Archbishop Desmond Tutu: He Stared Down Apartheid

Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  University of Portland, May 4, 2009.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu. University of Portland, May 4, 2009.

He stood there, eyes often closed, telling a story, or was it an anecdote, or was it a parable?  How could he talk about the brutality and oppression of apartheid, and seemingly in the next breath, break into giggles?  How, indeed?  Because he had stared into the face of apartheid, knowing with certainty that this monster might strike him down.  Dead.  Like so many before him.  He stared and he did not blink.

The world noticed and wondered.  Then the world, in a most uncharacteristic act, joined his quest.  Far more from the bottom up than the top down.  People of faith–many, many faiths–joined.  Institutions and corporations, much to their complete surprise, joined.  It was called Divestiture, slamming closed the headgate on the financial pipeline to the government of the Union of South Africa.  Governments, some stunned into silence, others electrified into action found themselves in this ever gathering cloud of witnesses as this one man, although not alone among his people by any means, stared at the beast.

Unwavering, he held fast to the assurance of his faith.  Then, as he would say, the Spirit moved.  The monster blinked, then dissolved.  The predicted bloody civil war never occurred.  The backlash of black on white, or white on black never materialized.

Nelson Mandele walked out of prison and the Republic of South Africa was born.  This was no magic transformation, wherein all of South Africa’s problems evaporated like morning mist.  Poverty, AIDS, and a hundred other social disasters still had to be addressed.  And still do.

Tutu, Archbishop of Capetown, stands at the podium, his eyes closed, as the many reels of his long life are projected in his memory.  He laughs.  He giggles.  He does little dances.  He doesn’t do it because he won the stare-down with the apartheid beast; he does it because he forgave the men who were the apartheid beast.  He is reconciled with them and they with him.  This is why he giggles.  There is no hate, no grudge, not the most minuscule desire for revenge.

I sat in the hall, filled with people of many, many faiths, and I think I honestly can say that for those brief moments everyone of us felt hope, that the religious boundaries of our everyday lives had dissolved, just like the apartheid monster.

And by the end, we, too, were daring to giggle.

I am a Christian, a faith I share with Desmond Tutu, and I left with just the smallest inkling of what it might have been like to sit on a dusty hill in Galilee and listen to One who taught forgiveness and reconciliation.  Perhaps it was the giggles.