hide captionArchbishop Desmond Tutu is the author of Made for Goodness — written with his daughter Mpho Tutu, also a priest in the Anglican communion — and several other reflections on faith, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu is the author of Made for Goodness — written with his daughter Mpho Tutu, also a priest in the Anglican communion — and several other reflections on faith, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Our occasional series with people of broad experience turns this week to a man characterized by his faith — and his willingness to fight.
In the era of apartheid, Archbishop Desmond Tutu railed against the injustice and inhumanity of South Africa's government, and his passionate advocacy helped make the change that came to that country in the 1990s.
Now 78, in a magenta habit with a crucifix around his neck, he is the picture of a holy man. But looking back on his boyhood in one of South Africa's black townships, Tutu remembers an urchin with a fondness for marbles and comic books. And even in church, "we had fun," the archbishop tells NPR's Renee Montagne.
The memories linger even now. There's joy in Tutu's voice as he recalls a song he sang as a child: "If God be for us, who can be against us?" the verse asked.
"It was a fantastic thing to have much, much later," Tutu says — "to remember, 'Yes, if God be for us in our struggle against injustice and oppression, who can be against us?' "
Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of Tutu's early role models was an Anglican priest — a black South African who "was treated like a big chief when he arrived" on the rural farms where he served in mission churches. And yet he was "an incredible human being ... who had this degree of caring for lesser mortals. And who knows, I was probably seeking to emulate him."
'I Don't Think I've Ever Felt That Same Kind Of Peace'
Despite that priest's influence and his own eventual calling to the clergy, Tutu's first intentions about a career lay in another direction — possibly, he says, because a bout with tuberculosis as a teenager made a vivid impression. He spent months in a hospital, and came face to face with the prospect of his own death.
"I'd observed in the ward that almost all of the patients who coughed up blood ended up going to the — you call it a morgue, we call it a mortuary," Tutu recalls. "And one day, this thing happened to me: I coughed, and the blood just came gushing out of my mouth. ... I still can't believe that that happened to me, but I sat there, and I said to God, 'Well, if it means I'm going to die, that's OK.' I don't think I've ever felt that same kind of peace, the kind of serenity that I felt after acknowledging that maybe I was going to die of this TB."
After that, medicine — "my first love," Tutu confesses — was more alluring than ever.
"Especially after getting TB, I was determined to find a cure," he says. "I was admitted to medical school, but my parents didn't have the money to pay the fees."
God was always calling, too — an experience Tutu compares to that of one of his favorite Old Testament prophets.
"Jeremiah also was saying he didn't want to become a prophet," Tutu recalls, "and said to God, 'If I say I don't want to speak on your behalf, your Word is like a fire in my breast.' I can't hold it back — and sometimes when people asked why I was going on in the fashion I was despite the reaction of the government and all of their nastinesses, I said, 'Well, although we claim that we have free will, in some ways God just grabs us by the scruff of the neck."
'A Fire In Winter'
As chair of his country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Tutu listened to accounts of political hatred and physical brutality that might shake anyone's faith in humanity.
"Perhaps if one had listened only to the atrocities," he demurs. "But we were constantly being bowled over by the extent to which people were ready and willing to forgive. But we had, obviously, the spectacular example of Nelson Mandela, who could come out of 27 years' incarceration, so eager to be able to forgive."
A decade and more after that faith-building experience, Tutu says his sense of his relationship to the divine is still evolving.
"I am learning to shut up more in the presence of God," he says, laughing. One model of prayer, he acknowledges, is that "you have a kind of shopping list that you bring to God" — and even Desmond Tutu confesses that "I still do."
But more and more for him, he says, communion with God is about "trying to grow, in just being there."
"Like when you sit in front of a fire in winter — you are just there in front of the fire," he says. "You don't have to be smart or anything. The fire warms you."
Excerpt: 'Made For Goodness'
by Desmond Tutu
Made For Goodness By Desmond Tutu Hardcover, 224 pages HarperOne List price: $25.99
In the bad old days of apartheid the accusation was deadly. Any black person suspected of collaborating with the hated South African security police risked a grisly death. Here the suspected informer was down on the ground, beaten and bloodied. Tempers in the crowd were already frayed. It was yet another in a long procession of the struggle funerals: Duduza Township, east of Johannesburg, in July 1985. It was thought that police had killed the four young men we had come to bury. And now the crowd had their hands on a man they accused of being a police spy. They were preparing the petrol-filled tire that was to be his fiery "necklace."
Without pausing to think, I waded into the middle of the angry mob. "Do you accept us as your leaders?" I asked. They seemed rather reluctant, mumbling. "If you accept us as your leaders, you have to listen to us and stop what you are doing." As I desperately tried to reason with the crowd a car arrived, and my colleague Bishop Simeon Nkoane was able to spirit the injured man away. It was only afterward, when I saw it on television, that I considered my own peril. I tell this not as a story of my heroism but as an illustration of the violence we can inflict upon one another.
I am no dispassionate observer of the litany of crime and cruelty that assaults us at every turn. For three long years I served as the chairman of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, our attempt to cleanse our nation's soul from the evil of apartheid. For days on end I listened to horrific stories of abuse. I cannot tell you how many times my heart broke as I listened to the confessions of perpetrators and the testimony of victims. Indeed, at times I became sick to my stomach at the horror of what I heard.
It is not only what I have heard of human depravity that has made my stomach churn, but also what I have seen. As the president of the All Africa Conference of Churches, I made a pastoral visit to Rwanda in 1995, a year after the genocide. I went to Ntarama, where hundreds of Tutsis had fled to the church for safety. The year 1994 was not the first time that interethnic violence had gripped Rwanda. With each previous eruption of fighting any church became
a refuge, a sanctuary from the insanity beyond its walls. In 1994 the Hutu Power movement respected no sanctuary. Tutsi people were slaughtered in churches throughout Rwanda. The Ntarama church was no different. It provided no safety for the people, mostly women and children, who had cowered there. The floor was strewn with a record of the horror that had occurred in that place. Clothing and suitcases were scattered among the bones. The small skulls of children lay shattered on the floor. The new government had not removed the corpses, so the church was like a mortuary, with the bodies lying as they had fallen the year before. The stench was overpowering. Outside the church building was a collection of skulls, some still stuck with machetes and daggers. I tried to pray. I could only weep.
All over the world people have inflicted unspeakable violence on other people. On missions to the Sudan, to Gaza, and to Northern Ireland I have borne witness to some of the viciousness that human beings can unleash on each other.
Brutality can be as intimate as it is global. Our cruelties are played out in the intimacy of our own homes and neighborhoods as much as they are experienced on the world stage. I have shared my daughter Mpho's anguish as she has described some of her experiences in ministry to me. She has worked with rape survivors in South Africa: a fifteen-year-old girl who spent countless nights sleeping in the school bathroom to escape her father's molestation and her mother's rage and impotence. Mpho cared for an eight-year-old girl twice violated by a neighbor. Because the neighbor had threatened to kill her family, the frightened child named someone else as the perpetrator the first time she was molested. It was only after the second assault that she dared to tell the truth. My daughter sat with an eighty-year old woman brutalized by a stranger. She listened as the doctor who attended the victim struggled to contain her own distress: "The genital lacerations were so ragged and awful, I hardly knew where to begin to sew her up." In Massachusetts, Mpho worked with women of many races and every economic stratum who had fled from domestic violence to homelessness. She has been with wealthy women too ashamed to turn to their friends for support or shelter, and poor women who had nowhere to go. She has provided pastoral counseling to families struggling with the effects of substance abuse: loss of livelihood, loss of self-respect, frayed family ties, and, often, violence.
As married persons, as priests, and as parents we have both encountered the disappointments, failures, and despair that can infect human relationships. Hearing my mother's screams and my father's drunken beatings, I have known that noxious brew of fear and rage that courses through a small boy. Even as adults in our own marriages, we have both known moments when the joy of marriage shrivels in the heat of a bitter argument.
We know all too well the cruelties, hurts, and hatreds that poison life on our planet. But my daughter and I have come together to write this book because we know that the catalogue of injuries that we can and do inflict on one another is not the whole story of humanity, not by a long measure — as I hope you will see and as you no doubt know in your heart. We are indeed made for something more. We are made for goodness.
We are fundamentally good. When you come to think of it, that's who we are at our core. Why else do we get so outraged by wrong? When we hear of any egregious act, we are appalled. Isn't that an incredible assertion about us? Evil and wrong are aberrations. If wrong was the norm, it wouldn't be news. Our newscasts wouldn't lead with the latest acts of murder or mayhem, because they would be ordinary. But murder and mayhem are not the norm. The norm is goodness.
From the book Made For Goodness By Desmond Tutu. Copyright 2010 by HarperCollins . Reprinted with permission by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins. All rights reserved.