Desmond Tutu, questing for peace and human rights.
Image: Stuart H. Coleman

Archbisop Desmond Tutu on the struggles of apartheid, American racism and being idealistic.

Having visited Hawaii years before, Archbishop Desmond Tutu returned to Honolulu last week to give an engaging series of talks at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral. At the press conference to welcome Archbishop Tutu, Father Walter Brownridge called him the “greatest Christian leader of our generation.” Along with being the first black Archbishop of South Africa, Tutu oversaw the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, designed to help heal the deep wounds and crimes of apartheid. Now 80 years old, Archbishop Tutu traveled to Hawaii at the invitation of Father Walter Brownridge, the new Dean of the Cathedral and the first African-American to hold that position. Brownridge had worked with Tutu in Cape Town and their families had become friends.

“As a racially mixed couple, they epitomized what we wanted our country to be, the rainbow nation,” Tutu said of the Dean and his wife. “They honored me by naming their younger son Martin (after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) Desmond (after you know who).”

During the inter-faith service at the Cathedral on Aug. 5, Archbishop Tutu asked if he could give the final blessing in his own native tongue. Playing on the fact that his last name is the same word for grandparent in Hawaiian, he laughed and said, “You can’t deny your grandmother a favor–I am Tutu!”

Before his arrival, I emailed a series of questions to the Archbishop, and his answers (excerpted here from a longer interview) reveal why he has been selected as the Chair of the Elders ([www.theElders.org]), a small group of “independent global leaders working together for peace and human rights.”

Looking back on Nelson Mandela’s incredible life and your common struggle against apartheid, what would you say is the greatest lesson you learned about that painful time?

I have been amazed by the resilience of those who have suffered grievously, their capacity to come up for more, and then when you expected them to be consumed by hatred and a lust for revenge, to be bowled over by their magnanimity and generosity of spirit in their willingness to forgive the perpetrators of even the most gruesome of atrocities. I have learned that this is indeed a moral universe and that ultimately good and right will prevail over their ghastly counterparts.

Can you talk about the Elders and what kind of causes you are supporting around the world?

The Elders are the result of an initiative by Sir Richard Branson and Peter Gabriel, who said we now inhabit a global village. In the traditional village, the elders are looked upon as repositories of experience and wisdom and are looked up to provide wise counsel and encouragement. The Elders were invited by Nelson Mandela and no longer seek public office and really no longer have a constituency they must please; and so it is felt they can speak out without fear or favour. Obviously, we want peace and good governance, to promote human rights, to amplify the voices of those who tend to be ignored. We speak out where others might be circumspect. We want to promote societies that are hospitable to young people, to women, seeking to promote justice and peace.

You have been a leader in the fight against racism, homophobia and gender discrimination around the world. Do you believe America has made progress on these civil rights issues?

They are very important ones, but we still discriminate unfairly against women and racism is not dead. Just look at the harassment your President has had to endure really just because he is black, having to prove he really was American (after being a Senator!). You still have racial profiling, etc., though we must commend you. Despite all the racism rife in the US, you have elected a black President. You must get considerable Brownie points for that!

Just as Father DuTiel started the Institute for Human Services (I.H.S.) at St. Andrew’s Cathedral to feed the homeless, what can people do about the rise of homeless populations in our cities?

I think it is a good exercise to ask oneself, “How would I have wanted to be treated?” Most poor people I know are proud and really want not a handout but a hand up. They do have an inherent pride and dignity, and we should treat them as those who have fallen on bad days. Those of us who are Christians have to remember what our Lord said: “When I was hungry…in as much as you did it to the least of these my sisters and brothers, you did it to me….”

With the devastating effects of fossil fuels, global warming and corporate globalization, how do you change a society that seems to worship consumerism, power and profits over the health and welfare of its people and the planet?

There was a time when you were thought to be eccentric, needing to have your marbles checked, when you might raise issues of the environment. Now, nearly everyone is aware and would not blatantly be irresponsible. So don’t be too impatient. We are not there yet, but we are getting to realize that actually we have only one earth home. If we destroy it, we are done for. We are realizing a little more urgently that we must, as Martin Luther King Jr said, “learn to live together as brothers (and sisters) or we will perish together as fools.”

As a wise Elder, what is your parting message for the young people of Hawaii and the US?

Please go on being idealistic. Dream, dream of a world where poverty is history, dream of a world where we don’t spend those obscene billions on arms, knowing full well that a tiny fraction of those budgets of death would ensure that children everywhere had clean water to drink, could afford the cheap inoculations against preventable diseases, would have good schools, adequate healthcare and decent homes. Dream of a world where children can laugh and play and not be blown up by a mine they thought was a toy; dream God’s dream that we will wake up and realize that we are sisters and brothers, members of one family, God’s family, the human family.