The death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the age of 90 is an important event for many in the world and in the Church, and praise has poured in. Heroes of the anti-apartheid movement, it is hard to underestimate his political importance – especially of course for South Africa, but also around the world.
He was the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, an ally of Nelson Mandela and the first Black Archbishop of Cape Town. His role as head of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been crucial. The fact that South Africa did not fall into a vengeful bloodbath was partly down to him. He also showed extraordinary courage in criticizing the ANC when it fell into factionalism and corruption.
Those who met him said how kind and humble he was to them. On top of that, his effervescent personality and his sense of humor and fun have made him loved by many people. So much so that his confrere episcopal priest Michael Battle in his book Desmond Tutu: a spiritual biography of the South African confessor argued that he should be made a living saint.
After his death, Church and state leaders across much of the world lined up to offer their praise. In the UK, Boris Johnson, Justin Welby, The Queen, Keir Starmer and many more have joined us.
It seems everyone praised him. And this is where the problem lies. When the whole world praises you – including those who hate Christ and His Church – then beware. Jesus predicted that his disciples would face problems and persecution in this world. He also gave this stern warning – “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for this is how their ancestors treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:46).
Is it possible for us to have a more balanced assessment before appointing the Archbishop as the next saint?
Without taking anything away from the above, there are some troubling aspects in Tutu’s life.
On a personal level, he was not Mother Teresa – her office allowed him to live in a mansion and travel the world. He educated his children abroad. He fitted in well with this celebrity world – although, to be fair to him, he also seemed to remain a “man of the people”, for example allowing poor black children to swim in his episcopal pool.
I’m more concerned with the impact of his political and theological views, however.
Take for example his treatment of Winnie Mandela. She was the leader of a “football club” which used violence, rape and murder – including the practice of “sticking” – putting gasoline-filled rubber tires around the victims’ necks before putting them on. burn down. She was brought before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to account for the murders of a 14-year-old boy called Stompie Seipei and Abu Asvat, a doctor from Soweto.
Tutu, after calling her a “great person,” said her greatness would be enhanced if she apologized. She sort of apologized, stating that “things have gone horribly wrong” – and she released herself.
Compare that with the treatment he gave Tony Blair after the Iraq war when he even refused to sit down with him and demanded that Blair and Bush stand trial for war crimes in The Hague. No truth and reconciliation for them. You don’t have to agree with Blair or Bush to see that it’s hard to reconcile Tutu’s enthusiastic praise for Winnie Mandela with this condemnation.
But it was his attitude towards Israel that really made his halo shine. He compared Israel to Nazi Germany as an apartheid state, and was even crude enough to suggest that the gas chambers offered “sharper death” than apartheid South Africa.
He was the boss of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center which views Israel as the oppressor, conveniently ignoring the fact that Israel is a democratic nation, unlike surrounding Islamic countries which seek to destroy it.
The damage Tutu has done in calling Israel an apartheid state has been enormous – especially since at the same time he has remained relatively silent on anti-democratic and anti-Christian regimes seeking to destroy Israel.
Theologically, his views on Christ and the Bible were more aligned with Western liberal Protestantism, with its imperialist attempt to impose Western progressive values both in Africa and the world Church. For example, he wrote a preface to Gene Robinson In the eye of the storm who fully supported Robinson’s heretical views and declared that he was “proud to belong to the same Church as himself”. Unusually for an African bishop, Tutu has supported all progressive Western causes – the LGBTQ agenda, euthanasia and abortion. Do the saints support the murder of children in the womb?
There have been many quotes cited by people in recent days that are believed to reflect the Christian wisdom of the Archbishop. Two in particular did the trick.
The first is, “We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven. God has a weakness for sinners. Its standards are quite low. “
While the first part is certainly true, the second is cute – but biblical nonsense. God’s standards are unbelievably high. In fact, in his eyes there is nothing good, nothing good (Mark 10:17, Psalm 14: 3). Without holiness, no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14) Jesus even told a researcher that without the radical rebirth of the Holy Spirit of God, no one could see the Kingdom of God (John 3: 3).
The second is, “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible, and we had the country. They said, ‘Let’s pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible, and they had the earth.
It’s a neat sound clip but like all caricatures, while it does contain an element of truth, it is distorted in its simplicity. It was not the missionaries who took the land from the Africans while the Africans were praying. Indeed, one could argue that it was the missionaries who helped to open the eyes of Africans especially through education. Mandela and Tutu were both educated in denominational schools, like many other African leaders. But sadly, Western progressives prefer simplistic memes that confirm their biases rather than the complexities of historical truth.
Most people are complex and Tutu is no exception. It makes no sense to ridicule or demonize him. We can appreciate his courage, leadership, and political significance while not accepting him as a prophet or spiritual guide. In biblical terms, all of the Lord’s people are holy – the saints called to belong to Christ (1 Corinthians 1: 2). But we are all also sinners (1 John 1: 8) – and we will not be completely healed until we reach heaven (Revelation 14:13). It is not for us to make the judgments that only the Day of Judgment will reveal (Acts 17:31). The Lord knows those who are his. (2 Timothy 2:19).
During this time, those of us who remain on this earth will serve it best by preparing for heaven, loving, serving and following Christ, his people and his world. Good year.