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Fraser to Tutu: Morality is not about having clean hands

Fraser to Tutu: Morality is not about having clean hands

We carried an item on Saturday about Desmond Tutu’s contention that former President George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair should face prosecution at the International Criminal Court for their role in the war in Iraq. Tutu has also written an op-ed essay for the Guardian in which he says:

Leadership and morality are indivisible. Good leaders are the custodians of morality. The question is not whether Saddam Hussein was good or bad or how many of his people he massacred. The point is that Mr Bush and Mr Blair should not have allowed themselves to stoop to his immoral level.

If it is acceptable for leaders to take drastic action on the basis of a lie, without an acknowledgement or an apology when they are found out, what should we teach our children?

My appeal to Mr Blair is not to talk about leadership, but to demonstrate it. You are a member of our family, God’s family. You are made for goodness, for honesty, for morality, for love; so are our brothers and sisters in Iraq, in the US, in Syria, in Israel and Iran.

I did not deem it appropriate to have this discussion at the Discovery Invest Leadership Summit in Johannesburg last week. As the date drew nearer, I felt an increasingly profound sense of discomfort about attending a summit on “leadership” with Mr Blair. I extend my humblest and sincerest apologies to Discovery, the summit organisers, the speakers and delegates for the lateness of my decision not to attend.

This morning, the Rev. Giles Fraser, a Guardian columnist took issue with Tutu’s decision not to meet with Blair:

The reason I recoil at Tutu’s decision is that it smacks too much of the sort of thinking that he has, in other contexts, done so much to dismantle – the idea that it is the purpose of morality to make one feel better about oneself, to feel that one is on the right side, that one is with the angels. But morality is not about having clean hands. When it comes to Iraq, the fact that most of us have lifestyles dripping with oil cannot be insignificant. Oil and blood are mixed together in the unholy eucharist of modern life. This is the cup from which we all drink. How can we ostracise those presiding at this feast if we are also drinking from the same cup?

What do you think of Fraser’s point? To what extent are we all complicit in crimes committed by our leaders–if indeed, as not all would agree, the war was a crime?


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Personally, I wish Tutu had followed through and attended, and had a conversation with Blair about leadership and what that means at this point in our world’s history. Not that either one would have convinced the other of anything, but to an extent it rubs me the wrong way when someone, anyone, backs away from a discussion with another who has a different view on the basis of “I’m a more authentic leader” or “Your point of view is sinful” or “I’m so much closer to God on this point that there’s no point to our meeting” or whatever it was that motivated Tutu to excuse himself.

Leadership is a tricky element. Being an effective leader is *not* synonymous with demonstrating a moral or ethical example — think Hitler or any of the many other psychopaths who were able to recruit multitudes yet destroyed the lives of millions of others. And being a leader of a Western nation dependent on oil produced on less progressive countries is complicated to begin with and more so when there is open conflict.

I happen to agree that the invasion of Iraq was indefensible, but I also concede that there are folks more knowledgeable than I who would dispute that. My complicity (I think) is limited to my inability to reduce my carbon footprint to zero or near to it. A good part of me would like to string GWBush up for starting that war, as I’ve learned nothing in the last 11 years that has convinced me that it was worthwhile. The Americans who voted for him, especially the second time, were woefully misguided, imho — but then I realize that there is more than one issue that conveys to a vote for President.

The conversation between Blair and Tutu might have been interesting and informative, as would be the case at any time between a political and religious/spiritual leader. When one side bows out because the other is too evil/corrupt/criminal/(fill in the blank), we all lose.

Sarah Ridgway

Bill Dilworth


John Chilton, I think the accountability that the electorate bears for the government in power is much smaller than we have been lead to believe. The death grip that the two parties have on the system means that we are never given a real range of options, but only a choice between two neighboring positions.The American political system is not fit to purpose; I do not seriously entertain hopes of casting a vote for someone I would like to be in office – the best that I’ll be able to do is to vote for the lesser of two very real evils. Voting for a third party candidate whose views I truly endorse would accomplish little, and at the real risk of letting the greater of the two main evils be elected. In my view, we can only shoulder accountability/blame for the rate at which the situation gets worse, not whether it gets worse or better.

At times I’m not even sure that we have a real two party system, as opposed to one real party – the Corporate Party – represented by a Good Cop and a Bad Cop. Whichever of the two parties makes it into office, it will be the corporate class in whose interest they will rule, rather than the interest of the citizenry.

Rod Gillis

Speaking truth to power is supposed to be one of the callings of the people of God. However, some people are much better positioned to speak truth to power effectively. In this case, Archbishop Tutu because of his stature, his experience during apartheid,his call to speak truth to power within his own Anglican tradition, is well positioned to do and to speak as he has.

Tutu’s empty chair is his yoke of iron. Lesser church leaders would have schmoozed with Blair all the while invoking platitudes to rationalize the same.

We should be grateful to Desmond Tutu, though not surprised, that a gifted peace maker like him has such clarity of mind and purpose when it comes to contending with the movers and shakers of war making.

Giles Fraser has also earned his chops, and I often appreciate his writing. He is a refreshing voice in the so often passive-aggressive wilderness that is churchland; but I disagree with his position on the substance of this matter notwithstanding.

John B. Chilton

1. Suppose the issue is global warming. I’m not willing to concede the war in Iraq was about oil, but I will concede global warming and our dependence on oil are joined.

2. The U.S. stands in the way of solving the problem.

3. The U.S. stands in the way because our politicians of both parties know they won’t get reelected if they attack the problem by getting serious about carbon based fuel. I favor a carbon tax as the best solution, but the particulars of serious solution pale in comparison to the political stumbling block — that the price would go up substantially under any realistic proposal and that would mean a change in lifestyle Americans won’t accept.

4. We are accountable for the government we have and its failures.

5. Let’s not blame our politicians for our own addictions.

6. Do you want to say your favorite politician gets a waiver from doing something about global warming because that’s pragmatic in order to get reelected. (IE, best is the enemy of the good?)


It’s difficult to adjudicate between Fraser and Tutu because they mostly agree. Then the former says “My problem is with the empty-chairing”, about which the latter says “I felt an increasingly profound sense of discomfort about attending.” Tutu doesn’t give much detail about why he drew the line there, so it’s hard to know how he’d answer Fraser’s objections.

Mark Preece

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