Desmond Tutu: Activist and Legacy

Posted by Seth.Sebastian on July 10, 2017

Editor’s note: Each time the NorthPark congregation reaches a new goal in logging minutes of service in the church and its wider community, a blog entry is published about various leaders of the global church. Learn more about the mission challenge and the church's 150th anniversary here.

Archbishop Emeritus of the Anglican Church of South Africa Desmond Tutu at age 85 is both an activist and a legacy for peace on our planet. From helping abolish racial separation by the South African government (apartheid) to promoting unity among world religions, he continues to live the message for which he earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.

“We do scant justice and honor to our God if we want, for instance, to deny that Mahatma Gandhi was a truly great soul, a holy man who walked closely with God,” Tutu wrote in the first book since his 2010 retirement from public life, God is Not a Christian: And Other Provocations. (Harper Collins, 2011)

Tutu settled for becoming a teacher in the 1950s because his family could not afford medical school. In short time, he went on to become an Anglican priest in South Africa in 1961 before earning an advanced degree in London. In the 1970s he served as associate director of the Word Council of Churches and later became the first black South African to be appointed dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg, and ultimately leader of the Anglican Church of South Africa.

In a striking memory from childhood, Tutu once described his concern about his father’s feelings. Tutu, 7, and his father, a school headmaster, entered a shop and the small white girl the behind the counter addressed him by saying, “Yes, Boy?”

As a church leader, he advocated for non-violent protest against the laws that suppressed the black majority in his country and even barred him from voting because his skin was not white. Tutu did not back away from violence, but neither committed acts of violence.

“In one incident, he saved the life of a man who was being beaten because the Black community suspected him of being an informant. Another time, Tutu stood between armed White police officer and hundreds of angry young Blacks, and diffused a situation that could have easily turned into violence.” ¹

Tutu accepted the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 and has toured, via video message, with the rock band U2. Bono, the band’s leader, serenaded Tutu for his 80th birthday party, which was to have included the Dalai Lama, but he could not obtain a travel visa at that time.

In the concert appearances, Tutu tells the crowd, “The same people who marched for civil rights in the United States are the same people who protested apartheid in South Africa… are the same people who fought against debt slavery in the Jubilee Year 2000… the are the same beautiful people (at the concert).” ²

In the book, God is Not a Christian: And Other Provocations, Tutu reminds people of any faith that they are not necessarily correct because we were born a particular way.

“You could so easily have been an adherent of the faith you are now denigrating,” he said, “but for the fact that you were born here rather than there.

“We must hold to our particular and peculiar beliefs tenaciously, not pretending that all religions are the same, for they are patently not the same. We must be ready to learn from one another, not claiming that we alone possess all truth and that somehow we have a corner on God.”

In the preface, the book’s editor John Allen said, “If the reasons for Desmond Tutu becoming one of the world's most prominent advocates of faith-based social justice and religious tolerance could be reduced to a single succinct statement, it would be this: his fierce and uncompromising determination to tell the truth as he sees it.”

In retirement Tutu maintains contact with the coalition of mostly retired world leaders in a group he founded in 2007 called “The Elders” to address global human rights and abuses. ³

¹ Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, television host interviewed Tutu during sesquicentennial of the Episcopal (Anglican) Church in Hawaii, 2012.

² Desmond Tutu “touring” with U2 in 2011 at Cape Town, South Africa. Tutu’s video message highlighted  the advocacy campaign for poverty relief through justice, not charity, called “One.” He emphasized the sameness of all who are oppressed and the ones who stand with them in protest. Photo by Rev. Francois Mulder, Dutch Reformed Church in Blanco, George, South Africa. He attended the 2017 U2 concerts in Texas, among other places.

³ Source: 


In 2011, Desmond Tutu sent an open letter to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to former Stated Clerk Rev. Gradye Parsons. Tutu affirmed our denomination’s inclusive actions to lift the ban on members of LGBTQ from pursuing full service and leadership positions in the PC(USA). He wrote, “Sadly, it is not always popular to do justice, but it is always right.” Read the full letter on the blog of former Moderator of the 2008 General Assembly, Bruce Reyes-Chow.

Film: Desmond Tutu: Children of the Light


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