rights activist and Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu recently
spoke in Burlington, following a presentation of honorary degrees from
the University of Vermont and Saint Michael’s College. In his address,
he advocates embracing diversity as the way to achieve world peace.
Archbishop Tutu has led a lifelong fight against apartheid and
for the cause of peaceful reconciliation. He served as Chair of South
Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and was awarded the Nobel
Peace Prize in 1984.
Most of us have read the first few chapters of Genesis in the Bible.
Isn’t there a veritable explosion of creativity? God, it could be said,
went on a real spree, almost one might say, an orgy of creativity –
where there was chaos, darkness and disorder, now there was order,
cosmos and light and what a kaleidoscope of diversity. There were
trees, there were stars, a sun and moon, rivers and seas, fish and fowl
and birds and trees and animals – and what a splash of diversity
amongst the animals, not just one sort but a whole range of different
animals, giraffes, elephants, lions, tigers, monkeys, cattle, sheep,
goats, and among the trees, would be oaks, beeches, etc. and we could
go on and on, and then there was Adam.
Now, that seemed to change the pattern. He was all by himself
and then God saw that it was not good for man to be alone. And then we
have that lovely story of how Eve came about.
A solitary human being is a contradiction in terms. We say in
Africa a person is a person through other persons. We are made for
togetherness, for friendship, for fellowship. We are created to live in
a delicate network of interdependence and we are different precisely in
order to know our need of one another. I have gifts that you don’t and
you have gifts that I don’t have, and God you could almost hear saying,
"Voila!" No one can be totally self-sufficient; the totally
self-sufficient human being is sub-human.
Diversity is the law of life. A tree is not just leaves. It has
a trunk and branches, and roots and leaves – none can survive without
the others. They are interdependent and perform different functions for
the good of the whole. If the leaves were to go on strike and refuse to
be involved in photo-synthesis and all that, the tree would suffer and
the leaves would discover they were really nothing without the branches
and the trunk and the roots. And so also with the human body. We say,
"I see," not my eyes see – "I hear," not my ears hear – and I am an
organism precisely because of the diversity of my organs performing
different functions for the good of the whole body. Without this
diversity functioning harmoniously I would be nothing.
Now God created us different, some tall, others short, some
black, others white, pink, yellow and red. What a fantastic array of
remarkable difference and diversity, different languages, different
cultures, different ethnicities, different this, different that. God
wanted us to glory in our differences, to affirm our differences, to
celebrate our diversities and to know that we are so obviously
interdependent. Even now no single nation however prosperous and
powerful can really go it alone. We must trade with other nations. We
may find we don’t have this commodity but they have it in abundance but
lack what we have and God says I made you to be interdependent, to want
to cooperate, to share, to care, to know that an injury to one will end
up being an injury to all.
Unfortunately as seems always to happen, we perverted a good,
our particularity, our peculiarity – some then used it as a reason to
justify hostilities. We have used our differences to mistreat one
And so we had obscenities such as slavery where frequently one
race claimed to be superior to those who could thus be bought and sold
like so many cattle when families were callously divided, wives from
husbands, mothers from their children and sold separately. They were
regarded as barely human and their dignity was trodden horrendously
underfoot. Even someone as smart as Aristotle declared that slaves were
not persons. For him, and so many others, human personality was not a
universal phenomenon possessed by all human beings without distinction.
Racism exalted differences that made some superior and others
inherently inferior and so we had the horror of the Holocaust when Jews
were systematically eliminated in Hitler’s Nazi final solution for
being inferior to the Aryan and used as scapegoats to blame for
Germany’s parlous economic situation in the 1930s. This kind of
thinking justified the brutal and heartless massacre of six million
Jews and gypsies and homosexual persons. There have been other
instances of genocide as of the Armenians, or of those who perished in
the killing fields of Kampuchea (Cambodia) and more recently in Rwanda
and then the so-called ethnic cleansing in of the former Yugoslavia,
people being done in simply because they were different.
I come from South Africa which carried the opprobrium of the
world for its vicious apartheid policy which was a blatant system of
racist injustice and oppression. In that land they saw nothing wrong
with public signs reading, "Dogs and natives not allowed" – natives
meaning black people. There was no subtlety at all. In many other
countries racism existed though perhaps in forms that were not quite so
blatant and unashamed. In this country you spoke of separate but equal
and everyone knew that it was really a fiction, since no white person
would have willingly accepted to exchange places with those who were
called Negroes, or more insultingly as Niggers, to enjoy the equal but
separate facilities. We know the outrages and the atrocities
perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan, burning churches where little girls
perished or the several lynchings – it continues to some extent as when
a black man can be dragged to an excruciating death behind a truck.
Racism is well and alive in so many parts of God’s beautiful earth – we
know what the neo-Nazis have been up to in Germany, or the National
Front in Britain, and France, led by Le Pen, etc.
And we know that racism is totally un-Christian without
remainder. It is unmitigated evil and totally immoral. Why? Because
racism says what invests anyone with worth, with value, is something
extrinsic, something biological, skin colour, ethnicity. What does the
Bible say quite categorically? It says our worth is intrinsic. It comes
with the package. It is part of being human. It does not depend on who
or what we are. It belongs to all without distinction. And it is the
wonderful assertion that each one of us is created in the image of God.
Fantastic. Each one of us is God’s representative, God’s viceroy. God’s
stand-in. Each one of us is a God-carrier, since we are each a temple
of the Holy Spirit. Each one – everyone, whether we are rich or poor,
beautiful or not so beautiful, red, white, yellow, black, young, or
old, clever, or not so clever, our worth is intrinsic, our worth is
infinite. And to treat one such as if they were less than human is not
only evil, which it undoubtedly is; is not only painful as it certainly
turns out to be for its victims. No it is all these things but more, it
is blasphemous for it is really spitting in the face of God and we who
are believers have no option – in the face of this evil and blasphemy
we cannot be even neutral. We are constrained by our faith to oppose it
strenuously, for we can’t say that well, it is respectable. No, that
would be to acquiesce in the crucifixion yet again of our Lord and
Saviour for remember he is the one who said, "When I was hungry you fed
me, when I was naked…" etc., for he is forever to be found with the
outcast, the victim of injustice, of oppression. When someone is the
victim of any form of injustice and oppression, look carefully at that
person and you will see the features of Jesus, and would we stand idly
by when Jesus is vilified and ill-treated yet again?
And how could we even have imagined that skin colour really
told us anything worthwhile about a person – does it tell us that you
are intelligent, humorous, compassionate, can I know these things just
by looking at you? Of course not. In the bad old days of apartheid in
South Africa they used to have universities reserved only for whites.
The main entrance qualification was not academic but biological. So I
would say suppose we changed that and said that this university was for
large noses only. If you had a small nose then you had to apply to the
Minister of Small Nose Affairs for permission to attend that
university. Totally absurd – it ought to have been something to dismiss
with a loud guffaw, except of course that it was no laughing matter for
God does not give up easily. God still believes that one day we
will get to agree with God that diversity is beautiful – that it is
wonderful to have a garden made up of roses, but how much more
wonderful one that has a whole array of different flowers, roses,
daffodils, chrysanthemums, irises, etc – how wonderful when we see the
rainbow in the sky and it is a rainbow precisely because it is made up
of different colours.
And so are we surprised that God has a dream? On the
Resurrection Day Jesus spoke to Mary Magdalene and said some strange
words to her. He said, "Go tell my brothers," referring to those
so-and-so’s who had betrayed, denied and abandoned him – he called them
brothers and he must have meant it because he went on to say, "that I
am ascending to my Father and to your Father; to my God and to your
God." That is mind-blowing.
God dreams that we will come to realise that we are family, the
human family, God’s family, made up of all sorts and conditions of
people. I sometimes say I am glad I am not God. To think that God has
to accept a Judas Iscariot, a Herod, a Hitler and a Bin Laden, a
Mussolini and an Idi Amin as all his children. To say we are family is
the most radical thing Jesus uttered, a family of glorious diversity
where there are no outsiders. All are insiders. Jesus said, I if I be
lifted up will draw all, not some, all to me – black and white, red and
yellow, rich and poor, Christian, Jew, Muslim, pagan, atheist, Hindu,
all, old and young, male and female, gay, lesbian and so-called
straight, all belong in his family. George Bush, Bin Laden, Sharon,
Abbas, all belong, all are loved, all. You know God has no enemies.
Certainly my enemies are not God’s enemies.
God dreams that we would realise that we are family caring for
one another as family, sharing with one another as family, concerned
for one another as family, appalled that members of our family could
wallow in poverty and squalor without clean drinking water, and
adequate health care, enough to eat when we have the capacity to feed
We have the means to ensure that all God’s children, our
brothers and sisters do have clean water to drink, enough food to eat
and enjoy good education and adequate health care. Peace can come for
all when we live as God’s family.
And God says, "Please help me to realise my dream, please."
The Desmond Tutu Peace Centre
Background and timeline on Bishop Tutu
Transcript of his 1984 Nobel lecture
Nobel Prize website
Transcript of 1999 interview about the Truth & Reconciliations Committee
Transcript of 1999 PBS Frontline on Nelson Mandela, including an interview with Bishop Tutu