The world stood still for a few moments this *week; a great spirit had just departed from it. Desmond Tutu had died. In the Midrashic phrase, we were all diminished – the world lost something of its gloss, grandeur and splendour. The earth, in Auden’s memorable evocation, received an honoured guest.
I grew up in apartheid South Africa when icons like Mandela and Tutu were feared and reviled in equal measure by the white establishment. Successive apartheid governments tried to silence this upstart churchman; he was kidnapped, threatened with death and mocked relentlessly. He was a thorn in the side of the authorities and was presented in the press as the devil incarnate. He made us all feel uncomfortable – he defied the stereotypes of the black man that we were brought up on; he was so astonishingly different from any black person we encountered in our lives.
As BBC journalist Andrew Harding pointed out, from his pulpit, Tutu spoke out against apartheid in a city where black people – their lives controlled by strict racist laws – required special passes simply to walk into “white” neighbourhoods.
He was bold, defiant, outspoken and outlandish. He was a leader, he was a man of God, he was impudent and he was incredibly funny. When the police stormed his Cape Town Cathedral, he danced down the aisle to meet them. He would diffuse tense situations with his down-to-earth humour or by bursting into a song and dance routine. He had an irrepressible energy and the laugh of a lovable little pixie.
Bishop Desmond Tutu was unafraid to challenge those in power, whether it was the Afrikaner political system or the ANC – he was critical of some of Mandela’s policies and scathing about the corruption of the government of Jacob Zuma. He showed a breathtaking courage in confronting an angry black mob intent on killing an informer. He personified the concept of talking truth to power.
He made me immensely proud as a Jew, and deeply uncomfortable. I respected his moral stand and spirituality. I appreciated his recognition of the Jewish role in fighting apartheid and of our suffering, particularly during the Holocaust. I was confounded and offended by his one-sided approach to the State of Israel and uncritical support of the Palestinians.
But I was also challenged by his assertion (not that different from that of the celebrated Israeli writer Amoz Oz) that to oppress or occupy others taints your soul. “Israel’s integrity and existence must be guaranteed. But I cannot understand how a people with your history would have a state that would collaborate in military matters with South Africa and carry out policies that are a mirror image of some of the things from which your people suffered,” he said in his 1987 speech to British Jews.
To those in the Jewish community who would dismiss him because of his views on Israel, I would remind them how Israel shamelessly supported South Africa’s apartheid government. As a chaplain in the SA defence force, I witnessed at close quarters the dalliance between the IDF and the SADF. Former Israeli Ambassador to South Africa, Arthur Lenk put it this way: “He wasn’t a friend of Israel, but that said, he was a man of great achievement, heroism and bravery. And anyone who celebrates democracy knows that he’s at the top of the list of people who should be honoured, even if he didn’t see our issue the way we would have liked him to.”
As a rabbi, I found Desmond an inspiration through his unrelenting pursuit of justice, his deep empathy, his moral compass and his respect for the breath of God in every single human being. He reminded me of the great American rabbi and social activist, Abraham Heschel, who marched alongside Martin Luther King.
For Heschel, spirituality is measured by our radical amazement at the world and religion is governed by the certainty that God expects something of us; that we are not mere bystanders in the cosmos. Tutu was a man infused by that radical amazement, reaching out with an effervescent enthusiasm for life, boldly and adamantly refusing to be a bystander. When he chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), he became the suffering that he encountered. Watching him in some of those moments is to know the very essence of what it is to be empathic. He would often use the Zulu term, Ubuntu, meaning humanity and expressed in the idiom that people become people through people.
He was unafraid to challenge those in power, whether it was the Afrikaner system or the ANC – he was critical of Mandela and scathing about the corruption of Jacob Zuma. He helped heal South Africa through his sense of peoplehood, his bringing people together as a rainbow nation, and being a quintessential people-person.
According to Heschel, what awakens the individual to the spiritual is a pervasive, underlying anxiety that he calls “the need to be needed”. This reminded me of Bishop Tutu telling the BBC’s Sue Lawley, when appearing on Desert Island Discs in 1994, that “I love to be loved.” Desmond Tutu needed admiration but he never allowed it to interfere with what was right and just, for that was to gain God’s admiration!
Nelson Mandela said of him that his voice was “sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid, and seldom without humour”. He also added wryly that “If Desmond gets to heaven and is denied entry, than none of the rest of us will get in!” This week Heaven surely received an honoured guest.
* Tutu died 26/12/2021