Once upon a time, a large framed photograph of Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu hung on the wall of my living room in Manhattan. I wasn’t the one who put it there, but I never felt a moment’s inclination to take it down, either. As it happens, the person with whom I lived at the time worked for the Episcopal Church (ECUSA), which is a part of the Anglican Communion, and which is headquartered in New York City. At the time -- and I assume this is still going on today -- the ECUSA was pouring plenty of cash into the Anglican churches in Africa, and Tutu, who back then was a frequent visitor to New York and very chummy with the ECUSA honchos and with Episcopal clergy in the city, was an especially favored object of the ECUSA’s largesse.
In any event, my cohabitant idolized Tutu as a champion of peace, reconciliation, brotherhood, and human rights in the aftermath of apartheid. He even met Tutu once or twice, and after those encounters he was walking on air. He quite simply adored the man.
Of course, Tutu wasn’t the only big name associated with the end of apartheid. There was Nelson Mandela, who headed up the African National Congress, spent years in prison, and ended up President of South Africa. And there was Mandela’s predecessor as president, F.W. DeKlerk, who worked with Mandela to dismantle apartheid and eventually shared the Nobel Peace Prize with him in 1993. But before they won their Nobels, Tutu won his, in 1984, with the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee hailing his leading role in “the non-violent struggle for liberation” in his country, “a struggle in which black and white South Africans unite to bring their country out of conflict and crisis.” Tutu deserved the honor: this was a man who, respected by both black and white, was able to persuade South Africans of both races, through sheer nobility of spirit, to resist uncivilized impulses and take the high road.
In his Nobel Prize lecture, Tutu sounded a noble note:
Unless we work assiduously so that all of God’s children, our brothers and sisters, members of our one human family, all will enjoy basic human rights, the right to a fulfilled life, the right of movement, of work, the freedom to be fully human, with a humanity measured by nothing less than the humanity of Jesus Christ Himself, then we are on the road inexorably to self-destruction, we are not far from global suicide; and yet it could be so different.
When will we learn that human beings are of infinite value because they have been created in the image of God, and that it is a blasphemy to treat them as if they were less than this and to do so ultimately recoils on those who do this? In dehumanizing others, they are themselves dehumanized. Perhaps oppression dehumanizes the oppressor as much as, if not more than, the oppressed. They need each other to become truly free, to become human. We can be human only in fellowship, in community, in koinonia, in peace.