During the difficult years leading to the final collapse and dismantling of apartheid, Bishop Desmond Tutu, then the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town and leader of the Anglican Church in South Africa, was an inspirational figure. He was clear and forthright in his unequivocal condemnation of the evils of the apartheid regime, but also clear in his condemnation of cruelties inflicted in the name of the resistance. ON more than one occasion, he put his own life at risk to protect vulnerable people who had been set upon by mobs accusing them of collaboration with the authorities. Without his intervention, some of these people would surely have been murdered I particularly gruesome fashion – by being burned alive in the infamous (“necklace” method).
After the arrival of democracy, he gained still further in stature by his wise and compassionate chairing of the “Truth & Reconciliation Commission”, which did so much to smooth the path towards national healing. (That healing has not yet been achieved, but is assuredly closer than it would have been without the commission’s work). Since then, he has not been afraid to criticise the new, black politicians who have come to office when they in turn abuse their new power in pursuit of personal or group advancement.
For Desmond Tutu, the struggle against apartheid was more than just a fight for a disadvantaged group, one that he belonged to himself, but for the more abstract principle of justice for all. As such, he has continued to be outspoken in his criticism of injustice perpetrated against all other persecuted groups – including against injustice inside the church. The passage below is taken from his introduction to the book “In the Eye of the Storm”, by his colleague Gene Robinson, Bishop of New Hampshire – and the controversially, the first openly gay bishop to be elected in the Anglican Communion. (I will write separately of my thoughts on Robinson’s book.)
“For me, the question of human sexuality is really a matter of justice; of course I would be willing to show that my beliefs are not inconsistent with how we have come to understand the scriptures. It is not enough to say the “Bible says………….”, for the Bible says many things that I find totally unacceptable and indeed abhorrent. I accept the authority of the Bible as the Word of God, but I remember that the bible has been used to justify racism, slavery and the humiliation of women, etc. Apartheid was supported by the white Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, which claimed that there was biblical justification for that vicious system.
Many of us were engaged in the anti-apartheid struggle. Apartheid, crassly racist, sought to penalize people for something about which they could do nothing – their ethnicity, their skin colour. Most of the world agreed that that was unacceptable, that it was unjust.
I joined the many who campaigned against an injustice that the church tolerated in its ranks when women were not allowed to be ordained. They were being penalized for something about which they could do nothing, their gender. Mercifully, that is no longer the case in our province of the Anglican Communion, and how enriched we have been by this move.
I could not stand by while people were being penalized again for something over which they could do nothing – their sexual orientation. I am humbled and honoured to stand shoulder to shoulder with those who seek to end this egregious wrong inflicted on God’s children.
May I wholly inadequately apologise to my sisters and brothers who are gay, lesbian bisexual, or transgendered for the cruelty and injustice that you have suffered and continue to suffer at the hands of us, your fellow Anglicans, I am sorry. Forgive us for all the pain we have caused you and which we continue to inflict on you.
Cape Town ,
When, do you suppose, the Catholic church will produce leading bishops able and willing to speak the truth as clearly and passionately?
Tutu is vocal in his defence of human rights and uses his high profile to campaign for the oppressed. Tutu also campaigns to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, homophobia, poverty and racism. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism, the Gandhi Peace Prize in 2005 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.)