In Isaiah 1:17, God commands us: “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.” This is easier said than done, however. Rare is the person who can spend decades opposing injustice without giving in to despair or resorting to violence. Rare is the person who, after an injustice ends, can foster reconciliation and forgiveness. Just as rare is the person who can effectively defend the oppressed in many forms. Archbishop Desmond Tutu is one of those rare and remarkable people who has done all of these.
He was born in 1931 in Klerksdorp, South Africa. As a young man, Tutu became a teacher, following in his father’s footsteps. But when the government racially segregated the educational system in 1953, Tutu and his wife quit their teaching jobs.
Tutu pursued religion instead, becoming ordained as an Anglican priest in 1960. In the mid-1960s, the Tutus moved to London, where Desmond studied theology. It was their first experience in a society without apartheid, the South African system of racial segregation, and they felt liberated.
In 1966, they returned to Africa, where Desmond became a university chaplain. Having experienced life without segregation, he began actively opposing apartheid. In 1968, Tutu gave a sermon comparing South Africa to the Communist Eastern Bloc, and likening anti-apartheid protests to the Prague Spring then underway. Later that year, the students held a sit-in protest; police surrounded them with dogs. Tutu joined the protesters and led them in prayer.
In 1975, Tutu became dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg. As dean, he held a 24-hour vigil for racial harmony, which included prayers for imprisoned anti-apartheid activists.
In 1976, Tutu was named Bishop of Lesotho. That summer, the police shot and killed hundreds of students at a protest in Soweto. Tutu gave a sermon calling out the white community’s lack of outrage about the killings. The following year, when he spoke at the funeral of activist Steve Biko, the police beat him with whips.
In 1978, Bishop Tutu became the first black leader of the South African Council of Churches. He focused the organization on human rights, stating: “It is a Christian organization with a definite bias in favour of the oppressed and the exploited ones of our society.”
Tutu’s increasingly visible apartheid opposition infuriated the government. When he publicly supported the international economic boycott of South Africa in 1979, the government confiscated his passport. When he joined an antiapartheid protest march in 1980, he was jailed overnight.
In 1984, Bishop Tutu received the Nobel Peace Prize “as a unifying leader figure in the non-violent campaign to resolve the problem of apartheid in South Africa.” He dedicated the award to the 3.5 million black South Africans who had been deported by the government.
In 1985, Tutu was chosen as Bishop of Johannesburg; the following year, he was elevated to Archbishop of Cape Town. He was the first black man in both positions, chosen over the objection of the white laity.
Archbishop Tutu frequently served as a mediator between the government and protesters. But he also kept up pressure against apartheid. In 1988, he told the government: “You have already lost! Let us say to you nicely: you have already lost! We are inviting you to come and join the winning side! Your cause is unjust. You are defending what is fundamentally indefensible, because it is evil… Therefore, you will bite the dust! And you will bite the dust comprehensively.”
Archbishop Tutu’s dream of a “rainbow nation” was fulfilled in 1994 with South Africa’s first multi-racial general election, won by Nelson Mandela.
Post-apartheid, South Africa still had to face its legacy. Mandela tapped Archbishop Tutu to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, investigating human rights abuses. The Commission followed a three-part approach. First: confession by all who engaged in human rights abuses. Second: forgiveness, including amnesty from prosecution. Finally: restitution, in which the perpetrators made amends to the victims.
Throughout the proceedings, the Archbishop encouraged forgiveness, noting that “Without forgiveness, there can be no future for a relationship between individuals or within and between nations.” The Commission delivered its final report in 1998.
Though Archbishop Tutu is best known for his campaign against apartheid, he actively opposed other injustices as well. As he once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Throughout his career, he supported equality for women. As a chaplain in the ‘60s, he invited female servers during the Eucharist. In the ‘70s, he spoke in favor of ordaining women and used gender-neutral pronouns in his sermons. As Archbishop, he received approval to ordain female priests.
He has also strongly supported gay rights, saying “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven.” As Archbishop, he appointed gay priests to senior positions and criticized the Anglican Church’s celibacy requirement for gay priests. He blessed his daughter’s marriage to a woman in 2015, though it was still forbidden by the Church.
In addition, Archbishop Tutu has supported peace and opposed violence and human rights abuses throughout the world. He has also provided advice to other post-conflict societies attempting reconciliation, including Northern Ireland and the Solomon Islands.
Desmond Tutu will turn 90 this year. Although he has been retired from public life since 2010, he remains a revered figure of justice and peace worldwide. Nelson Mandela called him “the people’s archbishop,” fitting for a man who has committed his life to seeking justice and defending the oppressed.
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