Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu, “the Arch” as he is fondly known in South Africa, ordained as an Anglican priest in 1960, and a global icon who has worked tirelessly in the pursuit of justice, peace and dignity, is turning 90 on 7 October 2021. On Monday 4 October 2021, a book called “Ecumenical Encounters with Desmond Mpilo Tutu: Visions for Justice, Dignity and Peace” (Edited by Sarojini Nadar, Tinyiko Maluleke, Dietrich Werner, Vicentia Kgabe and Rudolf Hinz) was virtually launched, with over 160 people attending from 4 different continents. Even the Arch made an appearance from his bed to wave to the participants!
Our aim, in this book, was to capture what Tutu’s life and witness signifies in a world still clinging to, and longing for, visions for justice, dignity and peace. The book was conceived and compiled during a global pandemic that brought the entire world to its knees. Many scholars have noted that the COVID-19 pandemic did not create inequities and iniquities, as much as it simply revealed and perhaps exacerbated existing injustices, causing some, like Jennifer Ruger to declare that “we need a moral constitution for our planet’s health.” Speaking in a short documentary film https://youtu.be/H4z5qo7VX18 about the book I asked the question “what will the role of religion be in drafting this moral constitution.”
At the time of compiling the book, South Africa had less than 5% of its population vaccinated due to the limitation of vaccines, while in many so-called first world countries which had over-stocked on vaccines, citizens still debate the efficacy of the vaccines, and invoke their rights not to get vaccinated. Co-editing the book with German theologians who shared their very different experiences of access to the vaccine, again demonstrated how the pandemic indeed invites us to consider how we advocate for access to healthcare as a moral imperative.
The fight against injustice and oppression as a moral and religious imperative
It was noted during the launch, that collecting the narratives of ecumenical encounters with Desmond Tutu in the shadow of a global health crisis, gender-based violence, increased racism, Black poverty and political instability, seems ironic because while many of the recollections in the book, hearken to decades before democracy, the current situation in South Africa reveals that we are certainly nowhere close to the rainbow utopia envisioned by Desmond Tutu. There was resounding agreement during the discussion, from all parts of the world, that the struggle against injustice and oppression must continue as a profoundly religious and moral imperative, because as the Arch himself says: “To oppose injustice and oppression is not something that is merely political. No, it is profoundly religious.”
This powerful challenge by the Archbishop is a haunting reminder of the work that remains to be done. In this book, his significant contributions in the areas of theology, ethics, politics, and African and global ecumenism were celebrated and commemorated through Archbishop Tutu’s involvement with the worldwide ecumenical movement. It was also noted that it was significant the book was being launched from the University of the Western Cape where the Archbishop served as Chancellor for almost 25 years. The book is in many ways aligned with UWC’s popular description as the intellectual home of the left.
The themes covered in the book, that were discussed at the launch ranged from sexual diversity rights to the occupation in Palestine as well as the contested ideas of reconciliation and reparations, amongst many others. Nico Koopman, DVC of Transformation at Stellenbosch University, speaking about his own chapter in the book, talked about the disillusionment with “cheap reconciliation” and called instead for reparations and a return to the idea of “costly unity.”
Allan Boesak, also speaking in the film-documentary about his chapter spoke about the importance of hope. He said: “Desmond Tutu, the man, his theology, his ministry, his life’s work – all are almost synonymous with the word “hope.” Throughout the many years we have worked together in the church and in the struggle for freedom.. this is the one thing he tenaciously clung to, tirelessly preached, and unerringly symbolized. It made him more than the proverbial ‘beacon of hope’…Hope is not passively waiting, nor is it deceitfully pontificating, pulling the wool over the eyes of a people desperate for change. It is stepping into the breach, into the heat of struggle, despite the wounds I know are coming, because it is worth it. It is what people, in the grip of integrity, honesty, and decency, do. So, despite the present darkness of this age of re-embraced and reinforced apartheid, the betrayals and the corruption, the greed and hunger for power…I remember the youth and our revolution, and like Desmond Tutu, through the pain, the cries and the bewilderments I, too, see Sunday happen, and I will turn my face to the rising sun.”
Staying with the theme of hope, the launch also aptly and overwhelmingly celebrated the election of Vicentia Kgabe, one of the editors of the book, as Bishop of Lesotho. She will be installed on 5 December 2021. It was a truly significant moment to celebrate her election, given the enormous contribution of Archbishop Tutu towards the struggle for the ordination of women in the Anglican Church in Southern Africa. Desmond Tutu’s two daughters Nontombi Tutu and Mpho Tutu van Furth, were both present at the launch. Both of them ordained priests, they deal with different subjects in their contributions, Nontombi focusing on the issue of ubuntu theology as she learned it from her father, and Mpho focusing on “herstory” centralising her mom, Leah Tutu, in the many accolades that her father has received.
Speaking specifically on the uniqueness of the book’s contribution, Tinyko Maluleke pointed out that what struck him through the process of reading the chapters was the idea that Desmond Tutu was “Archbishop of the World.” The two German editors, Dietrich Werner and Rudolf Hinz spoke fondly of how fulfilling it was for them to collect the narrative recollections from Germany and elsewhere, and to place on formal record the remarkable transnational solidarity in anti-racist struggles against Apartheid.
Lovelyn Nwadeyi, who facilitated the discussion at the launch was keen to end on a “high note” as she termed it, and because so many people had made reference to his remarkable sense of humour and his remarkable way of diffusing tension using humour she asked a few people to share stories about their experience with the Arch’s humour. The audience was indeed in stitches.
There are two things that stand out for me in particular about the contribution this book will make. The first is that our intentional inclusion of newer and more diverse voices, in line with the Arch’s lifelong commitment to not just make more space at the table, but to graciously extend, and thereby courageously transform the shape of the table, will yield great insights. Many of these younger contributors have never met Desmond Tutu in person, but their work for justice, and their scholarship and witness have been inspired by him and his work. While we consciously and conscientiously invited newer voices to the table, we also balanced this with the remarkable recollections of colleagues who are themselves in the seventh, eighth and ninth decades of their lives. We were particularly pleased, therefore, that we were able to compile the narratives of those who have personally met and interacted with the Arch through “ecumenical encounters” and those who have had “engaging encounters” with his work and witness, and have been inspired by it.
The second important contribution this book makes is that it forces us to shift our perceptions of a “meek and mild” and domesticated Desmond Tutu that seems to dominate the contemporary popular imagination. The chapters in the book reveal a different picture – a feisty, “rabble-rouser”, trouble-maker for justice and peace! I will be happy if the book succeeds in nothing else, but foregrounding this wonderful image of our Beloved Arch.
The book is co-published by Regnum Books, Oxford and UWC Press, South Africa. Queries can be directed to the African Sun Media office: email@example.com / 021 201 0071