Thursday, September 13, 2007

Dignity, Equality and Inalienable Rights

A Review of Archbishop Tutu's Memoir:
God Has A Dream

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu was born in South Africa on October 7, 1931. He grew up in a segregated country where he was considered a second-class citizen. He was educated in the Bantu system, which was the inferior schooling designated for black communities. Though he had hoped to go to medical school, his family was unable to afford it, so he followed in his father’s steps by teaching after his graduation from the University of South Africa in 1954. He later began his theological studies and in 1960 he was ordained as a priest, after which he furthered his education in England. From the late sixties through the mid seventies he held a series of positions in South Africa and England, finally settling with his family in South Africa in 1976, first as the Bishop of Lesotho and then in 1978 as the first black General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches.

Archbishop Tutu’s political activism began in ’76 when he returned to South Africa to witness the Soweto riots, which were a series of protests against the apartheid education laws. His focus was peaceful social change based on reconciliation, which he explains in depth in his book God Has A Dream. In 1984 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role as a unifying force in the active, peaceable fight against the apartheid government. In 1986 he was elected the first black-African Archbishop of South Africa. To date Archbishop Tutu has held a series of positions in international peace and reconciliation movements and has been awarded a series of honorary doctorates and prizes for his work in social activism.

Tutu’s wife, Leah, of fifty-two years and his four children have been an inspiration to his continued work for the betterment of the human community. Early in his career he was deeply inspired by the examples of Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and the Dalai Lama. As he worked toward toppling the oppressive South African government, he also drew on the example of Nelson Mandela, who had been angry and violent upon his incarceration and was transformed by his experience into one of the greatest moral leaders in history. The greatest inspiration for Tutu has been his relationship with God, as developed through his academic and spiritual training, his reading of the Bible, his experience living in God’s world and practicing His principles in his daily living.

God Has A Dream is a book written by the Archbishop (with Douglass Abrams) as a collection of his observations and experience regarding affecting non-violent change for a more peaceful, equal, loving future for the human family. The book is divided into chapters, each dedicated to a particular aspect of Tutu’s experience with and reflection on the non-violent transformation of his country’s socio-political system.

Tutu’s book focuses very clearly on several themes, using a series of descriptions, ideas, experiences and stories to illustrate these points. Primarily, he seeks to impart his vision of God’s dream for us. The entire book revolves around the relationship between God and humanity, our various responsibilities and the various possibilities in light of the state of the planet, as well as our willingness to partake in God’s ideal. His foundation is clearly in his religious training, though it is certainly not limited to his interpretation of the Bible. He uses Scripture to support his ideas, more by weaving the myth into his reality than by depending upon direct scriptural guidance.

That the foundation of the book is rooted in religious ideals is both a strength and a weakness. Because of Tutu’s emphasis on ecumenical understanding, this book will speak to anyone who has a fundamental belief in God, whether they be Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or otherwise. He periodically addresses the question of theology in his discussions and makes clear that his ideas will work for anyone who chooses to live by them. His philosophy is not one that depends on a certain kind of religious commitment or denominational devotion. He is more concerned with the unity of humanity than with the propagation of Christian ideals. At the same time, the book is replete with references to God and Christianity. While that is his experience, and must necessarily be a part of his memoirs, it could turn away those who outright reject religion an ineffective or even harmful in conflict resolution. Tutu’s solution is simply to ask that everyone who can do so have an open mind.

His major strength lies in the method of his approach. Throughout the book Tutu offers not only his opinion on past experiences, but also provides a solution for current and future conflicts. He address is not a pie-in-the-sky look at the world. He concretely recognizes the faults and difficulties we face as a human community and proceeds to explain a method of transformation and reconciliation that has worked in similar, seemingly-hopeless situations of oppression. A very clear example of this practical attitude is the postscripts, which he dedicates to a list of international organizations and their contact information as well as a series of questions and reflections for the reader to address oppression and non-violence in his/her own life. Both of these are simple and direct ways in which the reader can bring his words to life, hopefully further affecting non-violent change throughout the world.

The most obvious weakness of his work is that his argument for reconciliation is a radical step away from the common retributive justice upon which most world-wide judicial systems are based. In order to put into affect his ideas about compassionate reconciliation (which is notably different from turning a blind eye to injustice), the entire social structure of every country would have to change beginning with the individuals calling for a new judicial paradigm. This would create a shift in the government that would allow a new form of justice to reign. The difficulty is that our systems are so deeply-rooted in our socio-political structure that we would have to restructure society in order to create this kind of change. People who enjoy the benefits of outright and structural violence would have to be willing to give up their positions of power, probably due to a massive revolution (ideally a peaceful one), forcing a shift in power. This great social transformation wounds like a beautiful ideal of peace and equality, but when applied to the grand scheme of social corruption, it appears to be an awfully overwhelming task.

Upon reading Archbishop Tutu’s God Has A Dream I certainly felt inspired. His speech flows beautifully and gracefully, leaving the reader with a sense of floating through another world in the hands of a trusted guide. His journey through racism, theology, violence, apartheid, peaceful revolution, reconciliation, and beyond is a powerful story that encourage hope and motivation towards transformation. I deeply admire Tutu’s willingness to speak his mind, though his opinions may not always be popular, though his solutions may not seem simple or easy, though his ideals may seem lofty. I have often heard people question his certainty, labeling it as arrogance. (This has particularly been the case regarding his speeches on Rwanda and Israel.) I wonder if his experience and promises are truly universal or if the people who do not yet believe simply lack the understanding that is required to live such a life of transfigured suffering.

1 comment:

Johanna said...

I saw Archbishop Tutu speak at the Washington National Cathedral last night, and I hope I will have as much energy as he does at his age! He spoke with such charisma about the power of forgiveness and the extreme need for it in today’s world. The audience laughed when he exclaimed, “Forgiveness is NOT for sissies!” Tutu also said that with the wars being waged in the world sometimes we forget that without forgiveness there can be no peace, and without peace there certainly can be no future. How true this is!

Archbishop Tutu has the ability to capture audiences and speak as if he is talking to each individual person there. Sometimes, he’d whisper as if he was telling each audience member a special secret about humanity. This was definitely a very effective way to make the audience pay close attention to an important point in his speech. When he finished, the standing ovation he received from the crowd was definitely deserved.