s voice, and other voices from the Global South need to be heard. While the intimidating presence of men of power like Archbishop Akinola thunder, Anglicans by the thousand in Nigeria leave the Church to find the “Good News” being lived out and preached in Pentecostal and other churches. Nigerian friends of mine tell of visits home in formerly Anglican areas that are now predominantly Pentecostal, for those churches are trying to meet the needs of the people, not to find new ways to condemn others.

Franz Fanon, the Algerian psychiatrist who took part in the revolution in Algeria as they pushed the French colonizers out of their nation wrote a book that still deserves a wide reading, The Wretched of the Earth. In this prescient book, he predicts how the “native elite, more French than the French or more British than the Brits,” will emerge to lead, but be swept away by a second wave of leaders who are in reaction to the colonial powers. I think Archbishop Akinola is one of the latter. But the good news is that Fanon suggests that this type of reactionary, reactive leader will soon be replaced by a more thoughtful and purely indigenous leader, who draws from the tradition of the people the style and method of leadership. In the Church, that would be Jesus last time I checked!

While Fanon is writing about government, I think it applies to the church in post-colonial areas of the Global South. I think the Akinolas will soon give way to a less power hungry, more egalitarian leader, and with that, a polity which is more democratic, where clergy and laity, not just primates and bishops, discern God’s will for the Church. We must be patient. And even as men like Archbishop Akinola castigate us, reject our way of being Anglican Christian, we must pray for them. I must be patient like Archbishop Tutu told me to be. So I say to myself, “be patient Father, count to ten slowly.” Amen. I will. God’s time is not our time.

How does one account for a Desmond Tutu and a Nelson Mandela to emerge to lead South Africa to freedom without a blood bath? How does one account for someone like Archbishop Tutu who frequently risked his life to save those who were against the cause of freedom for all South Africans, the spies of the Apartheid government? When asked such a question, Archbishop Tutu shrugs, smiles, and tells the story of a white South African woman who was crippled and blinded by a bomb set at a whites only country club by African National Congress “soldiers.” She came to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and said, “I want to meet the people who did this to me, because I want to forgive them and tell them how being disabled has enriched my life and made me realize that I must rely upon God alone.” Then he says with his hands making the appropriate motions, “Wow. Wow again. No doubt she was a part of God’s cosmic movement of love.” How does one account for this very different Primate’s voice from the Global South? I say, “Wow! And Wow again. It must be a part of God’s cosmic movement love.”

The Rev. Dr. Howard Anderson is Warden and President of the Cathedral College at Washington National Cathedral.

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4 Comments
  1. What a blessing Archbishop Tutu has been for all of us! We are justly wary of proclaiming saints until we know the results of their lives; but surely we can see powerfully the fruits of the Spirit in his.

    Marshall Scott

  2. I wish I could share Dr. Anderson’s unabashed optimism about the post-Akinola generation of Church leaders. Nigeria is a kleptocracy. Corruption is rampant and institutionalized. Akinola serves this system, as do certain other very vocal African bishops. Gay-bashing also serves this system by providing scapegoats.

    South Africa is a special case. Many people there, especially Mandela and Tutu, heard God’s call to serve justice and the people. God calls in Nigeria, Uganda and Zimbabwe too, but fewer people seem to be listening, except for the Gay people.

  3. Thank you for this truly perception of a prophet to our times. Unfortunately, money and power are inegotiable idols for some selfish leaders!

    Francisco Silva

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