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Deeper into God

Spirituality for the struggle: An interview with Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu, the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town and winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize when this article appeared, was interviewed at his home in Bishopscourt outside Cape Town.

Jim Wallis: We would very much like to hear your perspective on what people speak of as the new era for the church in South Africa, the new level in the struggle against apartheid as the church moves to the front lines.

Desmond Tutu:
In many ways the church—perhaps less spectacularly in the past—has been involved in this struggle for some time. Church people have been responsible for bringing the Namibian issue [South Africa's illegal occupation of neighboring Namibia] before the United Nations. And they have brought the plight of squatters very much to the fore.

For instance, the church was involved over the issue of forced population removals, particularly in Mogopa, one of the villages that the government "moved." The South African Council of Churches, with a number of church leaders, was there. We went and stood with the people to try to support them at a time when they were under threat.

Perhaps the government had not yet learned how to be thoroughly repressive so that the church did not need, in many ways, to be quite so spectacular. There were other avenues available for people, avenues that were more explicitly political.

What is different, perhaps, now is that the government has progressively eliminated most of the other organizations which legitimately could have been around to articulate the people's concern. And their repression has intensified. They have chosen the military option.

I don't think those who are calling the shots in the government are really interested in negotiating any longer. They believe that they've got the military strength and the political strength to deal with any obstructive elements. And they have more or less neutralized most of the opposition.

What is a remarkable feature of this time is the unity that is emerging in the churches. All of us were quite surprised at the broad spectrum that was represented at the February 29 march on Parliament. It never happened before at that level. It was remarkable.

The decision to march was made just a few days before. We asked people—very, very busy people—to come down to Cape Town. And they dropped everything and came, even with the prospect of being arrested. I don't think the government is aware of what they have unleashed.

How do you explain that unity?

I would say that what we saw on February 29th is not something that suddenly happened on its own account. It happened because the consciousness of people has been awakened and deepened, as well as the fact that black leadership has been coming to the fore in quite a number of churches. We are seeing here in South Africa the fruit of the work of very many people.

I also have to say that there is something powerful in the fact that people are praying for you. You see, we are representatives of a great army around the world. And when we tell these guys [government leaders] that they've really lost, it's because they really have lost. Those who are for us are many, many times more numerous than those who are for them, and they really ought to join the winning side.

On the march, we were one at a very deep level. We were agreed that this thing [apartheid] is evil. We were agreed about what we were going to do, whatever the consequences.

I was scared. I was sitting in the cathedral before the march, and we were praying. You could have heard the butterflies in my tummy.

Of course, we didn't know how the police were going to react. In fact, at the time that they stopped us and we knelt, this man beckoned to the phalanx of police behind him, and I said, "Well, we'll really get it now. I mean, we're getting the whips and the dogs and we're just going to have to brave it out." One was sort of utterly scared.

We need to remember that, in fact, we belong in a body. It's as if all of us have caught onto a wavelength where we've said [to the government], "That's far enough. No further," but not with any sense of bravado. We are just aware, and maybe more people are aware, of the pain of the people.

We who are black have an advantage over those who are white. But I think that a number of whites have come to the experience of seeing some of the pain, and it's carried into their hearts. The fact that the government did what they did [on February 24] in banning those organizations along with the banning of people who are working for peace, has probably turned the scales.

The confrontation between the church and the South African state has now become a very visible, public confrontation. And you have been again thrust into a very public role, often taking the brunt of attack from the government. You had a meeting with President P.W. Botha. What was that meeting like? And what is your view about the role in which you find yourself?

I don't think you should over-dramatize my part in it. In many ways it's very incidental. Although individual persons are important, this fight's got nothing, in many ways, to do with individuals. That is the beauty of it, you see. As individuals, we may help to focus things. But, if I were to pass off center stage, it's not going to be the end of this movement. This movement is much, much bigger than Desmond Tutu. I had a two-part meeting with the state president, P.W. Botha.

The first part of the meeting was fairly rational. We talked like we were very civilized human beings, and he was telling me how he operates his exercise of the prerogative [to intervene in judicial cases involving charges against police or army personnel].

At the time it sounded relatively plausible: He does not interfere with the judicial process, except in extremely limited circumstances. As it turns out, of course, it's nothing of the sort. He was lying like it was nobody's business.

Then we sort of changed gears from a fairly amicable meeting, and the temperature dropped several degrees because he then came to his point that it was I who was persuading people to break the law and so forth. He's fond of becoming, as it were, a heavy-handed, scolding headmaster.

I was going to be very subdued, very calm. I could have kept quiet, but I decided I might never get this chance again. Our people had suffered so long. I said, "One thing you've got to know is that I'm not a small boy. You're not my headmaster."

But we did get into it like little boys, really. It was a shame, accusations and counteraccusations, that sort of thing. I thought, he's certainly never heard this from a black person in this way.

I don't know whether that's how Jesus would have handled it. But at that moment, I didn't quite mind how Jesus would have handled it. I was going to handle it my way. I hope that is how he would have handled it, because it was done on behalf of people who have been hurt by these guys.

I told him, "I love this country, probably more personally than you, because our people fought against the Nazis. You didn't." he got very, very angry about that. But it is true—they [the Nationalist Party] supported the Nazis.

Now when you hear them talk about violence and so forth, you think that the worst they could ever do is use sharp words. But they've been rough, and they're rough now to our people. So it wasn't the kind of meeting you'd like to have once a week.

As for the church's role, the weakness in what we have been about as a church is that we've been so episodic. We do one little thing here, and one there, but there is no sustained effort.

One of the things we need to do is take up seriously this whole question of nonviolence. We are amateurs at nonviolent action. All we've been doing really is preaching it, and it's not been a truly viable alternative to violence. We've spoken as if just to exhort people is enough, whereas if they were to see that we're serious about this, then people would begin to think that it is a credible program that we are suggesting.

One of the things that we need to be looking at is the possibility of nonviolent action in places where the government is forcibly relocating people. If we can manage to be with the people, say, for a week, that would be a positive step. We may not, in fact, stop the government from doing anything, but we may get in the way or in the works a little bit, and publicity would accrue to a situation. If we went there for one day and stood between the people and the bulldozers, that would be the kind of thing that we ought to be thinking about.

So you're hoping the Parliament march won't be just an isolated event or episode in the church's witness but part of a sustained and growing effort?

We hope so. We think public acts of witness give encouragement to the people and make the authorities aware that we are serious. The authorities are going to have to reckon with the fact that they will probably have to put us into jail.

You have said that you think the churches are more ready than ever before to act in this kind of way. What do you think will happen if not just a few church leaders but the masses of church people really begin to act?

We need to take into account that there is probably some distance between the leadership and the bulk of the church membership. But certainly the black church is waiting to be mobilized.

My concern—and I think it would be the concern of many church leaders—is that I would not be able to deal with my conscience, if, for instance, we go out on the streets, and in a mass action the soldiers shoot their guns. They are more likely to shoot if it is a black crowd than if it is a few prominent church leaders.

One important thing is if we can mobilize the white congregations. I think that there are some who are straining at the leash, who see that what we've got is unsatisfactory, and who see that the prospects for the future are not good. Down the road, unless we have radical change, there's not really a future for them and their children. And now they are ready to participate in trying to bring about change.

I think we have a vicious and ruthless government, and they would mow people down like flies. If they give a gun to a white policeman and the target is black, you don't have to spend a split second wondering what he'll do. But it's less likely if there are white people as well.

What do you see in the immediate future for the church leaders in South Africa's struggle?

We have the problem of what to do with the people who say we are wasting time, that we've got to use violence. I think the only way that our credibility can be maintained is if they see that we are not leading from behind, that we are involved and are prepared to take risks, and that we are in the struggle for the long haul. And we ought to prepare ourselves for that.

We've got to get down to the business of training as many people as possible in nonviolent action and its spirituality. We must be seen as being quite prepared to take the consequences of standing up on behalf of God's people.

This is more than a political struggle, it's also a spiritual struggle. What kind of spiritual resources and strength must be drawn upon to continue the struggle?

First, I think one has to say God is pretty smart, because we have an interrelatedness in the body of Christ. So we are not alone. There is a bigger movement, and we are buoyed up and carried by the fervor and the love and the prayers of so many people.

There are extraordinary prayers that are offered by the church—the nuns, the contemplatives who spend all of their lives praying, the old ladies, the old gentlemen, people who are sick in hospitals who have learned to be able to offer their pain as part of our Lord's sacrifice, making up, as Paul says, what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. That is a very, very crucial part of our struggle.

It isn't my struggle, it isn't even the struggle of the people of South Africa. It's the struggle of all the people of God.

And that is what makes us so bold to know that we can't fail. It doesn't depend on me. It's not something that relies on how wonderful you are. Paul puts it very, very well: The foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men.

For those of us who are from a sacramental church, our strength is in the encounter with God in the Eucharist, the encounter with God in meditation, the encounter with God in those quiet moments when you're consciously aware of being in the flow. You're being carried along in the current.

But sometimes there are moments when you are in the depths, or you just have to say to God, "God, I am tired." At those times I throw myself into the stream of faith, and I'm carried along in the prayers—and not just of those on earth.

That is the wonder of the community of saints: I think the prayers of all of those who have gone before are hoping for us as well. Our cries and our joys and our bewilderments—all of those are taken up in this tremendous offering of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. That is our spirituality.

Even when you talk about these grim and painful realities, you speak as a person of great hope.

Wouldn't you be? Nothing could be more hopeless than Good Friday; but then Sunday happens. You can't but be a prisoner of hope.

And also you meet so many wonderful people, people who have suffered and remained faithful. One such person is a man I met when I was praying with the people in Mogopa one night. Now this is someone whose house was going to be demolished the next day. Clinics, churches, and shops had been demolished already. And the people were going to be moved at the point of a gun. And he got up, and he prayed, in the middle of the night, "God, thank you for loving us."

You couldn't have heard a more nonsensical prayer in the middle of that kind of situation. And yet, here was a man who didn't seem to know any theology but who could offer a prayer of thanksgiving.

As you know, you have tremendous support and love and care from U.S. churches. And Christians in our country will want to know how they can be in solidarity as you move deeper into the struggle.

We relish and revel in the fact of their love and their prayers, and please let them know we are deeply grateful.

I would say that our movement is a movement deeper into God. That is where we touch one another more nearly, as we all grow in our prayerfulness and in our relationship with our Lord. The closer we are to God, obviously, the closer we are to one another. That is the greatest thing that can happen between our churches.

I would say, let them go into the depths with us. Let's walk that way together, deepening our relationship with our Lord. And God will be making them more and more sensitive as to what must happen.

This appears in the August-September 1988 issue of Sojourners
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