Desmond Tutu Spoke Truth in the Face of Oppression

Desmond Tutu Spoke Truth in the Face of Oppression

Desmond Tutu Spoke Truth in the Face of Oppression

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and Phyllis Bennis discuss the life and legacy of the South African archbishop.

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The Preacher

I first met Archbishop Desmond Tutu when I was a seminarian at Duke University in the 1980s, and I will never forget the question he asked us when he preached in the chapel that day: “Will you join God?” Bishop Tutu knew the power of God to bring justice in this world, but he also knew that we must choose to join God in that work. Neutrality in the face of evil, he always insisted, is a choice to stand against God’s love and justice.

During my first pastorate in Virginia, Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in South Africa, and Doug Wilder was elected as the first African American governor in Virginia, which still used the words “darkey,” “missa,” and “massa” in its state anthem. I remember watching Bishop Tutu dance with joy. When he began to lead the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I remember how both sides criticized him because he sought to have officers who had killed people tell the truth in front of the mothers of the victims.

Many people have celebrated Bishop Tutu as our conscience, but we must not forget how many people in power ignored his prophetic challenge while he lived. The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival celebrates Tutu, because he did not try to be a politician. Instead, he sought as a preacher to declare God’s truth in the public square. His conspicuous presence as a bishop, often in full vestments, made clear that the public sins of nations could not stand.

Like the prophet Ezekiel and Jesus, who minced no words with oppressors, Bishop Tutu told the truth, even when it was not readily accepted. When US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sided with South Africa’s apartheid regime and refused to support sanctions and boycotts, Bishop Tutu proclaimed, “The West can go to hell,” and described their positions as “utterly racist and totally disgusting.”

In 1986, the Los Angeles Times reported that Bishop Tutu “predicted that bitter, disillusioned blacks would increasingly turn away from peaceful protests, now that the United States and its allies have deprived them of the political leverage of international economic sanctions, and the result would be even greater violence and perhaps the racial civil war he has long warned against.”

Tutu charged that Reagan and Thatcher, along with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, were in effect telling South Africa’s 25 million blacks that “we are completely dispensable and can forget about help from them.”

Then he said President Pieter W. Botha, the last prime minister of South Africa, from 1978 to 1984, and the first executive state president of South Africa, from 1984 to 1989, “must be overjoyed that he has such a wonderful public relations officer in the White House.”

This is the kind of truth preachers must speak in the face of oppression. Right now we need more of this in the world and the United States.

Those of us with the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival had hoped that Bishop Tutu would join us on June 18 for the Mass Poor People’s and Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington. Now we will play a clip of his words to remember him and to recommit ourselves again to the principles of love, truth, justice, and nonviolence.

Like all prophets, Bishop Tutu is honored best by those who commit to embrace love and justice and to bear witness to truth with the joy and determination he exhibited in his life here on earth.

—Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II

A Champion of Justice

Archbishop Desmond Tutu died the day after Christmas. He was one of the greats of a generation of political, moral, visionary leaders in struggles for justice and equality. He was fearless in his defense of principle, and maintained his commitment to fight against apartheid and settler colonialism beyond South Africa, most notably in support of Palestine, where for decades he refused to turn away from the struggle.

He was a consummate internationalist. And he was also very funny, with a cackling laugh. One of his favorite apartheid-era jokes made its way into his speech accepting the Nobel Peace prize. “Once a Zambian and a South African, it is said, were talking. The Zambian then boasted about their minister of naval affairs. The South African asked, ‘But you have no navy, no access to the sea. How then can you have a minister of naval affairs?’ The Zambian retorted, ‘Well, in South Africa you have a minister of justice, don’t you?’”

For those of us who ever had the privilege of meeting or working with him, it was a gift. And for those of us around the world who worked on Palestinian rights, Bishop Tutu was a constant reminder of the moral power and the political centrality of that struggle, including support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He said, “In South Africa, we could not have achieved our democracy without the help of people around the world, who through the use of nonviolent means, such as boycotts and divestment, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the apartheid regime. The same issues of inequality and injustice today motivate the divestment movement trying to end Israel’s decades-long occupation of Palestinian territory and the unfair and prejudicial treatment of the Palestinian people by the Israeli government ruling over them.” Bishop Tutu also often repeated Nelson Mandela’s 1997 statement, “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

I remember being with Bishop Tutu on February 15, 2003, the day of a massive global mobilization against the looming US war in Iraq, protests that brought 14 million or more people into the streets in hundreds of cities around the world. As the streets were filling with people before New York’s giant rally began outside United Nations headquarters, Bishop Tutu led a small delegation into the building to meet with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. The archbishop immediately spoke on behalf of the global movement, opening the meeting by telling Annan, “We are here on behalf of the people marching in 665 cities all around the world. And we’re here to tell you, that those people marching in all those cities, we claim the United Nations as our own. We claim it in the name of the global movement for peace.” An hour later he electrified the crowd of half a million or more shivering on the coldest day of the year, with call-and response chants of “The world says, ‘No to war.’”

The silencing of his voice is a huge loss. But the movements, the activists, the people Bishop Tutu inspired will continue to be empowered by his words, principles, and legacy.

—Phyllis Bennis

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