Taking Inspiration from Archbishop Desmond Tutu

This blog is taken from this morning’s chapel, when Dr Kirk welcomed the girls back for the start of the Spring Term.

‘In the first chapel of the Spring Term my thoughts often turn to new year’s resolutions. But it struck me this year how self-centred a lot of our resolutions can be. They often focus on how we want to stop doing something that we feel we do too much of, or starting a new activity, but this usually feels like the goal is mainly a kind of self-improvement to make ourselves look or feel different.

This year I wonder if we can make our resolutions more outward-looking, focusing on steps that we can take to make a difference for other people as well as ourselves – even if it’s only in a small way.

There are lots of opportunities to do this as part of the school community and, in case it inspires you, I was reminded over the Christmas break of one of the campaigns that many of us got involved with during my own time as a school and university student back in the 1980s: this was the movement to end the apartheid system in South Africa. I’m sure you all know about it, but apartheid was the system whereby the country’s legal and political framework was based on racial segregation and discrimination against the majority black population.

The event that really brought the feeling of our commitment to this cause back to me was the sad death at the age of 90 of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was the Archbishop of Cape Town from 1986 to 1996 and who, alongside Nelson Mandela, made such a huge contribution to the struggle against apartheid and to the establishment of the new coalition government in South Africa in 1994.

There is a lot of information on both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu available and I can’t do justice to their struggle or achievements in this short chapel. In fact, I thought the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was moving last week when he said that for him to pay tribute to the work of Archbishop Tutu was like a mouse paying tribute to an elephant.
For me, however, Archbishop Tutu will always be characterised by two qualities.

One was his insistence on the need for the anti-apartheid struggle to be non-violent, no matter how outrageous the system was. He instinctively saw that violence was much more likely to widen divisions than to bring people together – even for those white people who were not supporters of the apartheid system. And, of course, this was no doubt strongly influenced by his personal faith.

In 1994 Archbishop Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and seemed always able to balance his commitment to non-violence with strongly held and fearlessly expressed views – to the point that Nelson Mandela referred to him as ‘public enemy number one for the powers that be’ at the time when the rest of the senior members of the anti-apartheid movement were in prison.

The respect he earned for this also led him to be made chairman of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission that from 1996-1998 investigated the human rights abuses under the apartheid regime as South Africa sought to move forward. This was inevitably a difficult process, but it is also one that has been highly influential in other countries that are trying to put a period of conflict behind them – including in Northern Ireland.

As well as his commitment to non-violence, the other quality that most of us who remember Archbishop Tutu as an international figure appearing on our TV screens day in, day out during the 1980s and 1990s, was his huge smile and infectious laughter. Like Nelson Mandela himself, he retained an obvious sense of humour and an underlying positivity throughout the most difficult times. When, on the day of the first properly multi-racial election in South Africa in 1994, he was interviewed and described himself as being ‘on cloud nine’, you really believed it and – more importantly – understood something more about the significance of what was happening at the time.
Now of course we cannot all hope to have the impact of an Archbishop Desmond Tutu or a Nelson Mandela, but I hope they can still be a reminder to all of us of the power of doing the right thing in the right way as we move into the new year that lies ahead.

I thought I might end by sharing with you a few of the many quotes from Archbishop Tutu that have influenced the world:
During his address at the Nelson Mandela Foundation on 23rd November 2004, Tutu said: ‘My father always used to say, ‘Don’t raise your voice. Improve your argument.’ Good sense does not always lie with the loudest shouters, nor can we say that a large, unruly crowd is always the best arbiter of what is right.’

Another quote used by Tutu shows his humour coming through to make a very serious point: ‘When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible, and they had the land.’
And finally, he made many famous comments about hate and the need for forgiveness – a major concern of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of course. In his book God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time, he wrote: ‘When we see others as the enemy, we risk becoming what we hate. When we oppress others, we end up oppressing ourselves. All of our humanity is dependent upon recognising the humanity in others.’

Photo Credit:
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, London, September ’04
Cate Gillon / Getty Images News / Getty Images / Universal Images Group
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