Desmond Tutu and the logic of liberation preachments

The late Archbishop Emeritus of the Anglican Church of South Africa, Desmond Mpilo Tutu

BY STEVE OGAH

The Archbishop Emeritus of the Anglican Church of South Africa, Desmond Mpilo Tutu, who died at the age of 90 on 26th December 2021, threw South Africa and most of the world into holiday mourning. Precisely when many people considered resistance to apartheid a dangerous thing to do, the anti-apartheid preacher and bishop of the South African Anglican communion put up a courageous battle against the white apartheid rule. And that is part of the enduring charm of his illustrious life. He marched to the barricades and stood toe-to-toe with white separatist evil in its various incarnations, brandishing the logic of liberation theology. It is only fair to wonder why the late archbishop expounded liberation in his sermons and not prosperity or financial stability, as most preachers do these days.

Desmond Tutu began his public life as a teacher but soon went in the golden tradition of non-violent struggle icons and spiritual leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi of India and America’s Martin Luther King Jr. who came before him. This was only because he quickly realized the enormous power of the pulpit from which he stood and spoke to millions of his disenfranchised countrymen in the dark and dangerous days of white-minority rule in South Africa. He plunged himself and most of his congregants into the convulsions of anti-apartheid struggles and strategies. There was a colossal risk to this, but the fiery preacher paid no attention. His unrelenting preachments against the eroding evils of apartheid attest to that. This was a brave bishop of the oppressed and dispossessed that was only using the powers of liberation theology, as some other spiritual leaders had done elsewhere, especially in Latin America.

Enter Father Javier Giraldo, SJ, a Colombian Jesuit priest of the Catholic Church who used liberation theology in trying to find lasting solutions to the murderous violence in his homeland. Incidentally, Desmond Tutu addressed a crowd in Cali, Colombia, in 2005. Along with many other early liberation theologians, Archbishop Tutu was also in the same league as Father Gustavo Gutierrez of Peru and the “bishop of the poor,” Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador whom violent forces killed on the altar on 24th March, 1980 while he was offering Holy Mass. Liberation theology rose from the need to end the violence in Colombia, but its preachments percolated around the world and Desmond Tutu was a proponent of liberation while using nothing but the Gospel, where others armed themselves with guns. He was a man of immense peace. The Nobel Prize committee awarded him the Nobel Peace prize in 1984, after he missed it on three previous occasions. 

South African novelist Mphuthumi Ntabeni

While grief has united most of the world since the archbishop’s death, there are some who still believe that the great archbishop never really had it all. A South African novelist, Mphuthumi Ntabeni, shared a link with me where he highlighted the Facebook post of a displeased South African youth, Andile Mngxi, who has taken the view that: “Hamba Kahle Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu. You shall be remembered as the author of the TRC which brought no truth or reconciliation.” 

This young man is only referring to the truth and reconciliation commission which was set up during the presidency of Nelson Mandela to unearth the evils of apartheid and reconcile all aggrieved parties.

But novelist Ntabeni offers a counter perspective. “I feel it unfair to apportion the blame of the TRC demise on him, though; after all, he was just its commissioner and chair, appointed by the government administration of Mandela,” the award-winning author of The Broken River Tent, and The Wanderers, says in a piece I have just seen. He says further: “Also, the TRC report and some of its recommendations were sensible.”

One thing is clear. It was an abiding love for the poor and the disenfranchised that forced Desmond Tutu to choose the side of those on the tragic fringes of society. Again, as a priest of the Anglican Communion and theologian, he knew acutely that the Gospel is sympathetic to the predicaments of the poor. The Holy Bible, which Bishop Tutu often held aloft, abounds with several references that elevate the poor and remind us that the less privileged will always be among us.

There were several choices and inducements opened to Desmond Tutu in his early days as a preacher and teacher in a restrictive South Africa, but he chose the comforting side of the oppressed. To have done otherwise would not have guaranteed his good and kind place in post-apartheid diaries. Liberation, political and even theological history will now be generously good to Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu who now lives in eternity. He may have not completely reconciled the whole of his country, but he at least made efforts. That is certain. But whoever said reconciliation is the burden of one man? Desmond Tutu was no messiah, and he never made grand claims to be one. But his fellow countryman and novelist whom I cited earlier has shown that Desmond Tutu was “the saintly archbishop.”