Biography of Desmond Tutu is rewarding read

Mountain Echo,  News from the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont
By John Morris

In November of 2006, my wife, Susan, and I had the opportunity to be in South Africa for two weeks. We visited our daughter, who has been studying there for three years, and we toured some towns and cities, met a lot of her friends, and saw some beautiful countryside and ocean shore. One of the last things I did before we returned home was purchase a copy of the new Rabble-Rouser for Peace: The Authorized Biography of Desmond Tutu, by John Allen. With South Africa’s history and culture and geography so fresh in my mind, I thought there would be no better time to read this book.

The experience of reading Allen’s book (I read the first half during the 15 hour flight home!) was quite rewarding. Archbishop Tutu has long been a hero of mine, but I was pleased to find that Allen has not written a hagiography. This is a real biography of someone who is often lovable, sometimes annoying and always very complex. Even though John Allen was Tutu’s press secretary for many years, he is not a “spin doctor.” He presents Tutu warts and all.

Let’s document a few of the “warts” first, and then turn to the celebration of a remarkable Christian.

In his work as a church leader and his efforts in the anti-apartheid movement, Archbishop Tutu seems all too often to have been a “Lone Ranger.” Maybe all prophets, ancient or modern, have this tendency to hear the Word of God and then leap into action. Sometimes that is effective, but other times it means the benefits of collaboration and strategic planning are lost. Allen does a good job of describing how this dynamic affected Tutu’s work.

Allen has deep affection for Leah, the Archbishop’s wife, who made many of her own significant contributions to the South African struggle for freedom but of necessity had to live in the shadow of her famous husband. Allen does not back away from describing the pain that Leah occasionally experienced as she had to deal with her husband’s often unilateral decisions about his career. Fortunately, Allen has included some wonderful photos that trace Tutu’s life. In one of them, the joyful expressions on the faces of Desmond and Leah in retirement in their garden suggest that they found ways to cope with the tensions in their marriage.

Other aspects of Tutu’s life that Allen presents with great honesty are the fact that he sometimes lived beyond his means and got into some financial hard times as a result and the fact that the limelight of international fame and travel sometimes seems to have lured him away from important work that needed attention back home.

Having said all of this, though, I want to emphasize that the book is a joy to read. It is long—444 pages, including glossary, notes, and an extensive bibliography—but the length seems necessary to record adequately the incredible work that this man has done. Tutu is clearly a “one of a kind” person. Anglican Church leaders in South Africa recognized this very early on and made sure that Tutu got some advanced theological education in England. It was clear to them that he was going to be the fi rst black African to rise to top levels of church leadership.

Two of the most heartwarming anecdotes that Allen records are from Tutu’s sojourn in England: first, when Tutu was treated with unexpected—for him—respect by a bank teller and, later, when he and Leah enjoyed stopping to ask London bobbies for directions—even when they knew where they were going—because they were so delighted with the dignity with which they were treated by these policemen.

Tutu rose quickly in the hierarchy. The reader becomes almost dizzy in following this rise, but Tutu’s manifold skills, profound spirituality, infectious sense of humor, and steadfast commitment to the anti-apartheid struggle are eloquently celebrated in Allen’s writing. Also, Allen gives us some real insight into the personal anguish that Tutu often experienced because he was in the midst of so much outrageous suffering in the lives of his people as they were oppressed by the incredibly evil actions of the powers that be. But mixed with the tears (Tutu often broke down and wept as he listened to testimony given to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission), there is always the archbishop’s laughter. We can almost hear it echoing from the pages of the book.

To get an example of the exuberant joy at the heart of Tutu’s spirituality and behind his laughter, one can download an interview done at Trinity Church, Wall Street on October 23, 2006. In this interview, John Hockenberry talks to both John Allen and Archbishop Tutu about the book and about Tutu’s life. It is amazing how often Tutu breaks into spontaneous laughter, such as when recounting the ineptness of the police in trying to disrupt a protest march that Tutu led.

I came away from this biography with a new sense of admiration for this heroic Christian and a profound appreciation for the way that Tutu’s deep spirituality, his constant sense of God’s presence, his devotion to Scripture, and his strong faith community provided him with the support necessary for him to achieve so much against overwhelming odds. Can this story be inspiration for all of us in whatever ministries we have? I hope so.

John Morris is rector of St. Martin’s, Fairlee, and the author of First Comes Love?: The Ever-Changing Face of Marriage, published in January by The Pilgrim Press.