Wednesday, March 6, 2024 #33

 Influenced by his father’s tribal priesthood, his mother’s conversion to the Methodist faith, the regent whose tutelage and home were his for a period, his attendance in Methodist-operated educational facilities and also by the writings and teachings of Gandhi, Mandela seemed destined for a significant role in the evolution of South Africa throughout his life.

And his activism, along with his colleagues in the ANC, was clearly echoed, reverberated and trumpeted by the man to came to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Committee following the demise of apartheid. Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Stories that Tutu ‘was not officially invited to Mandela’s funeral’ notwithstanding, (some report that in South Africa, invitations are not issued for funerals), the two men have left an indelible imprint not only on the men and women with whom they worked and fought, but also on the government and its policies in South Africa. Indeed, their circle of influence extends in various ripples across the globe.

(Personal note: I had the opportunity to attend an event at which Archbishop Tutu was the keynote speaker, in the then “Pepsi” Centre in Denver Colorado. Invited to support the work of those engaged in youth projects, the event featured a stage filled with church leaders from almost all denominations, sadly excluding the Episcopal Bishop of Colorado, whose absence was noted by many. Immediately following the event, like a young boy at a rock concert wanting to ‘meet’ and shake hands with the Archbishop, I found my way through the maze of hallways in the arena to the loading dock where the venerable Archbishop was already seated in the rear seat of a van. His eyes, as always it seemed, sparkled, his smile beamed, his hand stretched out as I breathlessly blurted, “Archbishop, I bring greetings from “A.W!” (New Testament Professor who had previously worked in Africa and knew the Archbishop personally.) I had been surprised and grateful that the opportunity to listen to him speak and even more energized that I might meet him face to face. Words to be spoken, unrehearsed, were the last thing in my mind as I raced through the concrete halls. Only the moment, if possible, seemed important! And, these three decades later, the moment remains etched in memory, in indelible ‘ink’.)

 Both Mandela and Tutu were born of Xhosa parents, and were educated in mission schools, Tutu in those where his father taught, Mandela in Methodist mission schools. Tutu though he wanted a medical career…was unable to afford training and instead became a schoolteacher. Ordained an Anglican priest in 1961, he obtained an M.A. from King’s College London (and) from 1972 to 1975 he served as associate director for the World Council of Churches. He was appointed dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg in 1975 the first Black South African to hold that position. From 1976 to 1978 Tutu served as Bishop of Lesotho. In 1978 Tutu accepted an appointment as the general secretary of the South African Council of Churches and became a leading spokesman for the rights of black South Africans. During the 1980’s he played an unrivaled role in drawing national and international attention to the inequities of apartheid. He emphasized nonviolent means of protest and encouraged the application of economic pressure by countries dealing with South Africa. The award of the 1984 Nobel Prize for Peace sent a significant message to South African Pres. P.W. Botha’s administration. In 1985, at the height of the township rebellions in South Africa, Tutu was installed as Johannesburg’s first Black Anglican bishop, and in 1986 he was elected the first Black Archbishop of Cape Town, thus becoming the primate of South Africa’s 1.6 million-member Anglican church. In 1988 Tutu took a position as chancellor of the University of the Western Cape in Bellville, South Africa. During South Africa’s moves to democracy in the early 1990’s, Tutu propagated the idea of South Africa as ‘the Rainbow Nation,’…In 1995, Nelson Mandela appointed Tutu head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated allegations of human rights abuses during the apartheid era. (from

Here is a quote from Tutu’s Rainbow People of God (p.121) that expresses his theology:

If we could but recognize our common humanity, that we do belong together, that our destinies are bound up with one another’s, that we can be free only together, that we can survive only together, that we can be human only together, then the glorious South Africa would come into being where all of us lived harmoniously together as members of one family, the human family, God’s family. In truth a transfiguration would have taken place. (from Denison Journal of Religion Volume 7, 2007, in a piece entitled, Desmond Tutu: A theological Model for Justice in the Context of Apartheid, by Tracy Riggle, Denison University)

 Such thoughts and aspirations may not have reached Mandela directly while in the crucible of the crisis of his fight to dismantle apartheid. He would, however, have been somewhat familiar with Methodist teaching, thinking and theology, from a very early age. Not only was his mother a member, and his schools operated under the Methodist ‘banner,’ but the theology would have been inculcated deeply into his mind, heart and body.

From (resource United Methodist Church), we read:

United Methodists believe in actualizing their faith in community---actions speak louder than words. The three simple rules are: ‘Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.’….United Methodists serve the world over, showing Christ’s love through tangible meant. From sustainable water systems, to health care, micro-lending, advocacy and helping eliminate malaria deaths….Ums believe: ‘The gospel of Christ knows no religion but social.’ United Methodists believe: ‘All creation is God’s, and we are responsible for the ways we use and abuse it. ‘United Methodists believe: Christ hosts Communion and all are  welcomed by him.

And from, under the title, Our Mission in the World, we read:

‘As servants of Christ we are sent in to the world to engage in the struggle for justice and reconciliation. We seek to reveal the love of God for men, women, and children of all ethnic, racial, cultural, and national backgrounds and to demonstrate the healing power of the gospel with those who suffer.

Imagine being reared in the ethos of such thoughts, aspirations, prayers, hymns and role models!

There is a cogent and insightfully reflective piece about Tutu’s legacy, from Notre Dame, ( that sheds light back on the life and legacy of Mandela’s South African peer, friend and colleague (Tutu):

While perhaps most remembered for his work fighting against apartheid in South Africa, and following its dismantling his leadership of (the) country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Tutu’s advocacy for the marginalized was not limited to his home. Indeed, he addressed issues of injustice in contexts across Africa, in Israel/Palestine, and in Northern Ireland. In this series of posts, which were first presented at the 2022 Academy of  Religion Annual Conference in Denver Colorado, scholars across religious and geographic difference grapple with Tut’s legacy in the international arena, focusing especially on  Israel/Palestine. Together, they suggest that Tutu’s voice remains a prophetic one that is needed now as we navigate the rise of religious nationalism populism, and demagoguery….In these reflections, Hilary Rantisi draws on her own experiences growing up as a Palestinian under Israeli apartheid to illustrate the impact of Tutu’s work o both her and her community.  She argues that Tutu was a joyous yet fierce warrior in the Palestinian cause, and that his theology guided him to stand up to those who were marginalized not only in his own community but in communities around the world. In these reflections (also), Farid Esack, under the title, Desmond Tutu: A Much-loved, Deeply Disturbed, and Offensive Prophet, writes: (Quoting Mandela) ‘Sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid and seldom without humour, Desmond Tutu’s voice will always be the voice of the voiceless.’ And (quoting Tutu himself) ‘This God did not just talk. He showed Himself to be a doing God. Perhaps we might add another point about God. He takes sides. HE is not a neutral God. He took the side of the enslaved, the oppressed, and the victims. He is still the same even today. He sides with the poor, the oppressed and the victims of injustice. (From Sparks and Tutu, 73)

And Esack who worked with Tutu, writing in his own words:

Tutu was a Christian, a mensch, and a prophet. I use the word prophet in the sense given to it by liberation theology as someone desperate to challenge power and  injustice. (Referencing Tutu’s work, God is Not a Christian, Esack offers a quote from a Tutu interview with Allister Sparks:

I am a Christian, but the books  that we hold to provide for how we should be thinking about God…I mean, right at the beginning, the gospel of John tells about ‘the light that lightens everyone’: it does not say ‘the light that  lightens those who become Christians’; it says ‘everyone who comes into the world.’ (113) And from another Tutu interview with Sparks, on June 16, 2020, Tutu is quoted as saying during a conference of interfaith leaders:

Don’t insult people of other faiths by saying, ‘Oh, actually our God is your God too; You are a Christian too without knowing it. Don’t insult people by reducing their faith to that.’ (313

Esack continues: While the God that Tutu worshiped was decidedly not a Christian, Tutu certainly was one, as demonstrated in his love for and agonized relationship with the Anglican Church. He was concerned with all its Anglo ceremonial and hierarchical trappings and doctrine and sustained a relentless critique of its positions on the ordination of women and the recognition of gay rights among others…..Sometimes we would spend many hours debating the wisdom of marching to Parliament, starting from St. Georges Cathedral in the Cape Town city centre, literally a stone’s throw away from Parliament. We were fully aware that we would be confronting the police and end up being arrested if we did. On a few occasions just before the march, Tutu, who was never a signed-up comrade of any of our political formations, would go to his sanctuary to pray for guidance, only to emerge from there saying something to the effect that this is not what he was moved to do by the spirit!

Although the two men were born some fifteen years apart, (Mandela in 1918, and Tutu in 1931) their lives not only intersected over apartheid, but doubtless, enhanced and supported the work each was doing throughout their shared time on the South African political/cultural/religious/social justice stage.

Theology, the teachings of the churches, not only its theory but also its praxis, has been a heated topic of consideration among political leaders, both practitioners and theorists, for many years, The dynamic of one’s personal theology, called by many names including the search for and relationship with God (in whatever name), and one’s political and philosophic views are two intersecting dynamics whose separate identities are rarely, if ever, disentangled. Indeed, there is a substantial argument/case to be made that they are unable and unwilling to be dis-engaged from each other. We exist in a world in which we can all see, as well as experience, injustice, whether of a legal, or an ethical or a professional or even on a social level. Certainly, it is feasible and perhaps even necessary to begin to unpack the potential and extant links between all forms of injustice with the politics and the current ethos (anima mundi) in which those politics are being practiced. Institutional churches, of whatever faith, continue as the reservoir, the tablet, the sanctuary, the rituals, the hymnody, the dogma and the promise, the prayers and the history and tradition of each of those deeply embedded traditions. Tutu’s ‘God is not a Christian’ rings harmoniously for some, as a profound dissonance, even heresy, for others.

Anyone who has been accompanying this blog-pilgrimage will already intuit that I stand with Tutu, and many others, in the non-denominational, and non-creedal and non-institutional notion of God. And while this notion leaves out the specific faith community that holds to a specific set of beliefs, it also affords a perspective that remains open to striving to embrace and to support and to foster all efforts, images and art that point towards a different and more just world. Mandela and Tutu are two of the many male role models, not merely in their actions but also in their thought, prayer, theology, struggles in their personal crucible as well as in the public sphere, for the effective, challenging and almost impossible option of marrying one’s life and actions to one’s theology.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home