A sermon by The Rev’d Joan Claring-Bould
“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 NRSV)
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu died in Cape Town on December 26 2021 at the age of 90. His death was met with an outpouring of praise and gratitude from leaders across the world for the man who was a tireless and fearless advocate for justice and equality in his fight against racism and later homophobia.
Desmond Tutu’s passion for justice began when he was young. His upbringing was in the context of poverty and apartheid. When he was 14 years old he spent months in hospital with tuberculosis. It was there that he met a white priest who would change the direction of his life.
Bp. Trevor Huddleston was an early antiapartheid activist who worked in a Johannesburg slum in the 1950s. The first time Desmond Tutu met Trevor Huddleston, the radical white priest doffed his hat to the young Desmond’s mother in a gesture almost unheard of in apartheid South Africa.
Later, whilst Desmond was in hospital Fr. Huddleston visited him almost every day. “This little boy very well could have died,” Fr. Huddleston told an interviewer many years later, “but he didn’t give up, and he never lost his glorious sense of humour”. (Bahamas Press, 27/21/21)
These characteristics of feistiness and humour endured as the hallmarks of Desmond Tutu’s life and ministry.
Desmond Tutu rose to prominence in the 1970s, at a time when South Africa was riven with violence between the followers of the ruling Afrikaner National Party and anti-apartheid population. The National Party considered white citizens to be superior to black citizens, which led to a great discrepancy between a privileged minority living amongst an impoverished majority. It was never going to lead to a peaceful co-existence.
In 1978 Desmond Tutu became secretary to the South African council of Churches and a leading spokesman for Black South Africans, and in 1984 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace ( ref. the front page of tonight’s order of service). In 1985 He was installed as the first Black Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg, and then in 1986 he was elected as the archbishop of Cape Town and the primate of South Africa.
In his inaugural sermon as Bishop of Johannesburg, Desmond Tutu had told his diocese that he would call on the international community to introduce sanctions against South Africa unless apartheid was being dismantled within 18-24 months.
It took another 4 years before President de Klerk began willing and open discussions to end apartheid. Finally, on February 11, 1990 Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years for his anti-apartheid leadership within the African National Congress, and four years later he was elected president.
Bp. Tutu compared being allowed to vote for the first time to “falling in love”, and said that after the birth of his first child, introducing Mr. Mandela as the country’s new president was the greatest moment of his life. In a Simeon moment he recalls, “I actually said to God, “I don’t mind if I die now.”
Nelson Mandela then appointed Desmond Tutu head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which investigated abuses during the apartheid era.
And it is this theme of truth and reconciliation that lies at the heart of Desmond Tutu’s spirituality and theology. He had a fundamental belief that all humans were born equal in the sight of God. Even though he was vehemently opposed to white supremacy rule, he never became opposed to white people. As I mentioned previously, he had been greatly influenced by Bp. Trevor Huddleston, in fact he named his first child Trevor after his white friend. Desmond Tutu had also studied and worked in the UK and travelled the world making friends wherever he went.
In public prayers he never forgot to mention those who upheld the apartheid system as well as the victims, because he believed that the perpetrators of apartheid crimes were not some kind of demons, but ordinary people who deserve to be shown compassion. He was known to say that the people who are perpetrators of apartheid were not evil, just ordinary people who are scared.
And he was as ready to criticise black people as he was white people. In 2011 Bp. Tutu blasted the president Zuma’s government proclaiming; “This Government, our Government is worse than the Apartheid Government because at least you were expecting it with the Apartheid Government.”
In his work for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Desmond Tutu advocated a model of reconciliation based on the scriptures. First, those involved in apartheid should repent, take full responsibility for their actions, and be ready to accept the consequences.
Then he added, “And the victims should act with mercy, and be generous with their forgiveness.”
I think that last step gives us something really significant to think about. Abuse of any kind needs to be dealt with very seriously, and for any reconciliation there must be repentance, (metanoia), acceptance of responsibility, and acceptance of consequences, but I want to suggest even from a personal perspective, that it is not always easy to even want to be generous with forgiveness. But that is the way of Jesus.
In summary, Desmond Tutu was an icon of reconciliation and truth telling, and a persistent advocate for justice and equality for all. He was happy to be known as South Africa’s troublesome priest,
He once commented that it was not just because of his work on apartheid that people recognised him, but because he had a big nose, and an easy name, Tutu!
In a recent article from the Anglican Journal of Canada Sean Frankling writes”
Archbishop Michael Ingham, retired Primate of Canada, remembers Desmond Tutu’s authenticity and generosity—not to mention his “impish” sense of humour.
In 1990, as archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu made what would turn out to be his last visit to Canada. Michael Ingham,….. recalls when Tutu arrived in Toronto, the Anglican church had arranged for him to stay at a Ramada hotel near Bloor and Yonge—one of the city’s most prominent intersections—where the management insisted on upgrading Tutu to the presidential suite, free of charge.
“When Desmond walked in and saw the size—it took up two floors—he immediately said, ‘We should have a party,’”
Tutu proceeded to invite, not dignitaries nor church heads, but all the hotel’s service staff to the party. Servers, waiters, busboys. He even insisted the armed police officers who had been sent to guard his door come in for a drink.
“The whole place was packed and Desmond was the life and soul of the party,” says Ingham. “You could see he had a real desire for people who were not among the rich and famous to be cared for, respected and acknowledged. Every time he met the staff in the halls the rest of his stay, he would shake their hands and remember them by name.”
Once the party was over, Tutu handed the bill to the hotel’s management.
From (Jan. 20/2022) The Anglican Journal of Canada,
In his recent tribute, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said “When you are in parts of the world where there was little Anglican presence and people weren’t sure what the Anglican Church was, it was enough to say, “It’s the church that Desmond Tutu belongs to”- adding that his paying tribute to Archbishop Tutu was “like a mouse paying tribute to an elephant”
Desmond Tutu was driven to fight against injustice and inequality. For him impartiality was not an option because it was already taking sides in siding with the status quo
He said “How can we remain impartial when authorities evict helpless mothers and children and let them shiver in the rain?”
If Bp. Tutu had had the opportunity to spend time getting to know our country and this city, I wonder what he might have said to us and to our church?
How can we be impartial about the people living in detention centres for years with no sense of their future?
How can we be impartial towards your Indigenous People who largely continue to live in poverty and without recognition or equality?
How can we be impartial about the plight of the thousands of children in inadequate institutional care?
How can we be impartial about the pandemic of mental health and addictions wreaking throughout the community?……..
Evidently we cannot, and we must not. Sometimes we need to be reminded that Christianity was never meant to be a comfortable religion. I know how easy it is to slip into a kind of complacency simply rejoicing, albeit with great thanksgiving, for wonderful liturgies, beautiful music, interesting friends and stimulating conversations and of course this lovely building!
But we must never forget our primary mission so evident in Bp. Tutu’s life,
“What does the Lord require of us but to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with your God” ( Micah 6:8 NRSV)