In Theory: An interview with Desmond Tutu

Anglican Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu has announced that, after his 79th birthday in October, he is to resign from nearly all of his official commitments and withdraw from public life, the United Kingdom's Guardian newspaper reported last week. He wishes to spend more time in reflection and prayer. Tutu is best remembered for his fight against apartheid and leadership of the Anglican Church in South Africa. If you had a chance to sit down with the archbishop, what would you say to him? What issues would you discuss?


First, I would sincerely congratulate Archbishop Tutu on his many accomplishments — especially the crucial role he played in dismantling apartheid in South Africa. I would say that he is a remarkable and inspirational figure for people around the globe. His historic struggle for freedom, equality and liberty is admirable and should be emulated by us all.

Since I am a proud supporter of Israel, I would also raise an issue that is very close to my heart: namely, the archbishop's troubling stance on the Jewish state and the various erroneous statements he's made over the years. While acknowledging the significant role Jews played in the anti-apartheid struggle, Tutu nevertheless was a prominent supporter of the bigoted "Zionism equals racism" idea. He even went so far as to label Israel's necessary protective measures on its borders as a form of apartheid.

The fallacy in this claim is obvious, since Israeli Arabs have more freedoms and civil liberties than any Arab throughout the Middle East.

They enjoy equal rights and identical citizenship as Israeli Jews. They participate fully in every facet of society, including exercising their right to vote; there are currently 14 Arab members in Israel's Parliament, the Knesset. So I would respectfully ask Tutu whether this really sounds like apartheid.

I would also want to discuss the fact that when he visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem in 1989, Archbishop Tutu implored Jews to forgive the Nazi beasts who murdered 6 million of our people. In my opinion, making that statement in that location was a gratuitous insult to Jews and all the other victims of the Nazis. How — I would inquire of Tutu — do I have a right to forgive those who gassed and cremated my father's Hungarian family in the ovens of Auschwitz? How can I forgive those who brutally machine-gunned to death my mother's Polish family in the woods on the outskirts of their shtetl? Archbishop Tutu's remarks may have been well-intentioned, but they caused pain for many people who still feel the tragic consequences of the Holocaust.

I believe that history should never be whitewashed. Archbishop Tutu is heading toward a well-deserved, golden retirement, and there are certainly many lessons we can learn from him. However, we should also recognize his mistakes — and I would hope that this period of reflection will also prompt Tutu to acknowledge those times when he exercised poor judgment. My prayer is that he will rectify these mistakes sooner rather than later. In so doing, he can add an additional positive gesture to his many accomplishments.

Rabbi Simcha Backman

Chabad Jewish Center

I have great respect for Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu as a minister, humanitarian and person. If I had the honor of being in his presence to speak with him, I would want to process his passion for the significance humanity is worthy of and his desire for the equality of every living person. I admire his efforts in interceding in and for human distress.

As someone who integrated Ubuntu into his worldview, I respect how this demonstrates psychological and spiritual health. He believes that we should be open and available to our fellow humans, affirming them and never to feel threatened by their ability to do good.

People should believe they belong to part of a bigger picture, and that big picture is diminished when others are humiliated, oppressed or tortured. This sounds much like the concept of the reciprocating self. We are indeed to be in and receive relationships with the other.

But I believe what would interest me most is to hear his narrative on his first experiences of intimate relationship with God. How he first felt God and knew he existed. I would also be most interested in knowing how and when he first felt the call to serve God and his fellow humans.

Rev. Kimberlie Zakarian

La Vie Counseling Center


I am delighted to say that I actually had an opportunity to do this.

Archbishop Tutu was teaching a class at the Candler School of Theology (at Emory) while I was a student there, so for a semester on Fridays, we got to gather to hear his reflections.

To the teeming mass of undergrads, he was simply a small, elderly black man towing a rolling case. They would part and walk around him, talking over his head, immersed in the conversation about last night's party. I don't think he cared. He's a very humble man.

Of course, when he was in front of us, he was huge in presence. We were nervous with him, even though he shared openly, answered questions, giggled with glee and never in any way suggested that our questions were silly.

We asked him all the hard questions. After the struggles of apartheid, do you think that God really redeems evil people? Is there a hell, and is Hitler there now? Does truth-telling work, and have you actually seen forgiveness, reparation and reconciliation in South Africa?

There are two stories that he came back to a lot. One is the thief on the cross, hanging next to Jesus on Calvary, asking for and receiving forgiveness at the last minute (Luke 23:39-43). Archbishop Tutu insisted that this was not cheating, but evidence of how God works. God is not worried about "fair" — God desires us to be reunited in love with our creator, he said. Period.

The other story is the one about the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7). God will always go after the lost one, for there is greater joy over the one who repents than over the 99 who don't need to. "It's crazy!" Tutu would say. "When you love God, you're not good. You're good because you are loved."

We learned that this church leader who had seen it all had never given in to despair and had never given up on God. He also never claimed to know everything there is to know about God. We gratefully received his lessons of hope, humility, forgiveness and courage.

Rev. Paige Eaves

Crescenta Valley United Methodist Church


How intimidating!

What would the likes of me say to such a great man?

I guess I'd start with, "Thank you, for fighting the good fight, not only in South Africa, but in other racism-torn countries; and especially for giving religion such a good name in the public eye, proving that it actually can and does do some good in the world."

I'd be interested to know what he, as a "bridge" person born in Africa, educated in England, and having lectured extensively in America, thinks of the current state of the Anglican Communion (with Africa and America at theological war, and England helplessly caught in between).

But mostly, I'd ask about his pending retirement, and whatever life- and career-summary reflections that brings for him:

"Your plans are to spend more time at home with the family, sipping tea and watching cricket — do you wish you'd done more of that in your working life? Or was saving the world so important that you have no regrets about what it cost your personal life? Could you have done both well, or did you have to choose?"

"You've done so much good — what are you leaving on the table? If you had the time, what cause would you take on next?"

"What do you wish you'd learned sooner, about how to accomplish the most good in the world? What did you learn about the role of the church in politics?"

"I'm struck by a photo I saw of you with the Dalai Lama, both of you giggling like children. How do the rest of us get some of that spiritual joy?"

"How did your prayer life change over the course of your career? And how do you think it will change in retirement — having been God's companion in accomplishing mighty acts of justice, which I assume took up much of your conversations together, will you be able to go back to a simpler, more personal form of prayer?"

"What's the first thing you'll say to God when you meet face to face? And what do you hope God will say to you?"

Rev. Amy Pringle

St. George's Episcopal Church


First, I would acknowledge Archbishop Desmond Tutu's honorable and courageous service as a social justice advocate. His achievement of being the spiritual leader and opponent of apartheid and subsequent transformation of South Africa will go down in history with the likes of great religious leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. I would praise the archbishop for what I consider his greatest award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.

Next, I would ask him about the other epic struggle against apartheid in Israel and the Palestinian-occupied territories. How should the world community stop the suffering of the Palestinian people while ensuring peace in the region? How do we encourage the Palestinian people to first fight the government corruption from within their ranks without losing their sovereignty as a nation?

The archbishop has been involved in so many other great humanitarian issues, but his greatest achievement in his illustrious life is his anti-apartheid work. I would focus on apartheid so we can eradicate the practice wherever it exists. Divestment of U.S. funds from South Africa was a big part of the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s. Should Americans support Israeli divestment as advocated by Aaron Levitt of the Jewish Voice of Peace, and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church?

Levent Akbarut

Islamic Congregation of La Cañada Flintridge


James 5:16 teaches us that "the effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much."

No doubt much prayer is behind the spiritual triumphs in Archbishop Tutu's ministry. So often we glorify the deeds of great men, but we fail to consider the great power of God who enables them.

I would like to hear his accounts of how he prayed in specific instances and how God answered those prayers. I'd like to hear him describe what his relationship with Jesus Christ is like, and how on a daily basis he "takes up his cross and follows him."

Pastor Jon Barta

Valley Baptist Church


First of all I'd say, "Desmond, why are you wearing that tutu?"

But before I said ta-ta to Tutu, I would ask him — seriously — if he was happy the way things turned out in post-apartheid South Africa.

Then I would ask him if he was disappointed with anything in particular in his professional life. Also, was he happy that he became a clergyman? And the last thing I'd ask him is if he had any regrets.

Rev. Clifford L. "Skip" Lindeman

La Cañada Congregational Church

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