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Desmond Tutu’s divine egotism His theology and personality were perfectly aligned

Will we see his like again? (Photo by David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Will we see his like again? (Photo by David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)


December 28, 2021   4 mins

I once had a pee in Desmond Tutu’s old loo in the Archbishop’s House in Cape Town. It may sound slightly blasphemous to admit it, but it felt like a religious experience to be this close to the great man. So much of what was important about Tutu was bound up with his presence, with the power of his personality.

“There are two kinds of egoists in the world,” wrote Rowan Williams after meeting Tutu. “There are egoists who are so in love with themselves that they have no room of anyone else and there are those egoists that are so in love with themselves that they make it possible for everybody else to be in love with themselves.” Tutu was the second sort of egoist. Desmond Tutu loved being Desmond Tutu, but in such a way that he encouraged other people to believe that they could also be in love with who they are and take joy in it.

This cuts across what many in his generation thought about being a priest. When I was taught to celebrate the Eucharist, for instance, I was encouraged not to show any personality in my recitation of the holy words of consecration. The important thing as a priest is to get out of the way, to be a conduit between other people and God. Don’t put yourself, your personality, between the congregation and the divine. Don’t modulate your voice, don’t try to inject meaning into your words. Your job is to disappear. Say the words like you are reading from the telephone directory. The congregation don’t come to church for you.

Tutu did it very differently. Some in the old school thought what you got with Desmond Tutu was the Desmond Tutu Show, and they slightly disapproved. But this wonderful little man from South Africa, with his impish sense of fun and Old Testament prophet morality, had a totally different theology from that of the Old School. And it was from this theology that all his activism and politics cascaded — “the glory of God is a human being fully alive”, as the second-century church father Irenaeus put it. Tutu loved that line and it often cropped up in his sermons. It captured his theology in a nutshell.

In other words, Desmond Tutu was very much a Christmas Christian. God comes into the world as a human being so that human beings might regard themselves as divine, a part of the divine life. Tutu once remarked that as all human beings contain the image and likeness of God, we ought to genuflect before everyone we meet.

Tutu often told the story of his parish priest in Johannesburg, the legendary Fr Trevor Huddleston, once doffing his hat to his mother — a white man simply acknowledging the humanity of a black woman being a revolutionary act in the context of South Africa in the Forties. It was a genuflection, of sorts. And this is where Tutu’s theology and politics grows from: all human beings reflect God’s glory, all of them. His hatred of apartheid was at root theological, rather than political — though this is a false binary, of course. His point was that apartheid was a heresy. It was a failure to see God in others; in those who are of a different colour, in those who are lesbian and gay, and most radically of all, in the oppressor too.

But this theology of the person was in no sense individualistic. Perhaps the most important contribution that African Christianity has made to Christianity has been through the development of the idea of Ubuntu — the idea that “I am because you are”. We are not individual cells of separate Godliness, but through God’s presence within us all, we are all brothers and sisters. And so in order to be fully what God intended, we have to be reconciled with those from whom we have become estranged. Forgiveness was not some sentimental touchy-feely emotional weakness, but a tough-minded determination to recognise our own humanity as inescapably bound up with others. Confessing past wrongs with the hope of some sort of reconciliation was a way of putting the pieces of the self back together.

Tutu was hated for this insight as much as he was loved. When he chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he was putting into practice a version of this theology: that only through forgiveness could a community find the gift of a common future. Forgiveness meant breaking the cycle of tit-for-tat revenge. It wasn’t about having warm and fuzzy feelings about those that had participated in the evil that was apartheid. It was the belief that a future was possible, but only through a process of confession and forgiveness in which the image of God is restored in others. This was a basic priestly insight turned into a political process.

There were times when he got it wrong, of course. His extension of the apartheid tag to the situation in Israel/Palestine was a mistake. Perhaps inevitably, he saw the world too much through the lens of his own history, and was sometimes blind to its differences. That’s why many Jews think of Tutu as a much more morally ambivalent figure.

He was also hated by the hard Left as much as by the Right. Tutu had absolutely no time for Marxism. At heart, he was a prayerful cassock-wearing Anglo-Catholic Anglican priest of a very familiar sort. He wasn’t a political radical, but a faithful servant of the church, with a huge personality, preaching what he saw with enormous courage in wicked times. And it was because he was a priest that the apartheid regime never dared to touch him. He called it as he saw it, including in his vociferous condemnations of the ANC as they descended into corruption and petty infighting. Tutu could be the friend of anyone, yet he was no one’s patsy.

Tutu once said that if he ever walked on water, the South African press would have chosen the headline “Tutu cannot swim”. We forget now how much he was hated and traduced by the whole apparatus of racist apartheid. How his life was threatened. He is now seen as a hero of human rights, which isn’t quite accurate. Yes, he used the secular language of human rights, but it was the Imago Dei — the imprint of God in us all — that was his basic guiding insight.

Will we see his like again in the Church? These days our bishops are largely chosen for their management skills and abilities to run a spreadsheet. Tutu showed us God by being so wonderfully himself, a human being, flawed no doubt, but fully and magnificently alive. His theology and his personality were perfectly aligned. That’s why we loved him. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.


Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.

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David McDowell
David McDowell
2 years ago

Well written and very insightful.

Jonny
Jonny
2 years ago

Apologies for bringing up the loo for the second time regarding Desmond Tutu but my one and only interaction with the great gentleman was when he held the lavatory door open for me in British Airways first class cabin on a flight from Capetown to London. Never has a loo door been attended by someone with a larger smile.

Simon Diggins
Simon Diggins
2 years ago

Giles,

Thank you. As for future bishops who see the Imago Dei in all of us and want to bring it out, that’s you, Old Chap; don’t turn it down when the ‘dear old C of E’ finally comes to their senses!

Happy Christmas and Best Wishes and God’s Blessing for the New Year

Simon

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

Fair warning, Giles. I fully intend to steal that bit about the priest getting out of the way at the consecration and use it to remind Catholic priests what they SHOULD be doing.

David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago

Saying it all in mumbled latin with their back to the congregation?

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago
Reply to  David Simpson

Frankly, yes. They’re facilitators, not performers.

Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
2 years ago

Performers, yes, I’ve always thought — why else dress up so outrageously, prance up and down aisles to envelope us with noxious fumes whilst reciting their scripts? Facilitators no – the Bible says no-one necessary between God and man, except the Man, Jesus Christ (2Cor 5:18 – 21; 1Tim 2:5-10; etc etc etc).

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago
Reply to  Marcia McGrail

Catholic doctrine says that there is indeed only one priest, Jesus Christ.

And that all Catholic priests are meant to be mere facsimiles of Him.

But they are necessary – for no one else can play the role of Jesus at the Last Supper, of which every Mass (and every Protestant Communion Service) are re-enactments.

Priestly robes (Roman togas & tunics) only outrage those determined to be outraged.

As for the smell of incense (sadly rare at Masses nowadays) – it is the most beautiful and mind-transporting smell in the world !

Whereas referring to an ancient liturgy as a “script” is part of the bigoted, anti-Catholic vulgarity of which your post stinks.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Marcia McGrail

A very obvious piece of truth -esp given that the ‘peter- Rock- church thing was obviously a piece of second/third century spin – and yes there is much spin in the good ? book. One would have to be a bit thick to read it and conclude that it was the unadulterated ‘word of God”.

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago
Reply to  David Simpson

No, joining the congregation in facing God

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Yes!!!

Giles Heather
Giles Heather
2 years ago
Reply to  David Simpson

Yes, absolutely!

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
2 years ago
Reply to  David Simpson

Have you a photo of Tutu with his back to the congregation? This is a man who launched himself into a mob to stop a lynching.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
2 years ago

I worked, decades ago, at a unitarian school for girls in North London. The teacher of Religion, Keith, was the spitting image of God, long white hair and beard. Great bloke.

Anyway, he said something I thought, and still consider, profound. The Bible, whether you believe it’s the word of God or not is a wonderful poem.

Priests who understand the sensuality and musicality of many of the passages add something positive to the world.

David NebeskĂœ
David NebeskĂœ
2 years ago

“And it was because he was a priest that the apartheid regime never dared to touch him.” 
Opposing the apartheid regime was easy. If Tutu had lived in a communist country, he would have ended up in a prison or gulag precisely because he was a priest.

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
2 years ago

Not if you were an ordinary African, whom the world did not recognise.

David NebeskĂœ
David NebeskĂœ
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Hawkes

The same was true for communist countries – except that ordinary people from communist country were not able to leave.

David Batlle
David Batlle
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Hawkes

You mean like Mandela?

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
2 years ago

As an example of his commitment to telling it as he saw it I offer his comment on ANC corruption that, “The ANC stopped the gravy train long enough to get on board it.”

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

Tutu was black African, not ‘Cape Coloured’. The things one reads.

Moro Rogers
Moro Rogers
2 years ago

Just what color IS a cape? Dracula is often depicted with a red or black one, but his counterpart on Sesame Street has a green one. Do they correspond to political affiliation?

David Bell
David Bell
2 years ago
Reply to  Moro Rogers

It’s ‘Cape of Colour’ to you, lad!

Julie Blinde
Julie Blinde
2 years ago

Goeie idee

David Bell
David Bell
2 years ago

Can you say that in Bislama?

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

Perhaps it’s just me, but I sense a distinct ambivalence here, in the relationship between the author’s true feelings, and what, out of courtesy I guess, he is writing about the deceased. Am I wrong? I suppose there is no way of telling, unless can we have a time machine, and can go back to examine the state of the deceaseds’ old loo, where the author had such a memorable pee.

I am, btw, also a big fan of Ubuntu (though I will make do with Debian at a pinch) although the deceaseds’ version of Ubuntu sounds like a philosophy that would allow someone to become a religious leader, without needing to bother with the actual messy business of religion, so I’m guessing he would have fitted right in in the C-of-E.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Clever! You sent me looking for Debian as a philosophy.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

(:-)

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago

Yet another excellent article from UnHerd’s in-house chaplain

Mike Bell
Mike Bell
2 years ago

Thank you, Giles. Beautifully written, insightful and ‘captures the essence’.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

..

Last edited 2 years ago by Chris Wheatley
Judy Englander
Judy Englander
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Good insight Chris! I often feel like this first thing in the morning …

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

“Cape coloureds were stereotyped as a bit daffy and cheerful – like Scousers. Exactly Tutu’s demanour and his strength.”

Two marvellous sentences.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

“I once had a pee in Desmond Tutu’s old loo in the Archbishop’s House in Cape Town”.
I was a passenger in a car that left the road and rolled several times up the embankment of the Archbishop’s residence in Cape Town late one night. I heard a voice call from the house
. ‘Are you OK?’ And upside down, feeling embarrassed, I called ‘Yes fine’. We were made of tough stuff.

Iris C
Iris C
2 years ago

I am sure Desmond Tutu was everything that you have written about him but I cannot forget that he agreed with lit tyres being put round the necks of those who had different views to him.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Iris C

Really !! – which would mean that his egoism was way less inclusive and actually seriously flawed…

Mark Duffett
Mark Duffett
2 years ago
Reply to  Iris C

Really indeed. That’s not what it says here:

Tutu was noble and honourable his entire life. In 1985, when a woman was burnt to death with a tyre around her neck – a practise known then as necklacing – after being accused of being an “impimpi” (informer), he threatened to leave the country.

“If you do this kind of thing, I will find it difficult to speak for the cause of liberation. If the violence continues, I will pack my bags, collect my family and leave this beautiful country that I love so passionately and so deeply. I say to you that I condemn in the strongest possible terms what happened in Duduza.”

I think you need to either provide some evidence for what on the face of it appears to be an appalling posthumous libel, or delete it.

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
2 years ago

Tutu is not a cape Malay name to my knowledge

Caroline Martin
Caroline Martin
2 years ago

God in every one. Also in every animal. In every thing

Matthew Robinson
Matthew Robinson
2 years ago

I thank god every day that I am an atheist and thus can be vaguely amused at phrases like “the glory of God is a human being fully alive” & “in order to be what God fully intended’ & “the imprint of God in all of us”. Honestly! What twaddle.

Alice Bondi
Alice Bondi
2 years ago

Not all Jews objected to Tutu’s characterisation of Israel as an apartheid state, especially after the passing of the Nation-State Act. On the contrary, many of us felt vindicated in our discomfort and criticism of the country we’re meant (according to the Israeli government) to have some connection with. I don’t think it was a mistake for him to call it as he saw it – I think it was hugely important, and we might have hoped that it would have enabled some of those holding ‘Israel is always right’ attitudes to sit up and get real about what is going on in that state.

Last edited 2 years ago by Alice Bondi
Julie Blinde
Julie Blinde
2 years ago
Reply to  Alice Bondi

Lilke the fact that it is a tiny democracy surrounded by millions of fanatics who want to kill them all ?
Or maybe that many Israelis are voting Arabs ?
I’m struggling to understand your ‘reality’ Alice – please help me

Shoel Silver
Shoel Silver
2 years ago
Reply to  Alice Bondi

Most of the Jews who did not object to Turu’s characterisation of Israel as an apartheid state after the Nation-State law was passed in 2018 likely did not object when he used it before 2018; for example when he called for a global boycott of Israel in 2014 (which he presumably violated by having it published in an Israeli paper).

James Joyce
James Joyce
2 years ago

If you believe, as I do, that organized religion is little more than primitive superstition and often evil–think the Catholic Church and their rejection of birth control, abuse of children, etc., then there is no need to celebrate the “Arch,” as he is a charlatan in this false hope. His chairmanship of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission–essentially celebrating the sacrament of confession in the public arena–achieved nothing. Israel an apartheid state–come on, mate!

But the Arch does provide something useful: a black man for white people to worship, to show how not racist they are. And the Arch is in good company: Nelson Mandela (failed leader), Colin Powell (war criminal, coward, failed leader), Barrack Hussein Obama (utter fraud, failed leader). It sickens me that there will be a week of this utter veneration, where people bow down before the Arch to show how much they loved him–a sickening ritual.

Like it or not, the Arch and Nelson Mandela are partly responsible for today’s South Africa, which by any measure is an extremely anti-white, failed state. The Arch achieved nothing of substance, but had a good run selling his snake oil to very willing buyers, so eager to bow down before a black man.

Hugh Marcus
Hugh Marcus
2 years ago
Reply to  James Joyce

The world must be an awfully bleak place, when you’re so cynical of the gods deeds of others James

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago
Reply to  Hugh Marcus

Given your legal background and world view, could I suggest a profile name change to something more in keeping

How about Judge Jeffreys?

James Joyce
James Joyce
2 years ago
Reply to  Hugh Marcus

I quite agree–the world is an awfully bleak place and getting worse. I think there is a typo–a bit of ambiguity, though–where you likely mean “good” deeds not “god” deeds. No worries. God does not exist, and the religious “good deeds” usually make matters worse–i.e. missionaries in Haiti. They (the missionaries) may feel good, but Haiti continues its inexorable decline.
Believe whatever you want in private–none of my business–just keep it out of public life!

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Hugh Marcus

Hugh, sorry to push the red pill – but actually for many folk the world IS a pretty bleak place.

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago
Reply to  James Joyce

I was once comfortable with the idea that ‘all religion is toxic’. I’ve come around to the idea that ‘some religion is toxic, some is restorative’. Same with politics, same with ‘the State’, and so on.
Now the proportions may vary from time to time and I suspect they are driven by the ratio of toxic/restorative people within them. Organisations can go toxic and attract toxic people easily, going restorative is harder.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago
Reply to  James Joyce

Word to the wise, Jimmy. The Catholic Church — despite the apostasy of it current bishops on the matter — called it when they stood against contraception. One way or the other, directly or indirectly, the civilizational collapse of the west can be traced back to the separation of sex and childbirth.

Last edited 2 years ago by Francis MacGabhann
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

Sex and childbirth are inextricably linked in Africa. The result is poverty on a large scale and children dying.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

Really? Pill will solve the problems of Africa, will it? Seriously?

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
2 years ago

Perhaps Francis you can explain Nigeria. A country the size of texas with 200 million people in it, destined to become 700 million before 2100. How is feeding 700 million people not a problem?

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
1 year ago

Spot on!

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago

Gosh that would be a hard statement to sensibly back up surely ?? Tis a well known fact that some human groups will breed to the point of starvation – as do some animals – and I for one dont want to see lots of those pictures on TV if you dont mind – or do you have some more knowledge about better possible outcomes for the scarce food and water scenarios ?? Maybe the Catholic church can fund enormous infrastructures in these countries – Africa would be a good start – I think 100 trillion dollars might make an improvement in African quality of life – but then they would have to keep funding that forever as the population grows exponentially – what a happy planet you live on – I wish I could go there (seriously).

Nicholas Rowe
Nicholas Rowe
2 years ago
Reply to  James Joyce

One has to avoid having an evil eye because others are good.
However, while anyone is free to make of what they will of Christian theology, not everything in the gospels would exactly support the late Archbishop’s view of humanity, as generous as it was.
When Jesus meets the Canaanite woman who petitioned Him about her sick daughter she takes an inferior position, one entirely separate and distinct, in order to receive that help.
Jesus takes an example from everyday life, as He does in His parables, as His guide. This is from dinner table etiquette. The bread is specifically the ends of the loaf. The diners use the better part of the loaf, as referenced in the Last Supper. The ‘ends’ are used to clean the hands and are given to the household dogs to finish.
There is a connection between dog and diner. There is indeed one bread. It is broken for all. But it is not equal in quality, and neither are the recipients. When this meeting takes place the testator has not yet died, as Hebrews puts it. Thus the meeting takes place under the terms of the Old Covenant.
Young South Africans will tell you about the discrimination that faces white South Africans in the job market. It seems that those who praise the Archbishop for his undoubted qualities as a man and a Christian but at the same time practice this discrimination are much more like the Pharisees that Jesus condemned before meeting the Canaanite mother.
And on both a political and a religious point, one could reflect on how a rainbow is created and what colour of light isn’t present in it.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  James Joyce

Fair comment I think – easier to play a spiritual type role but how hard did he really work to stop the clear downhill slide into a failed state?? I would really like to know because I am naturally very suspicious of those folk with big egoes – ALL their efforts seem to be tainted by self promotion which inevitably leads to less effective outcomes ???????

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
2 years ago
Reply to  James Joyce

As a Zimbabwean I am grateful to Tutu for being one of the few African men of status to condemn the atrocities in Zimbabwe. By doing that he showed his principals in my view. The ANC turned a blind eye because they couldn’t be seen to condemn an anti-white movement. Tutu did so despite the fact that it isolated him.

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
1 year ago

Absolutely Hayden. And Mandela never criticised Mugabe in public. His intervention would have made a difference. Tutu deserves praise for his moral courage in this connection, whereas Mandela kept his head below the liberation heros’ parapet.