The Bishop Who Signs Himself as “Boy”

Review for The Friend, UK Quaker journal
By Paul Oestreicher

I am suffering from acute withdrawal symptoms. Never before has reading a book had this effect on me. This life of Desmond Tutu, which I could hardly put down, is not only the work of a sensitive and perceptive journalist but of a person so intuitive, so inside his subject, that this could almost be an autobiography — almost, but not quite, for John Allen who has long worked closely with Desmond Tutu can also stand back and look at the man he admires with a critical eye. Authorised this portrait may be, but it is not hagiography.

Why the withdrawal symptoms? Because this enthralling story takes the reader deep into a world of cruelty and suffering and at the same time of redemption and forgiveness. It has taken me back into that world which my own life touched at many points. It is very hard to leave it. Desmond Tutu’s life spans virtually the whole history of the struggle against apartheid. His personal influence on that struggle and its ultimate almost miraculous outcome is assessed step by step in this tale which is not just one man’s story but an important contribution to the annals of South African history.

The many other actors in the story come alive too. Some of them would certainly want to tell the same story differently. Chapter by chapter, there is room for debate. But even the critics (the foes have nearly all been disarmed) know that this little archbishop, clown and confessor of the faith is much more than a key figure in South African history. He is a citizen of the world who universally personifies both justice and peace. The world, as the psalmist recognised long ago (Psalm 85), will be healed when these two, justice and peace, embrace. Now they are still in dynamic tension. That tension comes alive in this life. John Allen has chosen peace as the bottom line, and rightly so. Even when Tutu fights for justice it is never at the expense of peace, well, almost never, for at times the need to risk and even promote conflict is inescapable but always with reconciliation as the necessary outcome.

To build reconciliation into a political programme with something approaching success is South Africa’s — and to a remarkable degree Tutu’s — lasting achievement. It was in addressing Quakers in Philadelphia (p.176) that Tutu outlined the political knife-edge that he was constantly treading, living adventurously as Quakers are enjoined to do. English Quakers who — often with very good cause — have reason to treat their Anglican neighbours with considerable scepticism, may through this book be reconciled with an Anglo-Catholic spirituality without which Desmond Tutu’s ministry is unthinkable, a spirituality which comes very close to fulfilling the highest aspirations of the fathers and mothers of the Religious Society of Friends… including the need for social action to spring from a deep well of silence.

Of course this book is in the main about South Africa but Tutu’s vision is global. Since his official retirement as Archbishop of Cape Town he has become a universal ambassador for peace. Within the Church and far beyond its frontiers, he has become the champion of all who are the victims of discrimination. To be excluded because one is a woman or because one is gay is, for Desmond Tutu, no different from exclusion because one is black. ‘Naught for Your Comfort’ (to transpose from the world of apartheid) is also his message to Christian fundamentalists of whom there are many, and not a few in Africa. With the new South Africa — in part his own child — he is in solidarity but in critical, often very critical solidarity, a concept developed by Christians living under Communist rule which, remarkably, collapsed peacefully at the same time as apartheid.

Jesus wept as he looked down on Jerusalem “which does not know what makes for its peace”, not then and not now. To that situation too Tutu speaks the truth in love as he sees the suffering of the Palestinian people and challenges the rulers of Israel to listen to the voices of its prophets. Tutu loves Jews no less than their neighbours but fears for the soul of Israel if it fails to see what makes for peace. He understands Jewish fears, nurtured by centuries of Christian persecution, but embodies the truth that only love can cast out fear.

That all sounds terribly serious – and it is – but the Tutu story will help the reader to dance and laugh with a bishop who signs himself to some of his nearest and dearest (who know all too well what that means in South Africa) as simply ‘Boy’.