Global Currents article

Desmond Tutu: A Much-Loved, Deeply Disturbed, and Offensive Prophet

Desmond Tutu receiving the Skoll Global Treasure Award, March 2011. Image via Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-2.0

Sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid and seldom without humour, Desmond Tutu’s voice will always be the voice of the voiceless.

Nelson Mandela

This God did not just talk. He showed Himself to be a doing God. Perhaps we might add another point about God. He takes sides. He is not a neutral God. He took the sides of the enslaved, the oppressed, and the victims. He is still the same, even today. He sides with the poor, the oppressed and the victims of injustice.

–Desmond Tutu (Sparks & Tutu, 73)

We must resist the temptation to impose our own “sweetness”—often a camouflage for our lack of courage—on to Desmond Tutu. Before the formal end of apartheid, Tutu was primarily the voice that demanded justice for the oppressed on the one hand and the boycott of, divestment from, and sanctions against the apartheid regime on the other. Only after the end of apartheid, when the regime was forced by our collective resistance to relent, free our leaders from prison, and get their boots off our necks, did Tutu, the reconciler, emerge. 

Since the late seventies, I have had the enormous privilege of encountering and working with many of the giants of South Africa’s liberation struggle, including Desmond Tutu. I’m moved that Tutu, on more than one occasion, described me as a “trusted advisor.” I spoke at his enthronement as Archbishop of Cape Town in 1986. I worked with him on many initiatives in the liberation struggle, including the promotion of inter-religious solidarity against apartheid. After the formal struggle against apartheid ended, we collaborated very closely on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns against the Israeli government—often drafting statements and/or cross-checking them with one other. 

Desmond Tutu: A Much-Loved, Deeply Disturbed, and Offensive Prophet

Tutu was a Christian, a mensch, and a prophet. I use the word prophet in the sense given to it by liberation theology as someone desperate to challenge power and injustice. All of these dimensions were seamlessly interwoven in his identity and his vocation. His identity as a Christian was something that everyone either joyfully embraced or with which they had to put up. His identity as a mensch, most people loved. His third identity, that of a prophet, was celebrated by people on the margins of society and either met with silence or disdain by the powerful. Many embraced all the different dimensions of his being and witness. In this essay, I will reflect on all three of these aspects of his identity and then deal with the tension between the last two, his being a mensch and a prophet. More particularly, I will discuss Tutu’s prophetic voice as one that spoke the truth to the powerful and oppressive Pharaoh as well as to his own people—even the state of their relative powerlessness. In these seemingly different voices he recognized the urgency to seek freedom from the external Pharaoh, on the one hand and sleeping Pharaoh within us, on the other. 

Tutu, the Christian 

I have a telling anecdote about Tutu’s identity as a Christian in the context of his work on promoting inter-religious solidarity against injustice. Knowing and observing how close he was to his Muslim comrades on the battlefield, one Muslim activist came to me and Imam Hassan Solomon (d. 2009), another leading liberation struggle icon and asked, nearly pleading: “Have you guys ever tried speaking to the Archbishop about Islam (! لعل أن يصبح مسلما )? Perchance, he will embrace Islam!” In a gentle rebuke, Imam Hassan responded: “Look, The archbishop is upright; leave him exactly as he is. If he is going to lean into a direction other than where he is at the moment, he will be skewed from the path of righteousness!”

In his response, Solomon demonstrates the primacy of orthopraxis above orthodoxy, something defining about liberation theology in general, but, more specifically, about Tutu’s theology, as is evident in his work, God Is Not a Christian. In an interview from June 15, 2010 with Allister Sparks on this topic he responded,

I am a Christian, but the books that we hold to provide for how we should be thinking about God. […] I mean, right at the beginning, the gospel of John tells about ‘the light that lightens everyone’; it does not say ‘the light that lightens those who become Christians’; it says ‘everyone who comes into the world.’ (113) 

His embrace of the religiosity and spiritual paths of others went well beyond the, however well-intended, condescending view first clearly articulated by Karl Rahner (1904–1984) that people who have never heard the Christian Gospel might be saved through Christ. On this view, as Gavin D’Costa writes, the non-Christians could have “in [their] basic orientation and fundamental decision accepted the salvific grace of God, through Christ, although [they] may never have heard of the Christian revelation” (132). 

John Allen, his personal assistant of many years, recalls in an interview with Sparks on June 16, 2010 Tutu saying during a conference of interfaith leaders: “Don’t insult people of other faiths by saying, ‘Oh, actually our God is your God, too; You are a Christian too without knowing it.’ Don’t insult people by reducing their faith to that” (313).

While the God that Tutu worshipped was decidedly not a Christian, Tutu certainly was one, as demonstrated in his love for and agonized relationship with the Anglican Church. He was concerned with all its Anglo ceremonial and hierarchical trappings and doctrine, and sustained a relentless critique of its positions on the ordination of women and the recognition of gay rights, among others. While he celebrated religious diversity in public, in private, Christ was his only avenue to God. Tutu commenced every meeting with him—regardless of the religious composition of those present—with a prayer. Careful to avoid doctrinal expressions that may not sit well with any non-Christians present, he never ceded his role as the assumed leader and always offered what could only have been a Christian prayer in mode and content. Tutu spent four hours every day on his knees in silent contemplation. 

Jesus Christ as Lord, saviour, and liberator permeated his speeches, prayers, and interventions—in short, his entire being. His faith in Jesus Christ was always endearing and often disarming to those who detested what Tutu otherwise stood for or what Christ represented to him. His profound belief in a personal God who hears and responds to him occasionally infuriated his comrades who did not share in his cherished relationship with a personal God. Sometimes we would spend many hours debating the wisdom of marching to Parliament, starting from St. Georges Cathedral in the Cape Town city centre, literally a stone’s throw away from Parliament. We were fully aware that we would be confronting the police and end up being arrested if we did. On a few occasions just before the march, Tutu, who was never a signed-up comrade of any of our political formations, would go into his sanctuary to pray for guidance, only to emerge from there saying something to the effect that this is not what he was moved to do by the spirit! 

Tutu as a Mensch

Tutu was fully human and fully alive. He carried his power and fragility on his sleeves. He was a compelling character who was aware of his power but was never manipulative. While he was an irredeemable patriarch and an uncomfortable fit with progressive views on all the implications of gender equality, he was never a poster boy for machoism or patriarchy. In a moment of slumber, he advised the then-divorced President Nelson Mandela to get married to his partner, Graca Machel, because at his (Mandela’s) age, “He needs someone to bring his slippers to him when he gets up in the morning.” (While Machel needs no qualifications to avoid this kind of sexism, she was our neighboring country’s Minister of Education for several years.).

Tutu was fully aware of his stature in the world but never arrogant. He was always visibly and utterly dependent on the grace of the Transcendent. The one moment he could not perform was when he appeared as a humble petitioner trembling in front of God. 

He loved all deeply, including his enemies, and was unashamedly desperate to be loved. He was a humble person, but was never so in the face of oppressive power. Easily moved to tears, he had a will of steel. 

In what we call “struggle circles,” we found him infuriating for the simplicity of his kindness and love. He unfailingly referred to Prime Minister PW Botha, then the major enforcer of Apartheid, as “‘his brother-in-Christ.’ ‘Whether I like it or not; whether he likes it or not; PW both is my brother, and I must desire and pray for the best in him.’” Only much later did we see the value of our own humanity in never denying the humanity of our oppressors. 

The world may know Tutu as a speaker, but he was also a listener. He was usually in a state of wakefulness when it came to justice and injustice, but he also fell asleep on occasion. When he awakened, he always grateful and happy to listen.

Sometime in August 2012, we learnt—and were alarmed—that Tutu was scheduled to speak alongside Tony Blair at a conference on leadership in Johannesburg. At a meeting among activists, many felt that we should publicly condemn him. I and others in Africa4Palestine said: “No, this is not how we treat comrades; the Arch is one of us in the trenches against injustice, and our first obligation is to speak to him.” Representing BDS-South Africa (now Africa4Palestine), I called Tutu and had a long conversation with him about the wrongfulness of sharing a platform with a war criminal. As was his habit, he replied that he needed to pray over the matter. Early the following day, he called  to thank me (it was really “us”) for tugging at him and waking him up at a moment when he fell into an unethical slumber. Within hours the news was all over the media that Tutu had withdrawn from the conference because he refused to share a platform with a war criminal who should be in the Hague facing the International Criminal Court instead of pontificating about leadership in Africa. Remarking on his decision, he said,

The then leaders of the United States and Great Britain […] fabricated the grounds to behave like playground bullies and drive us further apart. They have driven us to the edge of a precipice where we now stand – with the spectre of Syria and Iran before us. [… ] On these grounds, alone, in a consistent world, those responsible for this suffering and loss of life should be treading the same path as some of their African and Asian peers who have been made to answer for their actions in The Hague. 

Tutu as Prophet

Tutu as Prophetic Witness

Archbishop Desmond Tutu had a profound moral compass that was attuned to identifying and then confronting injustice. He was impulsive in his quest for a more just world. Inexorably driven to pursue a more just world like a moth drawn to a candle, he had no option but to go towards the light, even as he was a candle in his own right. The light, for him, was a more humane and just world. His impulses were at odds with the world and trappings of worldly power. As Sparks and Mpho Tutu write, 

[…] He acted impulsively, driven by a passion for compassion. That compassion itself is the product of his ever-deepening spirituality, his belief that humanity is sacred and that every individual is a God-carrier to be cherished. Not for a second did any political strategy or agenda play a role in what Tutu did […]. (83)

Tutu remained consistent in his prophetic approach, which he clearly articulated in New York in 1973 at Union Theological Seminary. When referring to Black theology, he said

[… It ] is an engaged, not an academic, detached theology. It is a gut-level theology, relating to the black man’s real concerns, life, and death issues. My paper [he could have said “my life”] is not an attempt to demonstrate the academic respectability of black theology but rather to make a straightforward, perhaps shrill, statement about an existent. Black theology is. No permission is requested for it to come into being […]. Frankly, the time has passed when we will wait for the white man to give us permission to do our thing. Whether or not he accepts the intellectual respectability of our activity is largely irrelevant. We will proceed regardless. (138–39)

Prophetic witness is often regarded solely in the paradigm or narrative of Moses confronting and speaking the truth to Pharoah. However, there is another calling, Moses speaking the truth to his people. As Tutu once said, “White oppression is not the only bondage from which Black people had to be liberated. When the white oppressor is removed, far too often he is succeeded by his Black counterpart.” (75). Tutu is, for example, and not without good cause, revered as an icon of non-violence and a voice of moderation; this is Moses addressing his own people who stray from what the prophet believes is true of their higher selves. Other examples of this include Tutu’s intervention in cases of mob lynching or, on rare occasions, when he negatively commented on the liberation movement’s final resort to armed struggle against the apartheid regime after years of knocking and banging on the Pharaoh’s doors. He retained this fundamental prophetic calling until he transitioned into the afterlife through his consistent and often scathing criticism of the African National Congress government on a range of issues ranging from corruption to the government’s denial in 2011 of a visa to the Dalai Lama. Tutu reminds us that we have to resist becoming the evil that we abhor. 

This prophetic Tutu was embraced by all, albeit for different reasons. For a significant number, he was going to be the barrier that saves the civilized White people from the potential and ever-latent barbarism of Black people that may be unleashed when their liberation comes. Their disquiet was about Black people utilizing armed struggle for their liberation. Of course, for them there was never a concern with challenging White power that resorts to arms to invade, occupy, oppress, and sustain their own economies built on the military-industrial complex. For them, it was only the “cuddly” Tutu to be embraced; his revolutionary energy was to be squeezed out amid that embrace. Cornel West, in relation to Martin Luther King Jr. describes this as “SantaClausification,” a deliberate attempt to first colonize the revoultionary heritage of the prophet and then marshal this in the service of ongoing subjugation. 

Tutu As Prophetic Offender

The other Tutu is the prophet who privileges the responsibility to confront the Pharaoh and demand, “Let my people go!” above that of confronting his own people and their inadequacies. His people, their liberation movement, utterings, and practices were often profoundly problematic, but they were not the problem. Pharaoh, in this case, the apartheid regime—was the problem.

This explains why Tutu, when he was in the public arena, hardly paid any attention to the troubling questions of disunity among the Palestinian liberation movements, the decimation of the Palestinian Christian community, the disconcerting Islamization of some parts of the resistance movement, the Palestinian resort to armed struggle, and even suicide operations. The responses of the occupied to their occupation, however deeply flawed and problematic, are not the problem. The Occupation is

More than just part of his charisma, underneath his cuddly and bubbly performance was a mad and troubled man, permanently in a state of unease with an unjust world and stubbornly resisting the idea that, in Margaret Thatcher’s words, “There is no alternative.” He was constantly in search of “the least,” as in the words of Christ: “What you have done to the least of my companions, you have done to me” (Matthew 25:37–40). He was also willing to rethink, in various contexts, what constitutes “the least.” Initially, for him, the people on the margins were Black people. He then moved on to consider all the impoverished and marginalized, and then to include those living under the boots, bullets, and bombs of Zionism, and then those who were rejected based on their sexual orientation and identity, and then those who were in excruciating physical and mental pain who were desperate to die, and then our home, the ravaged earth. The list goes on from there. 

Tutu had no desire to offend but knew that he would. He embraced this offensiveness and often mischievously responded to it as if he had no clue that he would offend. From this disturbance and refusal to adjust to a fundamentally unjust world, Tutu remained a maladjusted human being all of his life. Archbishop Desmond Tutu embraced being offensive and calculatingly infuriating as the logical outcome of his unease with the world. Something is wrong with you if Pharaoh is not troubled by your tirades—if you are equally welcome in his court as you are on the streets of the oppressed, where people are barely able to survive under the boots of oppressors and/or are dying from the bullets of the soldiers of occupation. 

Unlike just about every other cause in the world, that of the Palestinians can earn one nearly immediate opprobrium in the world of power. Go beyond the “peace and security for both sides” refrain and name the problem—“Israel is an apartheid state”—and you are stuck with the brand “antisemite.” He was aware of the profound offense that would cause, and he went ahead—repeatedly—with his persistent description of Israel as an apartheid state that has to be boycotted and sanctioned. Inside South Africa, where, mercifully, the Zionist lobby carries preciously little weight, they lamented his ignorance of the what they argued was the “real” situation. “He ventures where angels fear to tread, not because he is brave, but because he is ignorant.” 

Abroad he was denounced as an antisemite—an accusation that alternatively caused him pain and some measure of bemusement. On several occasions he misspoke, inadvertently or not, of “Zionists” and “Jews” as if equivalent. Yet, he conveyed what would become even more oppressive in subsequent years, the inability to say anything critical of Israeli state violence that will not prompt accusations of antisemitism. Speaking in New York In late April 2002, he said: “People are scared in [America] to say wrong is wrong because the Jewish lobby is powerful, very powerful. Well, so what? Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin were all-powerful, but, in the end, they bit the dust.” The construct—“the Jewish lobby is powerful”—does traffic in antisemitic tropes. But for Tutu, this misspoken moment unfolded because of his prophetic support of Palestinians. His misspeaking here conveys the convergence of his prophetic and all too human dimensions. That his speech verged into unfortunate antisemitic tropes does not change the fact that he could have accepted most certainly the learning such a moment could afford (in the same way that he stood corrected around sharing a stage with Blair). Likewise, this moment of a divergence from what is right does not change the depth of prophetic solidarity his support of the Palestinian struggle against the boot of the Israeli occupation and apartheid regime inhabited.   

Tutu’s theology was simple: embrace the logic and the dreams of the margins. 

During the days of apartheid, we never had a specific word for “Whites” who were oppressing us. We just said “The Whites” because that was the face of oppression. We used the term “Whites” synonymously as “oppressors” even as we consistently affirmed the non-racial ideal for our country’s post-apartheid future and embraced numerous Whites as our comrades. A White Jew, Joe Slovo (d. 1995), headed the revered South African Communist Party. Another, Ronnie Kasrills, led our underground army (Umkhonto we Sizwe). White Jews and numerous young Afrikaners were at the forefront of the End Conscription Campaign (ECC, est. 1983) that sought to persuade young White males to resist conscription into the apartheid army. Neither in public nor inside the circles of the liberation movement was it ever considered an issue, let alone improper, that when we spoke about “White oppression” or the “Afrikaner Reich,” that we included them or diminished the suffering of Jews at the hands of the Nazi Holocaust.

Parenthetically, for me, conscious of the larger historical demonization of Jews, I will never use “Jews” as a synonym for Zionists, Occupiers, and Oppressors—even as all Zionists insist that Jewish identity is synonymous with Zionism. Tutu’s deployment of an antisemitic trope detracted from his prophetic outcry against the actual experiences of Palestinian oppression by a regime that calls itself “Jewish.” This, notwithstanding, I do not hold the Palestinians, who daily experience the only face of their oppressor as a Jewish one, accountable to the same universalist and humanitarian logic. 

In 1984 Tutu, on a visit to the US, described Ronald Reagan’s administration as “an unmitigated disaster for us blacks” (95) and Reagan himself as “a racist pure and simple.” In 1988 he condemned a speech by Ronald Reagan in which the US president defended the continued involvement of US companies in the South African economy as “nauseating” and “the pits.” For his part, said Tutu, “America and the west can go to hell.” 

Upon careful reflection, these two prophetic modes of engagement—as a witness and as an offender—are not two utterly different callings. On the one hand, there is the calling to be fully human, to embrace all of humanity and our home and to hold your own, the oppressed, accountable. For there is always the element, capacity, or lesser manifestation of the Pharaonic present in all of us in our personal, public, religious, and political lives. On the other hand, there is the urgency of God’s preferential option for the marginalized to resist Pharaoh with all the might and anger at our disposal. The major challenge for us lies in embracing this dual calling along with a ruthless discernment about which aspects to the foreground in our public witness and at what particular time to bring them to the public. Which Tutu do we embrace, and at what moment?

Farid Esack
Farid Esack is a leading Muslim liberation theologian who cut his teeth in the South African struggle for liberation. He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Johannesburg Institute for Advance Studies. In 2018 he was presented with the Order of Luthuli, South Africa’s highest national award, for “his brilliant contribution to academic research and the fight against race, gender, class, and religious oppression”. He serves on the board of Africa4Palestine.

3 thoughts on “Desmond Tutu: A Much-Loved, Deeply Disturbed, and Offensive Prophet

  1. So relevant at this time when it is so difficult to wrap our brains around the slaughter of over 17,000 Palestinians while the world watches rather quietly and ineptly

  2. A few questions, Constance… By whose count are there over 17,000 casualties? Is any distinction made between terrorists and innocents in that number? Is Hamas allowing anyone in to adjudicate, who might be an objective arbiter (e.g. International Red Cross)? Are you acknowledging that October 7 was a slaughter of and kidnapping of virtually exclusively unarmed innocents? ….

    1. Along the lines of Mr Reimen’s comments, it is easy to polarize the current issue of the Israeli/Gaza conflict as a moral judgment between the two groups in conflict – the Israeli government and Hamas. But where is the help from the neighbors? What is Egypt’s role or Jordan, Iran and even Saudi Arabia’s? One thing can be sure. The Gazan Palestinians and Israeli hostages are being used as fodder for some perceived political gain that will never transform into any real permanent and peaceful solution.

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