Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who celebrates his 80th birthday this weekend, is perhaps the only global church figure today who is able to bring together – in spite of their differences – millions of believers and atheists, Protestants and Catholics, Eastern and Western Christians, followers of Christ and people of other faiths, the humanistic and the religious, scientists and mystics, cynics and optimists, in shared admiration.
In an age where scepticism about religion is growing in tandem with many of its most aggressive and unpleasant manifestations, the diminutive South African church leader models a way of living out deep Christian convictions and expressing a profound faith in God in a form which invites hospitality, generosity, thoughtfulness and humility – rather than the exclusivity, meanness, ignorance and arrogance.
Much of his appeal lies in his straightforward humanity, personal charm and apparently boundless humour in the face of the violence, prejudice and injustice which he has spent his whole life campaigning against – not to mention his struggle against cancer, and other personal tragedies.
As one respondent to an article in the Guardian (Chris Chivers, ‘Desmond Tutu uses laughter as a transformative force for good’, 8 October 2011) movingly expressed it: “I am not particularly religious, but when I see people who are as happy and warm as Archbishop Tutu, despite having experienced a barrowload of trauma, I often wonder whether I am missing out.”
Tellingly, Dr Tutu’s chief weapons have not been power and might, but persuasion and prayer. That and a spirit of integrity (holiness, or wholeness and joined-upness) which means that he has been prepared to challenge the ANC as well as the evil of apartheid, Mugabe as well as Botha, violence as well as quietism, dishonest piety as well as cynical disbelief, China as well as America, homophobia as well as sexism, classism as well as racism, deformed state communism as well as neoliberal corporate capitalism.
This, together with his forthright proclamation that God, while taking the flesh of Christ, “is not a Christian” – that is, God transcends all our tribal instincts – has not made him universally popular. Despite the routine (and often rather superficial) adulation for him, there are many who despise everything Archbishop Tutu stands for and who forthrightly reject the character of the God he worships. And most of them are, themselves, believers.
“Yes, the message of Desmond Tutu is the message of Antichrist for it imagines a world united, but at the expense of Truth”, says one conservative Christian blogger. This is a view which several senior church leaders in Africa have voiced in semi-public, too. Taking “truth” to be a narrow, ideological interpretation of the Bible (the same writer, interestingly, admits that Tutu has “more biblical knowledge in his pinky toe than I in my entire body”), they mistake the rule of one interpretation of religion with the realm of God – the classic Christendom mistake, from which followers of Jesus and many others are still suffering.
In the gospels, Jesus – the very embodiment of God in traditional Christian understanding – shocked the conventionally pious by defying rules that enslaved people to religion, using Temple showbread to feed his hungry companions, touching the ‘unclean’, announcing that prostitutes were entering the kingdom of God ahead of self-styled pillars of orthodoxy, calling the emperor’s delegate an ‘old fox’, identifying the feeding of the hungry with true recognition of who he was, and declaring that those who do right rather than just yelling “Lord, Lord!” are those who really are close to God.
If Desmond Tutu shocks some Christians, it is because he emulates Jesus in this way. His message is not a woolly call for liberal toleration, but a radical injunction to implement the ‘divine reversal’ which lies at the heart of the gospel imperative – that the last, the least and the lost swill be honoured over all. It calls down judgement on hypocrisy, churchianity and establishment religion, and elevates truthfulness, faithfulness, peacemaking and justice-doing wherever it is to be found, without regard to conventional labels and pretensions. This is truly Christlike.
Not that it makes Dr Tutu perfect, of course. Far from it. Part of the archbishop’s humanity is to acknowledge his own vulnerability and failings. Sometimes, indeed, there can be a flaw in his zeal that overcomes better judgement – a desire to see goodness in the dark where it is lacking perhaps, and in the case of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa (still a landmark for handling post-conflict situations) an over-eagerness to push people to a point of forgiveness which they have not reached with their own resources, at the expense of justice.
But the reality is that we human beings are, in the sight of and presence of divine goodness, both glorious and flawed – caught up in an odd mixture of life-giving and death-dealing which cries out to be reassembled and reshaped towards a vision of the good in the midst of the brokenness of our living. Or 'redeemed', as Christian language puts it.
It is this possibility and promise that Archbishop Tutu points us towards, by his actions as well as his words: Christianity and humanity re-imagined, not as some wholly new thing, but as a message of hope developed out of the gifts and resources passed down the ages, renewed in the present and oriented towards the future.
A few years ago, I edited a book called Fear or Freedom? Why a Warring Church must Change (Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia, 2008) whose central message was that ugly public rows over sexuality, authority and the interpretation of the Bible in the Anglican Communion and elsewhere have left many people not caught up in internecine church conflict baffled and frustrated. What has this bitterness and fearful defensiveness got to do with the gospel and with Jesus' message of radical emancipation?
The answer is nothing at all. This is how Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it in the foreword he kindly agreed to contribute: “God's dream is that you and I and all of us will realise that we are family, that we are made for togetherness, for goodness, and for compassion. In God’s family, there are no outsiders, no enemies. Black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight – all belong. When we start to live as brothers and sisters and to recognise our interdependence, we become fully human… In a world where difference has led to alienation and even bloody conflict, the church is God's agent to demonstrate that unity in diversity is in fact the law of life.”
It is in this realisation that hope lies for the fractured, post-Christendom Christian community. It is what the true meaning of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ makes possible in the here and now.
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.