A few hours before the bodies of Jennifer Hudson's murdered mother and brother were discovered on Chicago's South Side last Friday, across town one of the world's greatest peacemakers began his remarks at the Hotel Intercontinental by addressing head-on the city's daunting problem with violent crime.
"I want to give a special message to a group of people sitting in that corner -- it is families who have lost sons to the gun violence that is so rampant," Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, motioning toward a table at the far end of the ballroom. Among those seated there was Ron Holt, father of Blair Holt, the 16-year-old who died shielding another friend from gunfire on a Chicago Transit Authority bus in May 2007.
"It is easy, so facile, to say to you, 'We feel with you,'" Tutu said. "Please go away from here knowing there are people who care enormously who want to see a different kind of Chicago, who want a Chicago where everybody is safe."
Tutu, the 77-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner and archbishop emeritus of the Anglican Church of South Africa, was in town to be honored at the breakfast gathering by the Chicago Center for Cultural Connections (formerly known as, variously, the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the National Conference for Community and Justice.)
The archbishop's address was titled "The Dawn of a New Moral Awakening," but I don't think he meant it as a description of what already is happening. I believe Tutu came to Chicago to speak the truth to power -- to prophesy about what could be. And his attention quickly turned to racial and religious tensions around the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama.
"The other day, we were traveling and went through one or another of the airports," Tutu told the diverse audience that included several other Christian bishops, rabbis, imams, Sikhs, and Buddhists, among others. "And the [television] screens showed some illustrations or cartoons of Barack Obama wearing Arab clothes, Muslim garb. I didn't see all of it because we were passing through, but there was something about it ... he was holding a gun and 'terrorist' was something that was put down there."
"I felt incredibly sad for this country," Tutu said, his sparkly eyes flashing with emotion behind wire-rimmed spectacles. "I thought, how obscene. How repulsive. And also, how dangerous! You know what's happened already? There are people in this country and in many other countries who are saying, 'Islam is a religion that propagates violence. Islam is a religion that propagates terrorism.' It's an offensive, repulsive, obscene [mischaracterization] and dangerous. And they say this because one of his names is 'Hussein'? They forget that the other name means 'blessing.'"
It's a familiar message but one that bears repeating, if the "Barack Hussein Obama is a covert Muslim terrorist" e-mails that keep arriving in my mailbox -- a week before the election -- are any indication.
"Imagine what would happen if all Christians said, 'Jews, you killed our Lord!'" Tutu said. "There was a time when Christians said, 'Jews are guilty of deicide,' of murdering God. That was obscene. That was repulsive and that was dangerous, because from that came the justification for the persecution of Jews, ending with the Holocaust. It's dangerous. Dangerous!"
Reducing any person or people to a stereotype is dangerous, the archbishop insisted, especially if it's done with the claim of a divine imprimatur.
"I don't know about you, but I am so glad I'm not God," Tutu said, drawing one of many bursts of laughter from the rapt audience. "I really am glad I'm not God. But I'm also so glad that God is God. He is an incredible God!"
Instead, Tutu said, "God says, 'Help me. Help me. Help me make this world the kind of world I intended for it to be. Help me. Help me so I can make this world more compassionate. Help me. Help me to make this a world that is more caring. Help me, help me, please help me, to make this world a world where there will be no poverty; where my children won't spend as much as they do on weapons of destruction, and would spend a small fraction of what they do on killing to make sure my children everywhere have enough to drink and have food to eat. Help me. Please help me. Please help me. I have no one except you.'"
God, help us ... help you.
Cathleen Falsani is the religion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of the new book Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace.