Why Desmond Tutu matters more than ever
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu at the offices of The Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation during a visit with Prince Harry on the first day of his visit to South Africa on Nov. 30, 2015 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Chris Radburn – WPA Pool /Getty Images)
One day after Christmas – in an event that seems particularly on-brand for 2021 – the world lost one of its living saints, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose work in South Africa helped bring about the peaceful dismantling of the institutionally racist apartheid.
What would be even more tragic than his death is if we also lose the message and mission of his life. He literally wrote the modern book on forgiveness and reconciliation, two qualities in preciously short supply these days. And make no mistake, both are essential. It’s not enough to only forgive – even as rare as that has become – but to truly heal and become a better, more just society, we must also include reconciliation.
Maybe, as we look at the dawning of a new year, his message, legacy and life are perfectly timed as we grapple with a worldwide pandemic which is slowly, as the death count continues to rise, becoming endemic. And as we brace ourselves for another politically fractious year, the message of forgiveness and the idea that we can come back together seems as radical as when those same processes were employed in South Africa.
From the classroom where I sat weekly studying the theology and his own writings, Tutu was as close to a living divine presence as I have ever encountered. He was humble, hilarious and piercingly insightful – rarely comfortable with the easy answers, we, his students, learned to reflect deeply and not just spit out pat answers that sounded correct. His was the kind of knowledge mixed with spirit, the cumulative effect of having witnessed unspeakable cruelty and finding the strength and courage to respond with divine forgiveness and love.
Yet, it was not the forgiveness that seemed challenging, even to a bunch of theology students. Forgiveness is something incorporated into nearly every church service in every Christian denomination. It was the reconciliation part that always seemed to cause us the most trouble – the revolutionary idea that you must not only forgive those who have done you wrong, but that you must also have the courage and take the time to find common ground and live in a more perfect community. It’s that radical notion that we must come back together to work toward a common goal that seems so attractive yet so distant today.
In very real terms, that means that those whom we despise the most must be brought closer. And, it doesn’t mean that we demand them drawing nearer to us, rather we must find the path to them. It means that we have to offer the first olive branch. It means that we have to try harder to understand who they are and why their eyes and hearts perceive the world so differently. And we must engage in conversation and in action to find ways to heal the brokenness in this awfully fragmented world.
And for me, whose job it is to hold those in power to account and shine light on injustice or inequity, his words and theology convict even folks like me for not doing enough, and also not pointing out opportunities for our differences to be bridged.
Reconciliation doesn’t only mean that we agree not to say anything unkind in public, while secretly seething in our hearts; it means that we have to find a way to forgive and release that bitterness and anger, and truly work together, seeing each other as equally loved, blessed and legitimate children of God. And if a man, who saw his own people murdered, imprisoned, tortured and oppressed, can find it in his heart to be reconciled to those who participated in such horrific deeds, then it’s probably hopeful that we, who are politically divided and racially apart, can also find hope in his words and legacy.
Our nation is indeed broken, ironically the one thing that almost anyone of either political stripe can agree upon. And these past two-plus years have caused us to wonder: How can we put our broken, hurting, divided nation back together? How can that be done?
I offer Tutu’s words as a roadmap and, honestly, as the only viable option that I have seen so far.
“Forgiveness is never cheap, never easy, but that it is possible, and that ultimately real reconciliation can happen only on the basis of truth. In reality, there can be no future without forgiveness, for revenge merely begs further violence, causing an inexorable spiral of reprisal, provoking counterreprisals ad infinitum.”
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