Healing can happen when you give truth-telling a chance. That was the good news that Desmond Tutu, the retired archbishop of Cape Town in South Africa, brought to the Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The hard news: you have to give it a chance.
The guest lecturer during the school’s annual Absalom Jones celebration in February, Archbishop Tutu reflected on his experiences of apartheid in South Africa and the healing power of storytelling that he witnessed as head of his country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
He applied those lessons to the issue of racism in the United States and conflicts around the world. His conclusion: Without forgiveness there is no future.
Archbishop Tutu described how the racism of the apartheid system in South Africa affected perpetrators, bystanders and victims alike. Because of his father’s position as headmaster of a black elementary school, Archbishop Tutu grew up protected from the “worst excesses” of racial discrimination. But, he said, he was both wounded and “conditioned good and proper” by it nonetheless.
Racism is “the ultimate blasphemy,” Archbishop Tutu said, because it “could make a child of God doubt that she or he was a child of God.
“Racism is never benign and conventional and acceptable, for it is racism that resulted in the awfulness of lynchings and the excesses of slavery; it spawned the Holocaust and apartheid and was responsible for ethnic cleansing,” he said.
“People of faith cannot be neutral on this issue. To stand on the sidelines is to be disobedient to the God who said we are created, all of us, in this God’s image.”
Former South African president Nelson Mandela appointed Archbishop Tutu in 1995 to lead the Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigating human rights violations that took place from 1960 to 1994.
Archbishop Tutu told of how the commission “exposed the depths to which we humans can sink” by inviting black and white people alike to tell their stories-heart-wrenching, burdensome tales of cruelty and torture, violence, tragedy and sorrow.
“Telling their stories did mean you were running the risk of opening wounds, but in fact often they were wounds that had been festering and to open them now in this fashion had the chance of cleansing them and pouring a balm, an ointment on them,” he said.
Archbishop Tutu and his wife, Leah Nomalizo Shenxane, are in residence at EDS for the spring semester. He will give the school’s commencement address in May.