The day before Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s funeral in Cape Town, I listened to an interview my friend Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak did on South African TV. Characteristically Boesak declared: “We are not done yet, and we won’t be done until we raise a thousand Desmond Tutus.” Later, he clarified. “I didn’t mean just a thousand,” he said. “I mean millions!”

This is what OMNIA does, I thought. We are, indeed, about raising a million Tutus. We’ve already trained over 3500 peacemakers, and we have 166 Interfaith Peacemaker Teams with at least 20 potential Tutus in each. What lessons must we take from “the Arch”? Here are three:

 

Lesson 1: Where Theology Begins

Allan Boesak and me at the 2014 SCUPE Congress

In June 2014, Allan Boesak, preaching the opening sermon at the SCUPE’s Congress on Urban Ministry, told this riveting story of Nomonde’s Cry. “Nomonde cries for all our children,” he preached, “not just cries, she wails, in that particular way only African women can wail. And her wail is heard not only in South Africa but across the globe. It was a wail for all those who suffer, for all those who long for, but are denied justice. Indeed, Nomonde’s cry reverberates across the world even today.” Here’s a longer quote from Boesak’s sermon:

Nomonde Calata is the widow of Fort Calata from Craddock in the Eastern Cape in South Africa. In July 1985 I buried her husband along with three other comrades in the struggle against apartheid. They were UDF (United Democratic Front) activists attending a meeting, and their car was stopped by the South African police and they disappeared. Days later, their bodies were found. An independent autopsy discovered that they were beaten for a long period of time and tortured. On their bodies were marks of a blow torch. In 1995, Nomonde Calata testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission where Archbishop Desmond Tutu was the chairperson. She did testify that day, but when she sat down and she tried to talk she could not utter a single syllable. She opened her mouth, tried to speak, stopped, threw her body backwards in the chair, threw her head up, looked in to the sky, and uttered one long mournful cry, Oooooooo….. In Africa when women are happy they ululate, when we mourn we cry like that.”

“A journalist later wrote in her book that Nomonde’s cry that morning had become the defining moment for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And I think she is right. Because Nomonde cried out on behalf of all the mothers, fathers and children, of every community and for all our people. She cried out that day, for her pain and suffering. She cried for ten years that she had been ignored, she had been lied to. She cried about ten years of denial, obfuscation, and every moment of those ten years was packed into the cry. It was a cry against injustice, for the truth to be told, and a cry for justice to be done after so long.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Archbishop Tutu’s signature achievement, was his way of lifting up to the highest levels of the South African government, society and to the world, the voices of Black South Africans, particularly those whose family members were murdered, and others who were brutalized, harassed, intimidated or oppressed in other ways by the White supremacist regime. Vox Victimarum, Vox Dei (the voice of the victim is the voice of God), he said.

Archbishop Tutu knew something about which most theologians have no idea – that theology begins by “Listening to, Learning from, and Living in Deep Solidarity with those in the Margins.” You may know this as OMNIA’s L3M principle. Any theology that does not listen to Nomondo’s cry has no legitimacy. Such theologies are simply lackeys of state or corporate power.  

 

Lesson 2: The Principle of Ubuntu

(Photo Credit: Kristen Opalinski)

Ubuntu is an African principle that is “very difficult to render into a western language,” wrote Archbishop Tutu in his No Future without Forgiveness. Among others, it implies compassion, forgiveness, cooperation, hospitality, acceptance of difference, mutual support, interpersonal harmony, reciprocity, and generosity. The late Kenyan theologian John Mbiti, (whom I came to know during my time at the World Council of Churches) suggested that Ubuntu is the African analogue to Enlightenment humanism’s “I think, therefore I am.” An approximate translation is “I am, because we are”.

Tutu’s advocacy of Ubuntu has been enormously influential not only in South Africa but throughout the world. It is the essence of being human, he said, rejecting wholesale the Western idea of the autonomy of the individual. “We are different so that we can know our need of one another, for no one is ultimately self-sufficient. The completely self-sufficient person would be sub-human,” he said.

Here’s a contemporary example: the idea that some in the United States and Europe have that vaccine and mask mandates violate their individual freedom does not make one bit of sense in the context of Ubuntu. In fact, a follower of Ubuntu is one who believes that if their neighbor ceases to exist, they cease to exist as well. Therefore, their neighbors’ welfare is as important as their own.

In OMNIA’s videotaped message at the Thanksgiving Service of the Hyde Park and Kenwood Interfaith Council, we drove home the idea of “Interdependence.” There, I identified interdependence as Ubuntu. What I didn’t get to say is this: some had criticized Tutu claiming that Ubuntu goes against Christianity. They saw individual independence as a primary Christian value. Tutu reminded them that rather than a Christian value, individual independence is a European Enlightenment idea. The Gospel imperative of loving your neighbor as yourself is consistent with the African value of Ubuntu, he said. It’s another way of affirming interdependence.

 

Lesson 3: Courage to Speak Truth to Power

I heard this story from my South African friends, but I can’t find the evidence yet, so I confess, it may be apocryphal. When Nelson Mandela, Tutu’s friend and comrade in the struggle against Apartheid, became president of South Africa in 1994, he offered Tutu a position in his cabinet. Tutu refused. I am not a politician, he said, I am a prophet.

If the task of a prophet is to speak to the people on behalf of God, and if, as Tutu believed, the voice of God is the voice of the victims and those who are oppressed and marginalized, his prophetic critique was forceful and fearless.

Tutu was often a thorn in President Mandela’s flesh, starting with his criticism of the salaries of cabinet members and Mandela himself. In the context of continuing impoverishment of South Africa’s Black population, he was critical of the ANC government’s excesses. In a direct rebuke to Mandela he noted that his housekeeper with five children who had worked for 23 years at his official residence earns only $236 a month, in contrast to his annual salary of $208,000.

Mandela did offer and Tutu accepted the position that he really desired, the chairmanship of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In televised sessions where Black women and men shared horror stories of how their children were brutally murdered and white former police officers confessed to their brutal crimes, you could see Tutu weeping.  “Without forgiveness, there is no future,” he said.  The Commission’s final report was an indictment of the apartheid regime’s horrors, but it also included a section that criticized the ANC for human rights violations. Challenged by his own colleagues, Tutu refused to remove the criticism. “I didn’t struggle in order to remove one set of those who thought they were tin gods,” he said, “to replace them with others who are tempted to think they are.”

He criticized Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki for ignoring the AIDS crisis, and his successor, Jacob Zuma, for corruption. He criticized his own African Anglican Church’s refusal to endorse gay priests and same-sex marriage, saying “I would not worship a god who is homophobic or go to a homophobic heaven.”  

In 1984, shortly after he received the Nobel Peace Prize, Tutu went after President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher on their policy of constructive engagement with South Africa’s apartheid government. “You are either on the side of the oppressed or on the side of the oppressor. You can’t be neutral,” he wrote to the U.S. Congress. He was unsparing in his criticism of President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair for their unjustifiable war on Iraq. He called on the Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi to speak out against attacks on the Rohingya people: “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep,” he wrote. But it was his support for Palestinians and his criticism of Israel that got him in most trouble. “When you go to the Holy Land and see what’s being done to the Palestinians at checkpoints, for us, it’s the same kind of thing we experienced in South Africa.”  

Even though he had many enemies, Archbishop Tutu had a large base of support, in the church and outside. This, of course, is why he was able to be so courageous. We often think of prophetic leaders as lone rangers. The media portrays them that way. It never is the case. They stand on the shoulders of others and are surrounded by a community of prophets and their followers. The Arch was no exception to that rule. This is why OMNIA finds it critical to build teams as our grassroots base.  

I hope we can heed Allan Boesak’s call to raise a peaceforce of a million Tutus. If we do, they come out of the base of Interfaith Peacemaker Teams that we are steadily building. That’s how movements arise, and Tutus are formed – one team at a time.

Shanta Premawardhana

President

Shanta Premawardhana is president of OMNIA Institute for Contextual Leadership. Prior to OMNIA, he served as the Director for Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation at the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. He was also the Associate General Secretary for Interfaith Relations at the National Council of Churches, USA. While serving as pastor of Ellis Avenue Church in Chicago, he engaged in community organizing in the Southside of Chicago. He is an emeritus trustee of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, National Council of Churches, USA, and Common Cause Illinois. He earned his Ph.D. at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

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