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Nobel laureate and human rights activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu

03/29/05 12:00AM

Human rights activist and Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu recently spoke in Burlington, following a presentation of honorary degrees from the University of Vermont and Saint Michael's College. In his address, he advocates embracing diversity as the way to achieve world peace.

Archbishop Tutu has led a lifelong fight against apartheid and for the cause of peaceful reconciliation. He served as Chair of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.

Transcript

Most of us have read the first few chapters of Genesis in the Bible. Isn't there a veritable explosion of creativity? God, it could be said, went on a real spree, almost one might say, an orgy of creativity - where there was chaos, darkness and disorder, now there was order, cosmos and light and what a kaleidoscope of diversity. There were trees, there were stars, a sun and moon, rivers and seas, fish and fowl and birds and trees and animals - and what a splash of diversity amongst the animals, not just one sort but a whole range of different animals, giraffes, elephants, lions, tigers, monkeys, cattle, sheep, goats, and among the trees, would be oaks, beeches, etc. and we could go on and on, and then there was Adam.

Now, that seemed to change the pattern. He was all by himself and then God saw that it was not good for man to be alone. And then we have that lovely story of how Eve came about.

A solitary human being is a contradiction in terms. We say in Africa a person is a person through other persons. We are made for togetherness, for friendship, for fellowship. We are created to live in a delicate network of interdependence and we are different precisely in order to know our need of one another. I have gifts that you don't and you have gifts that I don't have, and God you could almost hear saying, "Voila!" No one can be totally self-sufficient; the totally self-sufficient human being is sub-human.

Diversity is the law of life. A tree is not just leaves. It has a trunk and branches, and roots and leaves - none can survive without the others. They are interdependent and perform different functions for the good of the whole. If the leaves were to go on strike and refuse to be involved in photo-synthesis and all that, the tree would suffer and the leaves would discover they were really nothing without the branches and the trunk and the roots. And so also with the human body. We say, "I see," not my eyes see - "I hear," not my ears hear - and I am an organism precisely because of the diversity of my organs performing different functions for the good of the whole body. Without this diversity functioning harmoniously I would be nothing.

Now God created us different, some tall, others short, some black, others white, pink, yellow and red. What a fantastic array of remarkable difference and diversity, different languages, different cultures, different ethnicities, different this, different that. God wanted us to glory in our differences, to affirm our differences, to celebrate our diversities and to know that we are so obviously interdependent. Even now no single nation however prosperous and powerful can really go it alone. We must trade with other nations. We may find we don't have this commodity but they have it in abundance but lack what we have and God says I made you to be interdependent, to want to cooperate, to share, to care, to know that an injury to one will end up being an injury to all.

Unfortunately as seems always to happen, we perverted a good, our particularity, our peculiarity - some then used it as a reason to justify hostilities. We have used our differences to mistreat one another.

And so we had obscenities such as slavery where frequently one race claimed to be superior to those who could thus be bought and sold like so many cattle when families were callously divided, wives from husbands, mothers from their children and sold separately. They were regarded as barely human and their dignity was trodden horrendously underfoot. Even someone as smart as Aristotle declared that slaves were not persons. For him, and so many others, human personality was not a universal phenomenon possessed by all human beings without distinction. Racism exalted differences that made some superior and others inherently inferior and so we had the horror of the Holocaust when Jews were systematically eliminated in Hitler's Nazi final solution for being inferior to the Aryan and used as scapegoats to blame for Germany's parlous economic situation in the 1930s. This kind of thinking justified the brutal and heartless massacre of six million Jews and gypsies and homosexual persons. There have been other instances of genocide as of the Armenians, or of those who perished in the killing fields of Kampuchea (Cambodia) and more recently in Rwanda and then the so-called ethnic cleansing in of the former Yugoslavia, people being done in simply because they were different.

I come from South Africa which carried the opprobrium of the world for its vicious apartheid policy which was a blatant system of racist injustice and oppression. In that land they saw nothing wrong with public signs reading, "Dogs and natives not allowed" - natives meaning black people. There was no subtlety at all. In many other countries racism existed though perhaps in forms that were not quite so blatant and unashamed. In this country you spoke of separate but equal and everyone knew that it was really a fiction, since no white person would have willingly accepted to exchange places with those who were called Negroes, or more insultingly as Niggers, to enjoy the equal but separate facilities. We know the outrages and the atrocities perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan, burning churches where little girls perished or the several lynchings - it continues to some extent as when a black man can be dragged to an excruciating death behind a truck. Racism is well and alive in so many parts of God's beautiful earth - we know what the neo-Nazis have been up to in Germany, or the National Front in Britain, and France, led by Le Pen, etc.

And we know that racism is totally un-Christian without remainder. It is unmitigated evil and totally immoral. Why? Because racism says what invests anyone with worth, with value, is something extrinsic, something biological, skin colour, ethnicity. What does the Bible say quite categorically? It says our worth is intrinsic. It comes with the package. It is part of being human. It does not depend on who or what we are. It belongs to all without distinction. And it is the wonderful assertion that each one of us is created in the image of God. Fantastic. Each one of us is God's representative, God's viceroy. God's stand-in. Each one of us is a God-carrier, since we are each a temple of the Holy Spirit. Each one - everyone, whether we are rich or poor, beautiful or not so beautiful, red, white, yellow, black, young, or old, clever, or not so clever, our worth is intrinsic, our worth is infinite. And to treat one such as if they were less than human is not only evil, which it undoubtedly is; is not only painful as it certainly turns out to be for its victims. No it is all these things but more, it is blasphemous for it is really spitting in the face of God and we who are believers have no option - in the face of this evil and blasphemy we cannot be even neutral. We are constrained by our faith to oppose it strenuously, for we can't say that well, it is respectable. No, that would be to acquiesce in the crucifixion yet again of our Lord and Saviour for remember he is the one who said, "When I was hungry you fed me, when I was naked..." etc., for he is forever to be found with the outcast, the victim of injustice, of oppression. When someone is the victim of any form of injustice and oppression, look carefully at that person and you will see the features of Jesus, and would we stand idly by when Jesus is vilified and ill-treated yet again?

And how could we even have imagined that skin colour really told us anything worthwhile about a person - does it tell us that you are intelligent, humorous, compassionate, can I know these things just by looking at you? Of course not. In the bad old days of apartheid in South Africa they used to have universities reserved only for whites. The main entrance qualification was not academic but biological. So I would say suppose we changed that and said that this university was for large noses only. If you had a small nose then you had to apply to the Minister of Small Nose Affairs for permission to attend that university. Totally absurd - it ought to have been something to dismiss with a loud guffaw, except of course that it was no laughing matter for its victims.

God does not give up easily. God still believes that one day we will get to agree with God that diversity is beautiful - that it is wonderful to have a garden made up of roses, but how much more wonderful one that has a whole array of different flowers, roses, daffodils, chrysanthemums, irises, etc - how wonderful when we see the rainbow in the sky and it is a rainbow precisely because it is made up of different colours.

And so are we surprised that God has a dream? On the Resurrection Day Jesus spoke to Mary Magdalene and said some strange words to her. He said, "Go tell my brothers," referring to those so-and-so's who had betrayed, denied and abandoned him - he called them brothers and he must have meant it because he went on to say, "that I am ascending to my Father and to your Father; to my God and to your God." That is mind-blowing.

God dreams that we will come to realise that we are family, the human family, God's family, made up of all sorts and conditions of people. I sometimes say I am glad I am not God. To think that God has to accept a Judas Iscariot, a Herod, a Hitler and a Bin Laden, a Mussolini and an Idi Amin as all his children. To say we are family is the most radical thing Jesus uttered, a family of glorious diversity where there are no outsiders. All are insiders. Jesus said, I if I be lifted up will draw all, not some, all to me - black and white, red and yellow, rich and poor, Christian, Jew, Muslim, pagan, atheist, Hindu, all, old and young, male and female, gay, lesbian and so-called straight, all belong in his family. George Bush, Bin Laden, Sharon, Abbas, all belong, all are loved, all. You know God has no enemies. Certainly my enemies are not God's enemies.

God dreams that we would realise that we are family caring for one another as family, sharing with one another as family, concerned for one another as family, appalled that members of our family could wallow in poverty and squalor without clean drinking water, and adequate health care, enough to eat when we have the capacity to feed them.

We have the means to ensure that all God's children, our brothers and sisters do have clean water to drink, enough food to eat and enjoy good education and adequate health care. Peace can come for all when we live as God's family.

And God says, "Please help me to realise my dream, please."

Related Links:
The Desmond Tutu Peace Centre
Background and timeline on Bishop Tutu
Transcript of his 1984 Nobel lecture
Nobel Prize website
Transcript of 1999 interview about the Truth & Reconciliations Committee
Transcript of 1999 PBS Frontline on Nelson Mandela, including an interview with Bishop Tutu

 

 

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