See below for further information about Desmond Tutu.
October 28, 2012
John 8: 31-36
For years, we have talked about Martin Luther on Reformation Sunday, celebrating his challenge to his church to be faithful to what he saw as the truth of the Gospel. By putting the Bible in the hands of ordinary people, by preaching that interpreted Scripture, Luther called on everyone to live his or her faith in all phases of life, monetary decisions, education of children, and participation in civic life that supported the welfare of other ordinary people.
We have reformers in our own day who stand up to the status quo because of their understanding of Scripture, and through their witness bring changes in the world around them. I’d like to talk about Archbishop Demond Tutu as one of those people who participated in creating a new reality for South Africa and the world through his Christian witness, and calling the church to account for its appropriation of the Gospel to serve its own purposes.
At the root of Tutu’s challenge to the disenfranchisement of black Africans by was his understanding of God’s creation and the incarnation. The Dutch Reformed Church was at the heart of the theology which moved blacks to township slums, closed their schools and colleges and began a systematic denial of their human rights. In 1982, in the sermon of his life, Tutu stood before five white commissioners who represented a government investigation of the practices of the South African Council of Churches. They sought to bring sanctions against the SACC that could cause his removal and render its position in the struggle for rights for black South Africans completely ineffective. Rather than mount a defense of the practices of the SACC, Tutu presented a theological argument: “You whites brought us the Bible; now we blacks are taking it seriously. We are involved with God to set us free from all that enslaves us and makes us less than what [God] intended us to be. I will demonstrate that apartheid, separate development, or whatever it is called, is evil, totally and without remainder, that it is un-Christian and unbiblical.” Then he lowered his voice almost to a whisper, to add, “If anyone were to show me otherwise, I would burn my Bible and cease to be a Christian.”
Tutu told the commissioners that the story of Exodus was not only a paradigm for the liberation of a chosen people, but for all who were oppressed. “Our God is not a God who sanctifies the status quo…He cares that children starve in resettlement camps. He cares that people die mysteriously in detention. He is concerned that people are condemned to a twilight existence as non-persons by banning them without giving them the right of reply to charges brought against them….If any book should be banned by those who rule unjustly and as tyrants, it is the Bible.”
Tutu’s fight for the human rights of his own people, did not keep him from understanding a broader message of the inclusiveness of God’s family. In his book, “God Has a Dream,” he says, “All of our humanity is dependent on recognizing the humanity in others…The humanity of the perpetrator of apartheid’s atrocities was caught up and bound up in that of his victim whether he liked it or not. In the process of dehumanizing another, in inflicting untold harm and suffering, inexorably the perpetrator was being dehumanized as well.” At the funeral of Steve Biko, a young man who died in detention, Tutu spoke to a crowd seething with anger and ready to riot, urging them to pray for white South African leaders and policemen, because they needed to regain their humanity, as did their victims.
At the end of apartheid, Nelson Mandela called Tutu back into public life to lead the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, believing that facing the deep conflicts and suffering of the past was the only way to find the forgiveness that would lead to a future as a fully-enfranchised people. Tutu’s biographer Alister Sparks says that Tutu took what was essentially a political deal between those who wanted a Nuremburg trial and those who wanted a blanket amnesty and embedded it in a theological framework, an essentially Christian ethic, calling for repentance and reconciliation of all God’s children in this rainbow nation. It also embodied the African notion of Ubuntu, which idealizes the interdependence of the whole community, so that an injustice to one diminishes all.
In our text this morning, Jesus says the truth will make us free. The truth is that we have been adopted as God’s children and heirs of God’s kingdom. Desmond Tutu says that because of that, we are in partnership with God to change the world from one that doesn’t care for the least to one that is willing and able to relieve suffering, see that everyone gets enough to eat, and that everyone has the dignity that comes from being one of God’s children. Jesus is the prime example of God caring for the least in his willingness to become one of us, obedient to the suffering of the world and obedient to death. But Jesus is more than that. He is the power to overcome of fear of others, our insecurity, and our self-centeredness. In his death and resurrection we see that God can make a way even when we can’t figure out how it could possibly happen. In Jesus we see what true humanity looks like, and we are assured of our own place in bringing in the kingdom of God.
What we celebrate on Reformation Sunday is not just the heroes of faith that are compelled to proclaim God’s word when the world and the Church have lost their way. We celebrate the God who comes to give us a word that leads and guides us from slavery to freedom. And also to celebrate the Living Word, Jesus, who came to set us all free from the fear that keeps us from standing with God’s people to proclaim that all are welcome, that sin no longer separates us from God, and that our love for God is reflected in our love for God’s people.
Now may the God of hope bring you all joy and peace in believing that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town
Born: October 7, 1931 in Klerksdorp, Western Transvaal, Desmond Tutu’s father was a teacher and his mother the cleaner and cook at a school for the blind. Tutu was a frail child, contracting polio as an infant and tuberculosis as a teen. He wanted to become a doctor and was accepted into University of Wittwatersrand, but couldn’t raise the tuition, so he became a teacher, and taught at the Munsienville High School in Mogale City until 1957. He quit in disgust when the apartheid government passed the Bantu Education Act ,which took control of all the black mission schools, destroying what had been an excellent system of education and turning it into a system that prepared blacks for menial stations in life. He turned to the priesthood, studying at St Peter’s Theology College in Rosettenville, Johannesburg, and in 1960, was ordained as an Anglican Priest, following in the footsteps of his mentor Trevor Huddleston. As his faith deepened and strengthened in the course of his theological training it drove him more and more into political action.
“I want the government to know now and always that I do not fear them. They are trying to defend the utterly indefensible, and they will fail. They will fail because they are ranging themselves on the side of evil and injustice against the Church of God. LIke others who have done that in the past – the Neros, the Hitlers, the Idi Amins of this world – they will end up as the flotsame and jetsam of history.”
In 1962, Tutu and his family moved to England for his graduate study at King’s College. Meanwhile, in South Africa, the white government was asserting itself as indigenous to the land and declaring a separation of the races that consigned blacks to ‘homelands’ that were, in essence slums, and deprived them of education, jobs, and health-care that were available for whites. At the same time, black Africans were organizing into political parties to protest the segregation. There were major differences within the black African community about how to reclaim their dignity, some welcoming the separation to consolidate their own power and some wanting peaceful protest to work toward representation. Things began to turn violent in 1960 with a massacre of black protesters at Sharpesville.
“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 slaves, the oppressed, the victims. He is still the same even today; He sides with the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, and the victims of injustice.”
After years of study in England, where being black was unremarkable, Tutu returned to a South Africa at the end of the 1960’s that was completely separated by race. He taught at a combined seminary that trained ministers for the Anglicans, Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. As black leaders were killed and jailed, Desmond Tutu became more and more the leader who called for peace. At the same time he stood up for the rights of blacks against an increasingly violent government, and stood against black violence in the townships and against the government. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and blacks began to have an active role in a new government, Tutu faded into his church work until called into leadership of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which began hearings on December 16, 1995.
Reference: Sparks, Allister, Tutu, Authorized. (HarperOne 2011)
For Tutu, life itself was sacred. If men and women were made in the image of God…then to demean them was to demean their maker. “When you treat any human being as if they were less than a child of God, you are not just doing wrong – you are being sacrilegious. You are desecrating something thta is holy. You are like someone who spits in the face of God.”