Monday, October 08, 2007

Archbishop Tutu: hope-filled truth teller

Lately I've been dipping into The Rainbow People of God, a collection of (now retired) South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu's speeches, letters, sermons, and interview extracts that I picked up in a used bookstore.

Much of this material dates from an excruciating time in South Africa, after the white racist apartheid regime accepted in 1990 that it would have to come to terms with the Black majority, but before the landmark non-racial election in 1994 that brought the African National Congress (ANC) and Nelson Mandela to power. During that time, right wing white groups did all they could to encourage violence between various Black groups, instigating terrible massacres in Black townships, especially in Natal Province. Witnesses often reported that police from the white government had a role in the clashes.

Tutu had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his courageous, non-violent struggle against apartheid; later under the ANC government, he would head the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that tried to find ways for South Africa's people to go forward together, leaving the violence of apartheid behind. But in the interlude, Tutu strove courageously to comfort and restrain the victims of the inter-communal violence. Something of the anguish of that time comes across in this sermon from 1992, in the wake of an atrocity in which "200 or 300 men armed with axes, knives, spears and automatic weapons moved through an informal settlement at Boipatong, ... south of Johannesburg, slaughtering forty-six people. ... Boipatong residents alleged that some policemen had acted in collusion with the attackers. ..." Tutu preached:

Our country is on the brink of disaster. Many of us have had to anesthetize ourselves to the agony and suffering of our fellow South Africans. Many of us have had to invoke the kind of defense mechanism that had to see us, we hoped, through this horrendous period of carnage and bloodletting. We had reached dangerous levels when many of us would sigh with relief and say 'Oh, it's only five,' or 'It's only six or seven people who have been killed. Thank goodness.' Only! That is so utterly unacceptable ... Those five or six or seven or eight or ten, hey, that was someone's husband, father, son. That was somebody's brother, somebody's sister, mother. ...

I hope somewhere, somehow it will sink into the consciousness of most our white fellow South Africans that we are human beings. Just a simple thing: we are human beings. We are not animals. ... Our cry is for you to recognize that God has created us as God has created you. Our cry is that God has given us a land that is large enough for all of us. And we want to share it with you. ...

Whether you do or don't stand up, let us tell you again what we have said so many times: We are going to be free, we are going to be free. We are going to be free despite all of this that they are doing. We are going to be free. We want you to be with us when we are free. ...

A combination of realism, of unvarnished recognition of how we accustom ourselves to the unbearable, coupled with an inclusive demand for simple justice, carried Tutu through those awful times. I recognize the anesthetizing going on in me as I contemplate what my government is doing to people across the world. Baghdad is showing progress; only ten tortured corpses today ... I strive for something like Tutu's confidence that yes, one day, we'll make this rich, beautiful country a force for justice for our own people and the peoples of the world. The Archbishop has always projected that hope; can we, the comfortable, settle for any less?

Coincidentally, the good Archbishop is in the current news. The University of St. Thomas in Minnesota invited him to be part of a program it had hosted for several years that brought Nobel laureates to campus to speak with young people; then it got cold feet and disinvited him. According to the local paper City Pages:

"We had heard some things he said that some people judged to be anti-Semitic and against Israeli policy," says Doug Hennes, St. Thomas's vice president for university and government relations. "We're not saying he's anti-Semitic. But he's compared the state of Israel to Hitler and our feeling was that making moral equivalencies like that are hurtful to some members of the Jewish community."

St. Thomas officials made this inference after Hennes talked to Julie Swiler, a spokeswoman for the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.

"I told him that I'd run across some statements that were of concern to me," says Swiler. "In a 2002 speech in Boston, he made some comments that were especially hurtful."

Tutu's offending speech is here. After seeing Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands and communities, Tutu saw injustice -- and many similarities to the apartheid system. This, apparently, is the offending paragraph from his speech:

People are scared in this country [the U.S.] to say wrong is wrong because the Jewish lobby is powerful -- very powerful. Well, so what? This is God's world. For goodness sake, this is Go'’s world! We live in a moral universe. The apartheid government was very powerful, but today it no longer exists. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pinochet, Milosovic, and Idi Amin were all powerful, but in the end they bit the dust.

Again -- Tutu spoke unvarnished truths that many cannot bear to hear and concurrently held up the hope that injustice will not triumph forever. For this, he is again condemned by some who do not recognize their common humanity with people who are repressed and exploited.

A few comments:
  • The phrase "the Jewish lobby" raises hackles and is inaccurate. But if a state proclaims its reason for being is to provide a homeland for Jewish people, it is not surprising that most folks tend to assume its advocates are Jewish. It takes a more subtle understanding of U.S. right wing lunacy to appreciate that much of the Israel Lobby consists of non-Jewish racist imperialists who want to use Israel as "our cop on the ground" against "the Islamics" and of Christian fundamentalists who believe Israel fulfills prophecies of their own triumphal future. Many U.S. Jews are appalled by the behavior of the state of Israel -- and very conflicted about the position its allies place them in.
  • Though probably little known outside its locality, the University of St. Thomas is a respected academic institution that should know better than to dump Tutu. It is the largest private college or university in Minnesota. Many regional leaders are among its graduates including Mike Ciresi who is running in the Democratic primary to take on Republican Senator Norm Coleman in 2008.
  • The organization Jewish Voice for Peace has collected the relevant links about the Tutu disinvitation at its blog, Muzzlewatch. They've set up an easy email page through with to send letters of protest to the University.
UPDATE, October 12, 2007: the University of St. Thomas has backed off its dis-invitation of Bishop Tutu. Full letter here.


Jan said...

I copied some of your quote from Desmond Tutu for my blog in a rather haphazard blog, showing my scattered and worried mind. Thanks.

janinsanfran said...

Jan -- I'm afraid this is a rather free associating post. Glad any piece of it sparked your thoughts. Readers may be interested to read what Jan said.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Jan, Tutu's words are so moving. I would give much to be in this man's presence, and St. Thomas turned him away. They will be sorry for this. It is their loss, not Bishop Tutu's.

BEG said...

I would like to point out that the same institution that turned Tutu down for so-called anti-Semitic comments earlier happily hosted Ann Coulter -- who has made a number of inargubly anti-Semetic comments!

Which loops back to underscore that in the main, the "jewish lobby" in the U.S. is mostly racist rightwingers, when you examine exactly who they object to, regardless of the labels used.

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