Bishop Tutu, God and democracy

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Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu speaks at a press conference in this July 2010 file photo. |

Anglican South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu had criticisms and they included myself and my organization. The IRD in the 1980s, before joining the team, sometimes criticized Tutu’s friendly stance towards the African National Congress (ANC). At that time, the ANC was allied with the South African Communist Party and supported by the Soviet bloc and international criminals like the Libyan Muammar Gaddafi.

Against this backdrop of the Cold War, it was feared that a post-apartheid South Africa would be sovietized and become even more oppressive, like its neighbors in Angola and Mozambique. Sometimes Tutu himself was at best not critical of the Marxist-Leninist regimes of those nations.

Providentially, the Soviet Union fell 30 years ago this week, as did the call for Marxism-Leninism, which the Angolan and Mozambican regimes renounced. The Communist Party of South Africa no longer matters. Nelson Mandela, after prison, established himself as a Democrat devoted to national reconciliation. Tutu supported the project, chairing Mandela’s National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which gave apartheid-era officials the opportunity to confess their crimes and ask for forgiveness. Tutu stressed the need to speak the truth and have mercy.

In recent years, I’ve written occasionally about Tutu’s penchant for unfair and inaccurate anti-Israel rhetoric, which included comparisons to apartheid. He has also made hasty political statements, for example calling for President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair to be tried as war criminals for the overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. And the IRD criticized Tutu for siding with Western liberal Protestantism against Orthodox teaching and African Christianity, including its Anglican leaders, on sexuality.

No public life is lacking in controversies and errors of judgment. But on the major themes of Tutu’s long public life, he was courageously right. He resolutely opposed apartheid, while opposing violent revolution. He sometimes intervened physically to rescue collaborators suspected of being attacked by the crowd. He understood that post-apartheid South Africa needed stability and continuity, not massive political upheaval. He shared Mandela’s vision for a biracial nation. He criticized subsequent ANC governments for their arrogance and corruption. He criticized the despotic socialist dictatorship of Robert Mugabe, which had supported the anti-apartheid struggle.

Tutu at his best brought Christian anthropology to South African politics. He wanted justice but also harmony and peace. Most South African black Christians are associated with more conservative Evangelical and Pentecostal churches than the Anglican Church of Tutu. But everywhere, thanks to their history, Anglicans have a prestige greater than their number, which Tutu has wisely deployed. A Pentecostal preacher probably could not have achieved his status in South Africa let alone internationally. Sometimes Tutu was blamed for enjoying the benefits of his episcopal office, which included a mansion and international travel. He educated his children abroad and lived well. But he also invited poor children to swim in his episcopal pool and used his archbishop’s office to show black leadership as black people were still stranded from meaningful office and power in South Africa.

The reconciliation that Tutu advocated was only possible thanks to his faith, his clerical office and the spiritual resources of Christianity. The fact that most white and black South Africans are Christians allowed this message to resonate. South Africa today is not nirvana. But thanks in part to Tutu, it has avoided civil war and is a better and fairer place than it was 30 years ago. When judging public lives, it is best to seek their larger providential purpose. Have they, despite all their human failures, improved the lot of humanity? For Tutu, the answer is obviously yes.

It is useful to remember 30 years ago, when Tutu helped dismantle apartheid. Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 thanks to the initiative of the recently deceased South African President FW de Klerk, which was to apartheid what Mikhail Gorbachev was to the Soviet Union, which ended 30 years ago this week. Neither de Klerk nor Gorbachev would play a major future leadership role for their nations. Their importance was in the oppressive regimes which they peacefully ended.

Thirty years ago, oppressive regimes on the left and on the right collapsed around the world, from the Soviet bloc to Chile and the Philippines, to South Korea and Indonesia. Democracy and free markets were reborn. Their triumph over dictatorship and collectivism was apparently the “end of history”. Today, the international atmosphere is very different because authoritarianism is ascending and democracy is on the defensive.

It is important to remember the spirituality behind the resurgence of freedom 30 years ago. Faith in the materialism of Marxism and in ideologies had collapsed. The ethics of Christianity in the West, with its emphasis on the dignity and freedom of each individual, was the driving force behind victorious democracy. Formerly closed societies sought not only civil liberties, but also the transcendence that could replace failed secular gods.

Many now claim that democracy and freedom are vaguely materialistic and therefore without a transcendent purpose. This is not true. Freedom regimes, where people can govern themselves and live without fear, flow from the narrative we recall during this Christmas time. There is a Creator who cares about every person that He made in His image and therefore deserves respect, protection, and the ability to think and speak freely.

Bishop Tutu believed in and bore witness to this Creator in his struggle against apartheid and for a just and merciful transracial South Africa. Anyone who hopes for a more decent world, where freedom is cherished more than control, should always remember his message of truth and forgiveness.


Originally published in Juicy Ecumenism.

Mark Tooley became President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) in 2009. He joined the IRD in 1994 to found its United Methodist Committee (UMaction). He is also editor-in-chief of the IRD’s foreign and national security policy review, Providence.


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