South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu [who died on December 26, 2021] has spent half his life in the front lines of the fight against apartheid and is one of the movement’s most prominent leaders.

In 1986 the Nobel laureate became spiritual leader of the Anglican Church in southern Africa when he was named archbishop of Cape Town. His position has helped him avoid much of the repression his anti-apartheid colleagues have suffered. It also allowed him to assume interim leadership while many of them were exiled or behind bars.

Since the 1990 release of many prisoners and the unbanning of political parties, Archbishop Tutu has kept a lower profile. But he is as committed to biblical justice and reconciliation as ever. And, it seems, the battle is far from over. The night before he spoke to CT’s Thomas Giles and Timothy Jones, he attended the funeral of the 42 people massacred in June at Boipatong in the violence that brought talks on multiracial democracy to a halt.

What role has faith played in your life, and how has it led you to the fight against apartheid?

I have come to understand that a person’s worth derives not from extraneous things, such as achievement, status, or race. One’s worth is intrinsic and comes from being created in the image of God. God values his own image in mankind even after the Fall.

God has also sent his Son to further underline our infinite worth. He says, “You are of such worth that I will ransom you from the clutches of the Devil—not with perishable things, such as gold and silver, but by the precious blood of my Son.”

As if that were not enough, God says, “I will sanctify you by the gift of my Holy Spirit.” So human beings are of worth not only because they have been created in the image of God and are offered redemption by the precious blood of our Savior, but also because they may become tabernacles of the Holy Spirit.

It is like spitting in the face of God to treat a child of God as if he or she were anything less. Injustice and oppression are not simply wrong or evil, they are positively blasphemous. And that is the passion we have. We are inspired not by political or any other kind of ideology, but by our faith. If we are followers of Jesus Christ and accept the implications of our faith, we don’t have any other option than to oppose oppression, injustice, and evil.

What is the biblical basis for political activism on behalf of the oppressed?

It is the whole nature of God. He is a gracious God. And grace means he operates on behalf of those who do not deserve it, those who have no claim on him. We see that right at the beginning, in the Exodus, when he intervenes on behalf of a rabble of slaves who have done nothing to deserve his intervention.

What is true religion? In Isaiah 1, God says, “I will not accept a religion merely of outward observances. If you want to repent of all the wrong you have done, show it by doing justice—not just to anybody, but to the widow, the orphan, the alien, the most voiceless of the voiceless.”

And what is the true fast? In Isaiah 58, God says, “The fast I want is not that you be bent like a reed and starve yourself, but that you loose the prisoners’ chains.”

When God intervenes decisively in the lives of human beings, he does not come as a disembodied spirit, he becomes a human being; this also gives us a clue as to how we should operate. For the parents of his Son, he chooses not the high and the mighty, but a village lass married to a carpenter. Jesus is not born in the home of a king, but in a stable. And very soon this child becomes a refugee. He identifies with those who are the least in any community.

There are people who think in terms of a dichotomy between the secular and the sacred. But Jesus does not say, “I am concerned only with the spiritual side of you that is your soul,” but rather, “I am concerned for the whole of you. When you are hungry, I feed you. When you are sick, I heal you. When you are a sinner, I forgive your sins.”

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Can we take activism too far?

We can easily think we have a hotline to God and that our purely human insights have divine approval.

And activism based on religion, in and of itself, is not necessarily a good thing. It has been religious fanatics who have done some of the greatest damage in the world; many of the world’s wars have been sparked or exacerbated by religion; and a great deal of the prejudice and tyranny in the world today has a religious base.

We can also be intolerant. Activism can mean dismissing those who hold a different point of view as being beyond the pale. When we identify with a good cause, we must as well have proper distance from it and maintain respect for those on the other side.

How do you balance the spiritual and the political aspects of your life?

I do not have a sense of tension between the two. I have come to learn that spirituality is absolutely essential to an authentic Christian life. That is how it was with almost all God’s servants. Their encounters with God were not for their own self-aggrandizement but for the sake of others. You meet God as a burning bush in order to be sent to Pharaoh to redeem captives.

You see this pattern in the life of our Lord; you see a rhythm of disengagement and engagement. He spent whole nights in prayer, then spent himself prodigally on behalf of others. He was constantly replenishing his spiritual resources. I, too, have learned to replenish mine.

What are your personal priorities for your church and for your country?

The church has to be God’s instrument for the extension of his kingdom in any setting. Even in democratic systems, those who form the government are not transformed into gods. They are mortal, and they will be tempted by the blandishments of power. At the same time, there will always be voiceless, marginalized ones who feel miles away from the corridors of power and that they count for nothing. And the church has got to be there on behalf of them. It has to vigilantly declare to those in power, “Thus saith the Lord.”

It must also be an agent of reconciliation. People often evacuate that word of its meaning, making it almost a term of abuse. They think reconciliation means crying “peace, peace” where there is no peace—that it does not mean confrontation. But true reconciliation confronts people with the sinfulness of sin—political sin, personal sin, structural sin.

In our setting, reconciliation means calling those who have benefited from apartheid to confession and penitence for the hurt they have inflicted. Then, those who have been forgiven must demonstrate the genuineness of their contrition. There must be restitution wherever possible.

We must also help people not be embittered or to seek revenge. And it is we who are to be a kind of audio-visual aid of how human society ought to be.

How is the church to do that?

The church has to model the fact that Jesus Christ is our peace—that he has in fact broken down the dividing wall. Warring factions are at war no longer. There is now neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free. We are one in Christ.

Together, we must work to transform our society into one that says human beings matter more than things and profits. Our society must set a high premium on sharing rather than on hoarding, on cooperating rather than competing.

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What steps should Christians in the U.S. take toward racial reconciliation?

You shouldn’t be overly despondent. Actually, on the whole, you have had a wonderful capacity for self-criticism. Yes, people often tried to turn a blind eye, but more and more people were aware that something was wrong—that there was a disease. And recognizing that there is a disease is an important part of the cure.

But it is also important for you to hear what the wronged—the ones who are discriminated against—actually say. We must not be the ones who say, “This is the hurt and this is the cure” as infallible know-alls. Let us hear what they identify as points of hurt and what can be done to redress that hurt.

How can we stand with our brothers and sisters in South Africa?

We depend so much on your love and prayers, and we deeply appreciate what people have done in that regard. Many of you in your churches pressured your legislators and business people to impose sanctions that worked. Those sanctions have gotten us to where we’ve come. One of the pressures you could continue to exert is to impress on the South African government that you look to them to do something to end the violence.

Are you hopeful as you look ahead?

I am always hopeful. A Christian is a prisoner of hope. What could have looked more hopeless than Good Friday? But then, at Easter, God says, “From this moment on, no situation is untransfigurable.” There is no situation from which God cannot extract good. Evil, death, oppression, injustice—these can never again have the last word, despite all appearances to the contrary.

[ This article is also available in español 简体中文, and 繁體中文. ]

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