Archbishop Desmond Tutu – A Life Lived Through Faith in Action

The 2021 Christmas period became a little more sombre for me when, on the 26th December, I read the news that Archbishop Desmond Tutu had passed away. While the news of Tutu’s death at the grand old age of 90 was not necessarily surprising, it still felt like the world became a little bit darker and I found it hard to comprehend that a man who had such an evident love for life, strong moral conviction and steadfast faith was suddenly no longer here.

From a personal point of view, I believe Tutu is a brilliant example of someone who throughout their life constantly put their faith into action. He radiated with God’s love and forgiveness, unapologetically speaking up for the oppressed and the marginalised, and working for reconciliation while also recognising that it is only natural to feel negative emotions towards those who have hurt you[i]. In short, he spent his life in the service of others, practiced what he preached and worked tirelessly for social justice.

Perhaps most well known for being a passionate anti-Apartheid activist, for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, Tutu originally trained as a teacher. He left the profession in protest of the inequalities faced by black children within the education system and went on to train for the Anglican priesthood. During his time working for the church he broke down several race barriers, becoming the first black South African appointed to several pivotal roles including General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, Bishop of Johannesburg and Archbishop of Cape Town. His appointment to these roles did not go unchallenged, with some white Anglicans leaving the church in protest.

Rather than staying silent to protect his own position, at every opportunity Tutu used these prominent roles to speak out against Apartheid – denouncing it as being unchristian and criticising white South Africans who remained silent on the oppression of others. His outspokenness on the evils of Apartheid didn’t come without personal sacrifice; his passport was revoked and on one occasion he was arrested, held overnight and fined for organising and partaking in a peaceful protest. Yet, he refused to be silenced.

Following the end of Apartheid, Tutu emphasised the importance of forgiveness and restorative justice when he acted as the chairman of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC was set up to examine crimes committed by both black and white South Africans during the Apartheid era and it had three specific tasks: ‘to discover the causes and nature of human rights violations in South Africa between 1960 and 1994; to identify victims with a view to paying reparations; and to allow amnesty to those who fully disclosed their involvement in politically motivated human rights violations’[ii]. While in later years he became disillusioned with the Government’s failure to properly support and provide reparation to victims and their families, he remained adamant that the TRC had been a good first step to make real lasting change in South Africa. However, Tutu was clear that it was exactly that – the start of the healing process, not the end. More was required if South Africa was to fully heal.  

It was not just his fearlessness in speaking out against Apartheid or his belief in the need for forgiveness and reconciliation that made Archbishop Desmond Tutu such a shining example of faith in action. Rather, Tutu unapologetically used his platform to speak out against other issues of social justice and to champion the rights of others. He was a passionate supporter of female leadership within the church, approving the ordination of female priests while acting as Archbishop of Cape Town. He was likewise an advocate and campaigner for the LGBTQAI+ community, likening the oppression of the gay community to the oppression faced by black South Africans during Apartheid[iii]. His anti-homophobic stance put him at odds with many prominent members of the church, both within South Africa and across the continent more broadly, with Tutu going against the wishes of the Anglican church by appointing gay priests to senior positions. In 2013 he angered some by famously stating that he wouldn’t worship a homophobic God and would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven[iv]. Tutu’s outspoken support for the LGBTQAI+ community had benefits that went beyond this community, being considered ‘pivotal in South Africa's decision to make HIV drugs available at no cost’[v].

Aside from his support for the rights of women and the LGBTQAI+ community, Tutu likewise expressed solidarity with the people of Palestine, likening the Israeli illegal occupation to Apartheid and drawing parallels to his own lived experience of the latter. His criticism of the occupation brought with it a backlash, with people such as US constitutional lawyer Alan Dershowitz accusing Tutu of being ‘evil’ and expressing antisemitic sentiments[vi]. Yet, in spite of such attacks on his character, Tutu remained adamant that the Israeli occupation, the use of checkpoints, confiscation of Palestinian land and demolition of their houses mirrored acts committed under Apartheid and was morally wrong.

Tutu also didn’t shy away from criticising The African National Congress (ANC), the ruling political party in South Africa. He was openly concerned about political corruption and expressed regret that the ANC was no longer the party it set out to be in the early years following the end of Apartheid. As a result, Tutu publicly stated in 2013 that he could no longer in good conscience vote for the ANC. This statement was hardly unexpected, in 2011 he had already expressed the belief that ‘one day we will pray for the defeat of the ANC government’[vii]. Tutu’s outspoken criticisms of the ruling party did not come without personal sacrifice. In particular, it is thought that his criticism of the ANC was the reason why the party did not invite Tutu to Nelson Mandela’s funeral, despite the fact that the two had been friends for several years and were described as being like brothers[viii].

These are just a small collection of actions that highlight how Tutu did not shy away from putting his faith into action. Rather, he lived as he preached, brilliantly showing the world that his faith aligned with a call to act – even when it meant risking his own career, personal safety and freedoms; even when it meant being branded evil, upsetting the church, or being denied the chance to attend one of his closest friend’s funerals. Moreover, whenever Tutu spoke out and stood up to be counted, he did it with that infectious smile, with so much love in his heart that you could see the God in him.

While the world will surely mourn his loss, what Tutu leaves is a remarkable example from which to follow – to serve God and each other with love, humility, forgiveness and a willingness to sacrifice and stand up for what is right. What a wonderful legacy it is that he leaves.