Desmond Tutu is not a reticent man. This is unsurprising-as a religious leader and one of the foremost human rights advocates of the last 30 years, he has given endless speeches, talks, and interviews, in addition to writing seven books and countless sermons and essays. What is perhaps a little surprising, however, is his unflagging good cheer; recently he spoke with me from 6,000 miles away in gray Belfast, and yet it felt as though at any moment he might reach across the Atlantic, grab me by the shoulder, and shake some sense into me.
Tutu was born in 1931 in Klerksdorp, in the South African state of Transvaal. Though early in life he wanted to be a doctor, his family could not afford a medical education, and so Tutu followed his father into teaching. After graduating in 1954 from the University of South Africa, he took a job as a high school instructor in Johannesburg; he resigned after just three years in protest of the newly instituted Bantu Education Act, an apartheid law that discriminated against black students. Tutu began to study theology and was ordained an Anglican priest in 1960. After a couple of years of further study in England, during which he earned a master’s degree in theology, Tutu returned to South Africa to teach that subject. In 1975 he was appointed Dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg, the first black to hold that position. After a two-year sojourn as Bishop of Lesotho, from 1976 to 1978, Tutu became the first black secretary general of the South African Council of Churches.
It was in this capacity that Tutu entered, in the early 1980s, onto the world’s stage. He began writing and lecturing against apartheid, which he denounced as “evil and un-Christian.” The eloquence and equanimity with which he espoused nonviolent resistance to that racist institution brought him increasing renown both in and out of South Africa, and in 1984 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. But Tutu’s contributions to South Africa did not end with apartheid’s fall in 1994; he went on to head the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an extraordinary and widely lauded panel that investigated human rights abuses, provided victim support, and granted amnesty to human rights violators. Nothing like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had been seen before; it set a global model for countries trying to come to terms with legacies of political violence.
Though he has been retired as an Anglican Archbishop for many years now, Tutu has not given up his public advocacy for repressed and subjected peoples everywhere. He is currently in the news for his work at the head of a global coalition of human rights advocates trying to persuade the UN to intervene in Burma, the Southeast Asian country long singled out as one of the worst human rights violators in the world. Tutu, along with former Czech President Vaclav Havel, recently commissioned a report detailing the Burmese military dictatorship’s myriad abuses of power; these include forced labor, the destruction of thousands of villages, the systematic and sanctioned rape of ethnic minority women, the torture and killing of political prisoners, and the forced military enlistment of 70,000 children. Tutu and Havel are calling for the UN to restore democracy, deliver aid, and win freedom for political prisoners in Burma.
In 1985, Desmond Tutu wrote, “The aesthetic, ethical, and moral values a person derives mainly from the community in which he lives will determine very largely what he will judge as being beautiful, good, and true.” Considering the community in which Desmond Tutu grew up, a community indelibly marked by systematic and institutional white racism, the fact of his unconditional equanimity, optimism, and good will is nothing if not remarkable.
‘God has given us a kind of autonomy. That autonomy allows humans to perform the most awful atrocities. … If we wanted God to step in, to intervene, then God would nullify the greatest gift that He has given us:
-Archbishop Desmond Tutu
You and Vaclav Havel just released a report on Burma. We have commissioned a firm of lawyers to produce a report on Burma so that we could use it as a basis for getting the United Nations Security Council [UNSC] to intervene [in that country]. What [the lawyers] have done is look at previous instances where the UNSC has in fact intervened, and they’ve found that in most of the cases it has been that there was the overthrow of a legitimate government, there were gross violations of human rights. They have a number of criteria, and they’ve come up with the fact that a very, very strong case can be made for an intervention in Burma.
As I understand it, the report advocates non-military intervention by the UN. Yes. … It’s not something that is very, very sharp on the military leaders. It says that … the Burmese regime ought to be in conversation with the secretary general of the United Nations to help expedite a movement toward the emergence of democratic dispensation. Among the first things that would have to be done would be the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and the release of all political prisoners who are incarcerated because of their views. And try to have a steady evolution until you get to the point where Burma is where it should have been in 1990, when they had an election and Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won more than 80 percent of the votes.
The Burmese government has been criticized for human rights violations for years now, and still they’ve been hemming and hawing. You’re quite right. They’ve kept saying, “We’re now going to have a national assembly where various groups can help to draw up a constitution,” but most of those who would come as delegates have had to be approved by the military junta. And basically it’s really been people who dance to the tune of the military junta. You could say there’s been a slight change. … ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] countries have always been wary about intervening in the internal affairs of member states. But they have made it clear that if Burma would be willing to accept the revolving ASEAN chair … the repercussions would be severe. The United States made it quite clear that they would boycott any meeting that was chaired by [Myanmar]. And so the ASEAN countries have made it quite clear that it would be a great embarrassment to them. And Burma has said they will pass up the opportunity of chairing, which means that they do respond to appropriate pressure. And if we are able to persuade nine members of the UN Security Council that this matter ought to be on their agenda, they could bring significant pressure on the military dictators.
Hypothetically, if you got China and Russia to sign on as you say, but the Burmese government refused any kind of concession and any kind of unarmed intervention, would you advocate military intervention? We would still say let’s use, for example, economic sanctions. They worked very admirably in the case of South Africa, and if they are applied strategically there is no reason why they should not succeed. We would be very, very reluctant to invoke a military intervention. We believe that it is still possible at this very late hour for there to be an evolution toward democracy that is nonviolent, non-military.
You’ve been an early and often opponent of the war in Iraq. Yes.
Leaving aside for the moment the reasons for invading Iraq originally presented by the Bush administration-i.e., WMDs-how is Iraq different than Burma? Clearly, human rights violations of a gruesome nature were occurring in Iraq. Yes. … But I ask: if they [the Bush administration] wanted to have a regime change in Iraq, why not China, why not North Korea, why not Burma itself? Why did they want to isolate this particular country? If it was justifiable there, it would also be justifiable in any and every circumstance where there is undemocratic dispensation. But it is precisely because the world says that diplomacy must be done in an orderly fashion that you have a problem. And I believe [the Bush administration] itself acknowledged this by going first to the United Nations. They were fully aware that the only authority that would be legitimate in declaring war would’ve been the United Nations.
There was no question about going there first … the just war theory states quite clearly that there are certain conditions that must be fulfilled before you can say a particular war is justifiable. I mean can you imagine if India said, “We don’t like what’s happening in Pakistan. We know they have weapons of mass destruction, and in addition they are undemocratic, so we are going to go in there.” The world would be thrown into a horrendous chaos! It is precisely because we don’t want that kind of chaos to happen that we have something like the UN. A central authority that can say, “Yes, this or that action is justifiable, and these are the conditions that must be satisfied before we can climb in.”
There’s clearly still a great deal of rancor between the Sunni, Shia, and Kurds, which I think was attested to, not dispelled, by the new power-sharing constitution. And yet you’ve said that if forgiveness and dialogue could occur in South Africa following apartheid, the same might be possible in Iraq. But to me South Africa seems like an aberration. I can’t see reconciliation happening in one generation. Am I being cynical? I think that is the same kind of conclusion you could have drawn about South Africa. If you had asked many people what they thought was going to happen in South Africa after apartheid, most of them would have said there was going to be a racial disaster. Why? Because of the history-we had had a small white minority ruling the roost, behaving abominably against the subject peoples. I think the South African situation is an example and a beacon of hope precisely because it has been such an unlikely case. … If you think of the kind of violence we had in our country in the run-up to the elections in 1994, if you were an observer at that time, you would have said, “I don’t think there’s any hope for these guys.” But it is true that we were very, very fortunate to have someone like [former South African president Frederick] DeKlerk, who had the courage to say, “We’ve got to get down to talking”; and even more wonderful that we had a Nelson Mandela. If we’d had anyone less able, we would probably today be on the skids [laughs].
You’ve also been an outspoken critic of Guantanamo Bay. I think the Bush administration has tried to justify Guantanamo by pointing to the extraordinary nature of the so-called war on terror, where you have an unseen enemy willing to target civilians, and said that that renders obsolete many of those traditional codes of conduct and rights of due process. You know, I must say that I am horrendously distressed that they can use the same arguments that [were] used by the apartheid government to justify detention without trial. It is a clear and direct violation of the rule of law; it is stating that the ends justify the means, and that is one of the most awful principles ever to have. You have in fact allowed the terrorists to make you subvert the rule of law and begin to operate at about the same level as they do. The idea that suspicion alone is sufficient justification … and we haven’t even got a way of knowing how these people are held. The images that come out of there are images that make you wonder, “Is that what a democratic government can do?” And how many of these people have been charged? They’ve been held there for unconscionably long periods of time, and you’d have thought then that your people would have found the evidence they had against them so that they could appear in court. But almost all of them have been held there for very long periods and hardly any of them have been charged. And I think that is devastatingly horrendous for your democracy.
One of the consequences of Iraq and the war on terror is heightened tension between fundamentalist Islam and the West. I recently read an interview with writer V.S. Naipaul, in which he said that fundamentalist Islam will never topple the “secular” West because fundamentalist Islam is the equivalent of a “philosophical shriek,” while the West is characterized by “philosophical diffidence.” What was Naipaul saying? Do you agree with him? Well, basically he is saying that [fundamentalist Islam] is way out there, and there is no way in which you can see the two at some point coinciding. But you know, I think that we should bear in mind that Christianity has its own fundamentalists and extremists. I mean just look at the guys in your own country, the people who were responsible for say the Oklahoma City bombing-they did that on religious grounds. The people who kill doctors who perform abortions, or the people who get so up in arms about gays-those are fundamentalists. It was fundamentalists who had the kind of views about blacks that made it possible for someone to drag a man to his death behind a truck. So we mustn’t appear to be superior, speaking from a superior position.
Each religion has some of the most wonderful people and some of the most ghastly people. And every effort to characterize one religion by the worst aspects of its worst adherents. … I mean Christians would be very upset if we said, “Just look at the Ku Klux Klan. That represents Christianity.” It doesn’t represent Christianity. Nor do the new extreme Muslim fundamentalists. We will get into very, very serious trouble if we tend to do that. We’ve got to say that there are good Muslims, and there are good Christians, and there are very bad Muslims and there are very bad Christians. And we’ve got to work on the basis of dealing with the best aspects and best adherents of whatever faith. Religion in and of itself is neither good nor bad. It is morally neutral.
You mention homophobia, which is clearly prevalent in both groups. Is homosexuality antithetical to Christianity? How do you feel about gay marriage? I have always felt strongly about anything of which someone can do nothing at all-ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation. Because we fought against racism, I fight against all forms of discrimination where the individual can do nothing to change his or her situation. It ought not be called marriage, but if I believe that gay persons have rights at all, they have the right to choose whether to be celibate or whether to have a lifelong partner.
One more question. [Laughs.] Okay, man. But I’ve really got to go.
Millions of lives are still in jeopardy in Pakistan because of the difficulty of getting aid in there, in addition to the 80,000 who have already died in the earthquake. Pakistan, the tsunami in Southeast Asia, Katrina, all of this suffering in the last year brought on by natural phenomena-it made me think of your book, in which you talk about the redemptive power of suffering. How do you reconcile all of this apparently senseless suffering with a merciful God? It is the same question that all of us have asked. And you have to answer that God has given us a kind of autonomy. That autonomy allows humans to perform the most awful atrocities-the Holocaust, for example. If we wanted God to step in, to intervene, then God would nullify the greatest gift that He has given us: our freedom. But, we must also say that we live in a world with an ordered universe-there is cause and effect. Part of Katrina’s happening had nothing to do with God and everything to do with the stupidity of human beings. People said that the levees, which would have protected these people, would have protected New Orleans, were totally inadequate. God couldn’t have stepped in and stopped that stupidity.
But what about the tsunami, what about the earthquake? Those were not the result of human folly. Then you say, well, we cannot know everything about the universe. We must have a certain degree of agnosticism. Innocent suffering is a great mystery, and we must be careful in how we respond. … Suffering can ennoble people, making them more compassionate and caring than they might otherwise have been. Of course, suffering can also embitter … I would hope people would say that we do in fact have a God who, although He is omnipotent, is also impotent. I would hope people would say that he gives us autonomy by not intervening, and we must have the proper reverence for that. And God keeps waiting on us to help God in precisely those situations. If it was possible we would say people must move away from all areas where you are likely to have disasters. But then what happens? We have to remember that the choices we make have consequences. They say that a lot of what happened in New Orleans happened because of global warming. And so we bear some responsibility in how our lives turn out.
Mr. Archbishop, thank you. God bless you.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu gives a lecture titled Reconciling Love: a Millennium Mandate
on Friday, November 4, 8 p.m.,
at the Arlington Theatre.
Call 893-3535 or visit