Prisoner of Hope | Sojourners

Prisoner of Hope

Desmond Tutu in 1985
Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1985. EYEPRESS via Reuters Connect

Sojourners interviewed Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and archbishop of the Anglican Church in Johannesburg, South Africa by phone on December 24, 1984.

Sojourners: You are a Christian and a minister of the gospel. You are also a leader of the freedom movement in South Africa. How is your faith brought to bear in this struggle?

Desmond Tutu: If it weren't for faith, I would have given up long ago. I am certain lots of us would have been hate-filled and bitter. For me the Scriptures have become more and more thoroughly relevant to our situation. They speak of a God who, when you worship him, turns you around to be concerned for your neighbor. He does not tolerate a relationship with himself that excludes your neighbor.

It is the horizontal dimension that makes our faith so thoroughly subversive in a situation of oppression and injustice. It speaks of the infinite value of human persons. We count for God because he treated us lovingly. Each one of us is the object of the divine love as if we were the only person around. We are created in God's image and, therefore, each one of us is held to be a representative, a viceroy of God.

In the middle of our faith is the death and resurrection. Nothing could have been more hopeless than Good Friday—but then Easter happened, and forever we have to become prisoners of hope.

You and others in South Africa have called apartheid, and the church's acceptance of it, a heresy. Why do you use that language?

This ideology, this policy is not just wrong; it is not just one that causes pain to people. Apartheid hope denies essential aspects of our faith. And we have to speak of it in religious terms, not just political terms because it has been buttressed by others, or they have sought to buttress it, to justify it, on biblical grounds.

For instance, apartheid says what makes us valuable in the sight of God is a biological attribute, and by that criterion it talks about something that cannot be universal. If your value depends on something like the color of your skin, it means that not everybody can have the same value.

That is contrary—totally contrary—to the Scriptures, which say our value is because we are created in the image of God.

Apartheid says that we are created for separation; the Scriptures say "Rubbish." We are created for unity, for fellowship, for communion. Apartheid says that people are fundamentally irreconcilable; the Scriptures know nothing of this. It is denying what we might call the central work of Christ: attaining reconciliation. God was concerned with reconciling the world to himself.

Apartheid goes on to inflict an unnecessary and unjust suffering and misery on God's children just because they are black. Therefore, we are calling on Christians to say that they oppose this not for political reasons, not even for economic reasons, not even for the fact that they are worried that human beings are made to suffer—but because the people supporting this are behaving in an un-Christian way.

You speak of a "confessing" movement. What does that mean?

I don't think the "Confessing Church" is something that emerges in a conscious kind of way. You don't sit down and say, "Now, you guys, we are going to become the Confessing Church." It is something that is almost forced on you by the situation, where you say that if you deny these aspects of the faith, you cannot really say you belong to the church of God.

And we are not saying it in any self-righteous kind of way. We are saying we are trying to be as true to the imperatives of the gospel as we can. And almost always it will expose you to suffering, to ridicule, and to worse.

What gives you the confidence to say, "We shall be free"? Where do you find hope?

The primary source of it is God our Lord. If after the horrible event of Good Friday, when even the physical nature seemed to mourn, and darkness covered the earth—if after that you see the glorious resurrection, what can ever be worse than that moment?

And what can ever again make you doubt that if God be for us, who can be against us? If that has happened, what can ever again separate us from the love of God?

But I have to underline the effect of the church. It is a tremendous thing to come to the church and be upheld by the love and the caring of our brothers and sisters throughout the world. I mean, there would have been—there are—many moments when we are feeling despondent.

But you can't remain despondent when you are told by someone who leads a life of solitary prayer in the woods in California, "I pray for you every day of my life. My day starts at 2 a.m." I mean, how can you? What chance does the South African government stand? There is just no hope for them. And they really ought to listen to us when we say, "We are asking you to join the winning side."

When we say we are on the winning side, it isn't that God is on our side because we are good; it is because he is that kind of God.

Do you have a message for us here, for our struggle?

Well, the main one is to thank you very much for caring. It means a great deal to those who are oppressed to know that they aren't alone. And never, never let anyone tell you that what you are doing is insignificant.

Let them know that the sea is made up of drops of water. There is no way in which injustice can ever prevail over goodness. Love must always prevail over hate.

And know that we have the wonderful privilege of being fellow workers with God and, therefore, we will know that we are part of an enterprise that can never fail. God bless you very much.

This appears in the February 1985 issue of Sojourners
for more info