Desmond Tutu was born on October 7, 1931 to a poor family. His father was a teacher and his mother was a domestic worker. To imagine the courage and fearlessness shown by Tutu we need to understand the world of Apartheid he lived in and its impact on the nonwhite citizens of South Africa. Apartheid is an Afrikaans word meaning ‘apartness’. In 1948 the white National Party government began formalizing policies of racial segregation and economic discrimination against non-whites. There were 148 apartheid laws passed. Significantly, non-whites had to carry I.D. permits at all times, obey strict curfews, public facilities and services were separated, marriages between white and non-white were banned, it removed people from their homes and placed them in segregated neighbourhoods providing 13% of the land for 90% of the population. There was a separate system of education for the non-whites which was grossly underfunded and minimized the opportunity for academic advancement. In the midst of such repression there were many uprisings, marches and peaceful and not so peaceful demonstrations.
Desmond Tutu was one of many players within the country who fought against apartheid. He became a symbol of the non-violent struggle against apartheid. He was respected greatly and became the first Black Bishop of Johannesberg in 1985, first Black Archbishop of Cape Town in 1986 and the same year became the first Black president of the All African Conference of Churches. These positions brought about many speaking engagements and he was always very clear in his statement that apartheid was evil. He said over and over that God intended us for fellowship, for togetherness, without destroying our distinctiveness, and cultural otherness.
Tutu believed in dialogue. He spoke at Afrikaans university campuses and many mainly Afrikaans organizations and groups. Many of the Black community felt it was a waste of time talking to whites. He disagreed because he believed it was essential to give a clear statement of his position and beliefs.. He would strongly state “My passionate opposition to the evil and pernicious policy of apartheid has nothing to do with a political or any other ideology.
It Has everything to do with my faith as a Christian and my understanding of the imperative of the gospel of Jesus Christ. An authentic Christian spirituality is utterly subversive to any system that would treat a man or woman as anything less than a child of God.”
There had been decades of protest and violence. Much blood was shed. When Black leaders began to be released from jail, significantly Nelson Mandala after 27 years of imprisonment, the fear was that the transition to democracy would be a blood bath of revenge and retaliation. When Nelson Mandala became the first Black President in 1994, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed and the hearings started in 1996. Bishop Tutu was chosen to chair the Commission. He believed that there was no end to the human capacity for healing. He held to two simple truths– there is nothing that cannot be forgiven and there is no one undeserving of forgiveness. Ghastly acts must always be condemned, but we can never relinquish the hope that the doers of the most heinous deeds can and may change. The stories told at the commission were horrific and blood curdling. Many tears were shed. Yet there were some extraordinary acts of forgiveness as perpetrator and victim embraced and did so publicly.
The path chosen was forgiveness. For all of us there have been times when have needed to forgive. There have been times we have needed to be forgiven. Archbishop Tutu and his daughter, Mpho, wrote a book together called “The Book of Forgiving.” They tell us forgiveness is a choice and offer a four-fold path to forgiveness. In our humanness we experience some hurt, harm or loss and the result is pain. The choice then is to choose harm and seek retaliation and revenge and carry a bitterness and hatred which gnaws away at our own gut. Or we can choose to heal. Forgiveness is one of the most profound, pervasive, and powerful teachings in the Bible, but also one of the most difficult. It is not necessarily quick….it can take several journeys through the cycle of remembering and grieving before one can truly forgive and be free. We may know that it is good and helpful to let go of resentment, but how do we let go when we’ve been harmed?
The Tutus outline the following
Step 1. Tell the story. Carefully and fully review the facts of the event. Accept that it can not be undone.
Step 2. Name the hurt. Identify the feelings within the facts remembering there are no feelings that are wrong, bad or invalid. Allow yourself to grieve. Struggle through the anger, grief and sadness and push against the pain and suffering on the way to forgiving. Move forward when you are ready.
Step 3. Grant forgiveness which may be in person or within yourself.
Step 4. Renew or release the relationship.
Forgiveness does not mean forgetting which is probably impossible anyway. It does not mean that we ignore our anger and hurt. Doing so is just not healthy. Forgiveness is a choice: the simple choice to love rather than to harm the person in return. By choosing love over vengeance, we free ourselves from remaining beholden to our pain. We free others to experience a love that leads to gratitude and reconciliation, and we free everybody for the possibility of being united with Christ’s own loving heart.
Archbishop Tutu is one of the most exceptional Christian leaders of our time. He was a key figure in the overthrow of a regime most evil. He led the way forward to a just society that promoted reconciliation, without revenge. He showed absolute determination in expressing his beliefs and sharing his dreams publicly, always true to his faith. His love of Christ, his generosity of spirit, the immensity of his vision, his courage and his values grounded in faith are an inspiration.