Sunday, December 26, 2021

An Evening That Changed My Life

So many years ago that I cannot remember*, I was visiting friends from college days and they had a surprise in store: tickets to hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu speak at New Brunswick Theological Seminary. They imparted this news with the kind of excitement one would expect to see when revealing tickets to a sold out rock concert or a World Series game. 

I knew who Tutu was, of course, but I didn’t know quite what to expect. I guess I thought the talk might be highly theological (since it was at the seminary) or quite serious, maybe even dry. I knew I was being given a once in a lifetime experience to hear someone very special. Someone who was making history. A very good human being. 

I’m not sure I was as excited as my friends, though.

Archbishop Tutu died in Cape Town on December 26th at the age of ninety. I woke up to the news and immediately thought of that night, long ago, where we sat in the balcony and hung on every word. His talk was animated, engaging, touching, humorous, thought-provoking. I felt no sense of time passing while he spoke. I left the hall that evening fully aware of what a gift my friends had given me.

It is now 2021 and I haven’t even a shred of a memory of what he said. How I wish I had gone home and immediately jotted down all my recollections. 

Since that evening I’ve always felt a more personal connection to Archbishop Tutu and his work against South Africa’s system of apartheid and later chairing the Truth and Reconciliation commission. One evening spent in the presence of such dynamic honesty and wisdom changed me. Perhaps only a very little bit. But it was just enough to make me care in a way that you care if you know someone and feel that thread of connection. Just enough to make a difference.

Tutu fought against a system that was codified into law and made South Africa a country that was deeply unjust at every level. It was not his goal to modify it or ameliorate a few of the grosser aspects.

I am not interested in picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself my master. I want the full menu of rights. - - Desmond Tutu

The truth is that the United States is a deeply segregated country in many ways where whiteness goes on centering itself, all the while rewarding itself for its benevolence when it throws a few crumbs to those who aren’t invited to the table. Fear of examining the truth of this has reached such a fever pitch that there are people who want to prevent the frank and open study of our own history.

I suspect that many very nice people will begin now to share a very limited range of the Archbishop’s quotes, just as they do with the words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. How often we are treated to the same three or four statements, often taken out of context, used to beat back the quest for justice, rather than affirm it. It’s exhausting and relentless each year as we approach January 15th.

This is a hurtful practice and actually does real harm.  The words, the work, and the entire lives of people like Dr. King and Archbishop Tutu are not meant to be reduced to a pithy quotes suitable for reading on a Celestial Seasons tea box or on a coffee mug. Do not always reach for the words that are comfortable. Look for the ones that are challenging.

This is exactly the sort of quote from Tutu that I love and find reassuring:

Do your little bit of good where you are; it's those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.

But I know it doesn’t stand alone. Every bit as important, even moreso, is this one:

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.

We have so much injustice to address in our country, even right here in Howard County. I came across this quote I had never seen before as I was gathering my thoughts this morning.

The fact is, rape is utterly commonplace in all our cultures. It is part of the fabric of everyday life, yet we all act as if it’s something shocking and extraordinary whenever it hits the headlines. We remain silent, and so we condone it…Until rape, and the structures – sexism, inequality, tradition – that make it possible, are part of our dinner-table conversation with the next generation, it will continue. Is it polite and comfortable to talk about it? No. Must we anyway? Yes. To protect our children, we must talk to them about rape.

The same is true of systemic racism, the uncomfortable truths of American history, the many ways that injustice has been enshrined in law. Is it polite and comfortable to talk about it? No. Must we anyway? Yes. 

*It must have been soon after he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

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