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South Africa

new internationalist
issue 233 - July 1992

Just call me Arch
The man who is problably the world's most famous (and infamous) bishop talks to
Anuradha Vittachi about passion, suffering, freedom and forgiveness.

Tutu: no hotline to heaven.

'The genie is out of the lamp now,' Archbishop Desmond Tutu told us confidently, as he stood in the sunny courtyard outside his official residence at Bishop's Court, Cape Town. 'You can't stuff it back in.' He was absolutely right. A few days later, on March 17, a resounding 68 per cent of the voters in the whites-only referendum called by FW de Klerk said 'Yes' to ending apartheid.

Speaking with self-assured directness appears, at first, to be the Archbishop's natural style. On the mantelpiece in his study stands a photograph of Tutu wearing a T-shirt emblazoned 'Just call me Arch'. But it hasn't always been easy for him to be this confident; despite his sinewy intelligence and wit, he admits to years of torture by self-doubt. When he won the Nobel Peace Prize, the theme of his acceptance speech was the humiliating poison-seed of self-doubt sown by the oppressors within the hearts of those whom they oppress.

At 61, he still agonizes over his motives and methods: 'You don't have a hotline to heaven. Even Jesus didn't have a hotline! There are no foolproof ways... How do you struggle for justice? Do you speak out in a way that antagonizes those you are addressing - or should you sometimes compromise? What is God's will?'

But when he is attacked for being too political, he dismisses that accusation for its hypocrisy: 'I have never yet heard the hungry, the naked, the oppressed, the exploited say, "Bishop Tutu you are being too political in speaking up for our rights." The people who say, "Don't mix religion with politics," almost always are benefiting from that particular status quo which is being criticized.'

Indeed, he believes that his faith actively demands from him this commitment to action: 'If God were a god only concemed with my soul and my spirit, I would have no truck with such a god. When someone is hungry, Jesus Christ doesn't say, "Oh, let us pray - and goodbye." When someone is hungry Jesus feeds them.'

Tutu's faith and belief in the importance of meeting the needs of the marginalized demands a pro-active involvement: 'When the Spirit of the Lord is upon you, watch out! Because it does not allow you to luxuriate in a spiritual ghetto, a kind of ivory tower. The Spirit of the Lord propels you into the world God loved.'

Just what can a clergyman do, though? Faced with the terrible tragedies that occur every day in the shanty-towns fringing the cities, where millions of black and 'coloured' people live to provide cheap labour for the elite in the city centres, it is easy for a pastor to feel helpless. And feeling helpless is a deeply distressing experience.

But Tutu seems open to the experience - and even to admitting frankly to its pain. For example, he described to us his attempt to comfort a mother whose sons, aged 11 and 13, had been pulled out of their house and shot arbitrarily by the police: 'She sat there in front of us, and kept wiping her eyes - but there were no tears. It seemed as if she were trying to remove from in front of her face images she couldn't bear to look on. I've never felt such a fraud, trying to tell her about the love of God...'

Compassion at its toughest and truest is said to be the ability to 'be with suffering' (coin-passion) when there seems no way out of the pain. This is the challenge that Tutu accepts: to remain present, with a never-ending offer of love and hope, where there appears to be no cause for anything but despair - without running away.

Tutu takes the Passion of Jesus as his guiding light. His parishioners' humiliation, abandonment, arrest, torture, despair, death are all parallelled in Jesus' Good Friday experience. But since Jesus, Tutu believes, miraculously rose on Easter Sunday ('breaking the bonds of death'), why should he not feel hope also for new life and freedom for his people?

This optimism does not lead him to wave an apolitical olive branch. 'Reconciliation does not mean papering over cracks, crying "Peace! Peace!" where there is no peace. It's no good saying, "Bishop Tutu, I'm sorry I stole your pen," whilst you retain my pen. You show that you are in earnest by retuming my pen. There is going to have to be restitution. Three and a half million people have been uprooted and taken away from their homes and dumped, often in poverty-stricken resettlement camps... We have been trying to persuade our goveinment they ought to restore what has been taken away from our people.'

Despite the material restitution that the whites will have to make to the blacks, Tutu feels that they have much to gain. 'Injustice, oppression,' he says gravely, 'dehumanize the oppressor as much as - if not more than - the oppressed. When a Cabinet Minister can say, addressing a political rally, that the death of Steve Biko leaves him cold - what could have happened to the humanity of a person who can actually say, about the death of a fellow human being, that it leaves him cold?'

He is convinced that, 'In South Africa, the only way we can be human is together, black and white, because our humanity is bound up in one another's. We want our fellow South Africans to know that when we are diminished, they are diminished, and that they will not be free until we are free.'

South Africa, it has often been remarked, is like a microcosm of the world: North and South crammed tightly together in one nation. If white and black South Africans do come to recognize, as Archbishop Tutu hopes, that their humanity is bound up with one another, what a stunning example they could set for our hemispherically-divided world.

Anuradha Vittachi is a UK-based writer, researcher, film-maker and former NI editor. © Word Pictures, 1992.

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New Internationalist issue 233 magazine cover This article is from the July 1992 issue of New Internationalist.
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