The son of a schoolteacher and a domestic servant, Desmond Tutu would grow up to become a prominent figure on the world stage. With Nelson Mandela locked behind bars for almost three decades, the apartheid government in South Africa saw Tutu as their greatest threat.
Tutu’s reputation belied his simple charm. Interviewers remember his impish giggle and his corny jokes. Wearing a standard bishop’s uniform—purplish shirt with a white clerical collar—he usually introduced himself as “the Arch,” short for Archbishop. Words were his power, for he commanded no armies other than the thousands who flocked to hear him speak. Only 5’4″ tall, he would bound up the steps of a stage, like an excited schoolboy, to address a protest rally. Richard Stengel, the former managing editor of Time, called him “perhaps the most spellbinding speaker I’ve ever seen”:
His voice ranged over octaves, from squeals of laughter to a basso profundo of moral righteousness, from whispers of prayer to shouts of joy. When the spirit moved him—which was often—he would do a Hobbit-like dance on stage. I’d never really understood the phrase “infectious laughter” until I heard him speak. His goal was never changing: to mobilize people against injustice but always, always toward forgiveness and love. In the face of so much injustice and despair, he never lost his faith, and never failed to inspire it in others. There may be no atheists in foxholes, as the saying goes, and there were very few in the audience after Tutu spoke.
Tutu didn’t let countless death threats deter him from public appearances. Although the security police targeted for assassination other leaders who opposed apartheid, they considered Tutu too high-profile, especially after he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. They did harass him, however, arresting him at demonstrations, bombing his office, and seizing his passport to keep him from traveling outside the country.
Eventually the white population, who controlled South Africa’s army and police but were outnumbered almost ten to one, realized that something had to change. Out of the limelight, secret negotiations with Tutu and Mandela paved the way to Mandela’s release from prison and the first free elections open to all races. Appropriately, it was Tutu who introduced Mandela to cheering crowds as the first president of the new South Africa.
Whites feared, and many observers predicted, that the changeover would lead to a bloody era of revenge. Instead, Mandela sought to defuse the pattern of retribution that he had seen in so many countries, where one oppressed race or tribe took control from another. For help he turned to his friend, the Arch.
Thus Desmond Tutu undertook one of the most arduous and emotionally wrenching assignments of the last century. For more than three years he presided over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings of South Africa. The rules were simple: if a white policeman or army officer voluntarily faced his accusers, confessed his crime, and fully acknowledged his guilt, he could apply for amnesty, with some restitution to the victims. Hard-liners grumbled about the injustice of letting criminals go free, but Mandela and Tutu both insisted that the country needed healing even more than it needed justice.
Day after day, Tutu heard details of deeds from hell committed in his own country. Afrikaner agents told of abusing pregnant women, torturing prisoners with waterboarding and electric shocks, beating suspects senseless, and sometimes shooting them in cold blood. Blacks confessed to “necklacing” corroborators by hanging gasoline-soaked tires around their necks and lighting them. The horror stories knew no end.
Spellbound, South Africans watched on live television as victims of violence, 22,000 in all, gave testimony. Some began calling it the Kleenex Commission, for occasionally Tutu would put his head on his desk and sob as he heard the accounts.
When he accepted the assignment, Tutu braced himself for a severe test of his theology, in part because “good Christians” had carried out so many of the crimes. Apartheid was, after all, the brainchild and official doctrine of the Dutch Reformed Church there. To his surprise, his faith strengthened.
Tutu insisted on opening the days’ meetings in prayer. In the midst of that time a reporter asked him, Why do you pray? He answered that prayer was his main source of strength:
If your day starts off wrong, it stays skewed. What I’ve found is that getting up a little earlier and trying to have an hour of quiet in the presence of God, mulling over some scripture, supports me. I try to have two, three hours of quiet per day and even when I exercise, when I go on the treadmill for thirty minutes, I use that time for intercession. I try to have a map in my mind of the world and I go around the world, continent by continent—only Africa I try to do in a little more detail—and offer all of that to God.
Then he would put on his judicial robes and take his seat before a commission that endeavored to bring truth and reconciliation to a morally polluted land. He stayed at his post even after being diagnosed with prostate cancer.
When the commission released its final report, Tutu published his personal reflections in a book titled, No Future Without Forgiveness. The hearings had confirmed his belief in forgiveness as the only way forward from a dark past:
Having looked the beast of the past in the eye, having asked and received forgiveness and having made amends, let us shut the door on the past—not in order to forget it but in order not to allow it to imprison us. Let us move into the glorious future of a new kind of society where people count, not because of biological irrelevancies or other extraneous attributes, but because they are persons of infinite worth created in the image of God.
In his remaining years, until he died last month at the age of 90, Tutu lived out what he had learned. He met with people on both sides of the nation’s divide—conservatives and liberals, white nationalists and Black activists, policemen and prisoners—always listening to them with civility and respect. Indeed, he emerged from the TRC hearings with renewed hope: “For us who are Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is proof positive that love is stronger than hate, that life is stronger than death, that light is stronger than darkness, that laughter and joy, and compassion and gentleness and truth, all these are so much stronger than their ghastly counterparts.”
Gary Haugen, who worked as an investigator for the TRC and went on to found the International Justice Mission, reflected on Archbishop Tutu’s death this way: “I reckon that this would be one of the more seamless passings of a human from one dimension of eternal life to another because he seemed to continuously breathe in this life from the same breath he now draws in the next. As a young person, I saw with my own eyes a life lived in an everyday freedom from fear that I had never seen before, nor imagined to be possible. Under the most severe test of evil and violence, he lived as if the things that Jesus taught were actually true—a way of living that seemed to change everything.”
Philip, I commented in an earlier blog that your memoir, Where the Light Fell, moved me deeply. In particular, your lessons about grace became even more poignant when I understood the painful family and church situations you lived through.
I have been re-reading What’s So Amazing about Grace after reading your memoir, and this time when I got to the part about Margaret and Michael, I had more context and understood that they were your mother and brother, Marshall. This was a gut-wrenching realization. And considering your own strong, sure faith, it’s perplexing to think of them not caught up in the “scandal” of grace and forgiveness you have been exploring so eloquently for decades.
As I relate your experiences to some with my own family, I’m trying to understand why, when presented with such amazing and powerful gifts of healing and reconciliation, some continue to refuse them — even in the name of Jesus.
I am praying for Margaret and Marshall as I pray for my own family for — I’m not even sure what terms to use — for insight, revelation, openness, acceptance of God’s grace.
Jesus came from the Father, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14) – not just grace but grace and truth. How the conjunction of truth with grace informs the ministry of grace is something I struggle to understand. Could the life of Desmond Tutu be a prophetic answer? Your tribute, Philip, leads me to believe that it can.
As many others have replied, thank you for this tribute to Desmond Tutu.
Mr. Yancey, you are my absolute favourite of Christian writers. I believe in forgiveness and I have read so much literature and listened to so many sermons on forgiveness. However, I believe that too many Christians who hurt others play the victim and hide behind the one who is hurt need to forgive, that they take no responsibility for hurting others. In my reality, Christians are highly reluctant to use the phrase “I am sorry”. In a discussion on this topic, I heard one of my church brothers say he could never apologize to anyone. I am yet to hear anyone preaching about the necessity and importance of using this phrase. I have asked my pastor to preach a sermon on this and I am still waiting to hear it. So, for the most part, do we really forgive, or do we just file our hurts and tolerate one another for peace sake so that we will appear as good Christians? My pastor teaches that when you forgive, you trust the person who hurt you just as if he/she did not hurt you. I am a realist Mr. Yancey, I have a long way to go to get to that level. And I know my pastor! Hurt him and you become the topic for his next sermon.
Mr. Yancey, I have been reading the Bible to find an instance where forgiveness is given without repentance. The favourite example of forgiveness for pastors is the story of “The Prodigal Son” but I have noted one thing that hardly gets mentioned, if ever; the wayward son said he was sorry. O yes, the father ran to meet him but I have often wondered how he would have reacted if the boy had said, “My money is done, I’m back for more old man.”
Will God forgive anyone who does not repent? “Forgiveness is by volition.” So is repentance. That was why Jesus had to let the rich young man walk away even though He loved him so much.
So Mr. Yancey, how important and necessary is it for Christians who knowingly hurt others to apologize? Like everyone else, I have been hurt by many people and I have no desire for vengeance nor do I hate them but it sure would have been nice to hear one Christian say, “I am sorry.”
Please help me, I am desperate to understand.
You are absolutely right that “I am sorry” are probably the three most difficult words to say, and that we hear more about forgiveness than apology. You asked if I knew a biblical example of forgiveness without apology. The closest I know is Jesus on the cross, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” Interestingly, though, it’s a prayer, not a direct granting of forgiveness. I dealt with this topic in the little book The Scandal of Forgiveness, which was largely adapted from What’s So Amazing About Grace. Lewis Smedes’s books on forgiveness are extremely helpful.
I was dreading the day Desmond Tutu died as after Mandela he was the greatest high profile person on the planet. I should have faith however that he has sown a great many seeds that will emerge today and in the future to usher in a tidal wave of love and forgiveness amongst all of us regardless of faith, non faith, skin colour or bad decisions we have made. Fortunately he’s written some tremendous books for us to enjoy. “The Book of Joy” with his friend the Dahli Lama and “The book of Forgiving” with his daughter Mpho to name but just two.
Dear Philip, thank you for this reflection, and for so many others as well. I addressed this theme, too, in my recent Friends & Family letter, in reflecting on Romans 12. I so appreciate your thoughtful presentation of important people and ideas, and what they mean for us. Have you thought about interviewing or being interviewed by Jordan Peterson? I think you two would get along splendidly, and be able to both learn from one another and share thoughts and ideas that will teach, inspire and encourage many. I suggested this to Jordan Peterson on Reddit (I doubt that he read it, but in any case, I thought I would leave the idea for him – and here for you). Blessings. – Andrew
That’s an intriguing idea. Thank you.
Great article. Humbling to know what our God can do through the life of one of His servants. “Arch” was certainly a willing vessel through which God could pour his love, forgiveness, and healing.
A beautiful tribute. Thank you.
How can I be an educated 72-year-old American woman and not have been fully aware of the details of this great spiritual leader’s role in resolving the horror of apartheid? I don’t know. Thank you, Philip. We’ll done.
Brother Yancey your ability to capture the essence of a life with an economy of words amazes me. Of Brother Tutu, I think of your recent memoir title. Surely rhe light fell on the Arch!
We South Africans have lost a giant. My husband worked for Desmond in the late 1980s as Justice and Reconcilation officer for the then Diocese of Natal. He was the most personable, humble, real man, a light to spirituality, justice and hope. Together with Mandela, the Arch was my hero. RIP Desmond and thank you for all you did, not only for our beloved Rainbow Nation, but for the whole world.
Thank you so much for this tribute. I remember the days of the TRC hearings on TV every night: I was at law school in Cape Town at the time – trying to make sense of what it meant to be a Christian as well as a participant in this new democracy we were forging in real time, all the while stories of such horror were being told. I appreciated Archbishop Tutu’s role at the time, but not nearly with the depth I appreciate it now 25 years later: I can’t even imagine what South Africa would have come to were it not for his and Mandela’s leadership and example of forgiveness and reconciliation.
We were privileged to hear Desmond Tutu many years ago when we lived in Northern Virginia. He came to speak at our church in Vienna, VA. He was such a humble servant!
A truly Premarkable man, from almost every perspective!
Once again your writing “exposes my inmost thoughts to the light of truth”. Thanks
Quote is from Gold by Moonlight by Amy Carmichael.
Thankyou Philip. A beautiful tribute to a most inspiring man
Such a beautiful reflection on such a beautiful soul. Thank you, Philip.
This is a beautiful tribute to a beautiful man. Thank you for your words.
Thank you Philip. As always I enjoyed your reflections.
I do not read or watch the news. Where is the truth found? I pray for revival in the church, an abundance of new Believers and reconciliation and forgiveness in the US.
Wow, so good. Thank you!
Thank you for such an honoring and inspiring tribute to someone who embodied grace and truth in a hostile political environment.
Thank you and bless you for writing about this incredible man! Sadly, I was not aware of his impact on the world until now. If Christians would live as he did, as Christ taught us, what a change we could bring to our city, country and the world.
Loved and enjoyed this blog. My dearest sister passed yesterday January 8, 2022, hopefully 🙏 to Gods promised garden.
Beautiful. I have so much to learn. But if I can learn just 5% of what Archbishop Tutu did, and live it, my life will be different. Pray for me Arch! And thankyou.
A Great tribute to the immense work of Desmond Tutu. He lived and modeled his faith.