Desmond Tutu: A Prophetic Voice of Hope


It was a fleeting meeting, but one that left an impression on me. Living in Norway in 2001, it was the centennial celebration of the Nobel Peace Prize and special services were planned, with recipients gathering in Oslo for the commemoration. Part of the weekend was a church service that was open to the public and the speaker was archbishop Desmond Tutu. I had to go.

Dragging my husband and a pastoral colleague along, we got to the venue early, aiming for front-row seats, only to find we had to make do with second-row seats on the side. To our amazement, three of the Nobel Peace laureates came and sat in front of us. One of those was Archbishop Tutu.

I couldn’t help but be a bit starstruck and surprised at just how short this man was, yet he radiated such a big presence.

At the conclusion of the service, people turned to one another with a Christian blessing and the archbishop turned to bless us. I was humbled. This short man had a spiritual presence about him, his eyes filled with such wisdom, kindness and love that it rendered me speechless. I truly felt the presence of God’s spirit as he blessed me.

This was before camera phones so no selfie proof exists of this meeting. However, I don’t need one. Being blessed by the archbishop left more than an impression. This short moment inspired me, and his blessing over me was an act that has stayed with me ever since.

It was a fleeting moment that blessed me with a lasting impression. This encounter made me acutely aware of how even brief meetings can impact you with a lasting impression, and how God can fill those fleeting moments.

At his passing in 2021, Time described Archbishop Tutu as “one of the world’s most revered religious leaders, [who lived] an extraordinary life filled with courage, love and a passion for justice”. The magazine also called him the “anti-apartheid campaigner who tried to heal the world”.

(Credit: Derek Hudson, Getty Images)

Desmond Tutu spent much of his life fighting for justice through the ethos of faith, bringing healing to his country through the Peace and Reconciliation Tribunes that he led. It was an insurmountable task to even consider, let alone implement in a fractured South Africa. Archbishop Tutu was by no means perfect, yet it took courage and a larger-than-life faith to attempt to bring healing in the wake of apartheid.

In its obituary, Time continues: “A globally recognised icon of peaceful resistance to injustice, Tutu is best remembered for his courageous leadership of the Anglican Church in South Africa even as he spearheaded the fight against apartheid. Like fellow human rights activists Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr, he used his religion as a platform to advocate for equality and freedom for all South Africans, regardless of race.”

It was fascinating to later discover a New Zealand link to this movement of peaceful protest, as Mahatma Ghandi was inspired by the peaceful Māori protest in Taranaki New Zealand led by Te Whiti, alongside Tohu Kākahi in the early 1880s.

I recognise that as a Scandinavian I cannot do justice to write about the Archbishop Tutu without hearing from people in South Africa. I am told by several South Africans that he is not a hero in everyone’s eyes, and his work and legacy does receive a mixed reception.

Reaching out to my South African friends who still live in South Africa, to ask about their take, I was put in touch with South African pastor, Amyas Mvunelo. Pastor Mvunelo is a Bible translator, content creator, counsellor and church consultant for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. These are his observations.

A South African perspective
“I remember attending in my hometown a cathedral service in which Tutu was the speaker. I had heard him speak over other platforms and how he was vilified by apartheid officials. But here he was coming to our own town. I listened to every part of that sermon. It was against apartheid in every respect.

“What was interesting is even though he was a strong opponent of apartheid, I don’t remember him being arrested or incarcerated. I think it would have made a strong statement that the Christian state wasn’t that Christian after all.

“Bishop Tutu and other ministers of the gospel like Beyers Naude and Alan Boesack came to the scene at a critical time. Apartheid was an ideology that began in church, engineered by church people. The Calvinistic church called Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) introduced apartheid as ‘corrupt theology’. For them, humanity had grades and whites were the highest grade. The white supremacist theology evolved over time and manifested itself in the life of the church, far before apartheid. They also developed this chosen theology that they, the white Afrikaaners, were chosen like Israel. They were Israel and the Indigenous blacks were the Canaanites who must be conquered and subjugated. Two of the chief architects of apartheid were involved with DRC ministry. Daniel F Malan was a former minister and Hendrick Verwoerd initially wanted to study theology but ended up in philosophy.

“Verwoerd, who was the penman of many apartheid policies, even used strong biblical language in his political rhetoric. He became the real chief architect and implementer of the church’s racist policies in government, far more than Malan could have imagined. This was corrupt theology at work. In fact, apartheid South Africa was dubbed ‘the Christian state’. There was nothing Christian about it except that the lines between the church and state were blurred, and that the DRC with its corrupt theology was made the official church. Some Afrikaaner and English people would tell you that if you didn’t belong to the DRC you’d not get jobs or business.

“In any event, Tutu and others opposed apartheid on its terms, as corrupt theology. Whereas we were told that apartheid is the divine order of things, Tutu represented another version of Christianity, questioning a state that claimed to be divinely appointed. Naude was himself an Afrikaaner and became a ‘Moses’ type, leaving privilege to speak against the Pharaohs of the land. Boesack was a coloured minister also opposed to apartheid.


“So, their contribution was theologically significant and got all churches opposed to apartheid. Tutu used the social justice argument. He was a catalyst in black Christianity in the religious opposition of a false religious system. He was a significant voice that even filled the political gap at a time when the apartheid government was claiming divine authority. He influenced Christian resistance to apartheid and went on to articulate a vision for a new South Africa. He originated the ‘rainbow people of God’ that Nelson Mandela borrowed and used as ‘rainbow nation’. The politician and priest became friends. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was in fact a theological idea—reconciliation through confession. Mandela was the political founding father of the new nation but Tutu was its spiritual father.

“I think it’s important for us to reflect from our particular experience on how theology influenced state policies and how Christianity in particular is taking responsibility for its mess, doing correctives and remedials after apartheid. Public theology hasn’t really participated in the new nation building. We allowed ourselves to take a back seat. We need the prophetic voices of the likes of Tutu to be heard championing the corrective, even against the current national government. That sort of died down. There’s a scarcity of the prophetic role of the church.”

An enduring legacy
Archbishop Tutu’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 put the South African anti-apartheid movement on the world map and made it a truly global cause. I admire how they had the courage to fight for what seemed a dream. We know that after nearly a decade of advocacy by Archbishop Tutu and other voices, apartheid collapsed in 1993 and Nelson Mandela became the country’s first black president a year later. When I met the archbishop, it was years later. He could have been a bitter man, a hater of white people and it would have been understandable, yet he still exuded kindness.

That’s not to say he shied away from holding people accountable, but how easy it would have been for him to become a bitter man? Despite all its shortcomings, TRC was an extraordinary episode in South Africa and it was led by the archbishop. The Guardian writes: “Tutu was credited with coining the term ‘rainbow nation’ for the non-racial South Africa that he, Mandela and their various supporters wanted to rise from the ashes of apartheid”.

Despite what South Africa went through during and post apartheid, I can only admire Archbishop Tutu’s tenacity for not giving up but continuing to be a voice as a minister. All the way to the end of his life, he continued to preach hope into hopelessness and held true to his commitment of being a prophetic voice, calling us all to act justly, love mercy and walk in humility with God (Micah 6:8).

Kirsten Øster-Lundqvist is a Danish pastor who resides in Wellington, New Zealand. She enjoys ministering in both secular and Jewish contexts.

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