A Clenched Fist and an Open Hand: Lessons Learned from Desmond Tutu

I know “the Reverend and the rock star” sounds like the start of a joke, not the description of a friendship. Improbable as it was, Desmond Tutu, who died on Dec. 26, and I did have a friendship, and it’s been one of the blessings of my life. It was a privilege to meet him and also to be able to draw inspiration from him.

I refuse to visit a homophobic paradise. Sorry, no, but I’d rather be in the other place.
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I was in the room when he raged against his own government as represented by the African National Congress (ANC), promising he would be praying against them if they didn’t change their ways. Prophet versus Profit. His fans could also be pushy, such as. me. “Do it!” he once chided me, “or I will personally stand in the way of you entering the gates of heaven. I’m an archbishop… I have influence.” His understanding of scripture demanded he afflict the comfortable as surely as he comforted the afflicted.

Tutu’s concern for structures as well as individuals helps explain why his ministry focused not only on the consequences of injustice, but also its causes.

We must stop pulling people out from the rivers. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.

U2 performed our anti-apartheid first gig in Dublin in 1979, just before the band had even signed a recording deal. We were teenagers who had grown up around a home-grown version of religious apartheid—applied by the U.K. to Catholics in Northern Ireland. Even then, Tutu was describing apartheid as less a structure than a metaphor for good and evil—a spiritual complement to Nelson Mandela’s more secular analysis. Starting in the Eighties, these men had an important impact on us and my activism ever since.

Listening was one of his first lessons. This, it turns out, takes a serious resolve for someone like me—someone with a big mouth and a foot the size of it.

I cannot forget the look on the very reverend’s face the first time we met him in 1998, when U2 and other guests crowded into his office of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Cape Town. The look wasn’t indulgent or even dutiful, it was polite verging on dismissive. The word TOURISTS could be spelled out. “Let us bow our heads,” he said to the traveling circus (half of whom were not at all religious). “And let us ask the Holy Spirit into the room to bless the work going on in this building, and to search all of our hearts for how we can do more to fulfill Your Kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

The Arch wasn’t messing about. For all the mischief he was known to make, he was just not going to let us waste his time, and he wasn’t going to waste ours. He talked a while about the philosophy behind truth and reconciliation—about his deep belief that they have to happen in that order, that we need to see ourselves before we can be redeemed. Unclenched hands can become open only when truth prevails.

He then trundled up to us, without any warning. There he assembled around 100 volunteers into a big room. He announced, again without warning, that U2 was “here to play for you.” Which was awkward. We had no instruments, and we’ve never been known for singing a capella. We attempted a version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” to which he added the full stop and amen: “Neither have we.”

Just before saying our farewells, we had a brief moment of silence. I tried to make up for it with an inane, but not completely inept line of conversation. Perhaps recalling the espresso prayer meeting he held in his office, I inquired if it was difficult to make time for meditation and prayer with the amount of work he was doing. Wherein he shot me another one of those looks, which if I could have spelled it out might’ve been: NOVICE. “How do you think we could do any of this work,” he berated me, “without prayer and meditation?”

Former South African president Nelson Mandela right held hands with former Bishop Desmond Tutu in Cape Town South Africa, in 1994. File photos of Nelson Mandela during the 1994 elections in South Africa. ] JERRY HOLT • jerry.holt@startribu
Jerry Holt-Star Tribune In 1994, former South African President Nelson Mandela held hands in Cape Town South Africa with the ex-Bishop Desmond Tutu. Photos of Nelson Mandela taken during South Africa’s 1994 election.

He could not travel any distance to get to his sanctuary of faith. This was no cathedral or church. It was as simple as closing his eyes. I learned from him that prayer was not an escape to real life, but rather a way to get there.

I was halfway through my 40 year-long stalking of The Arch. He had a radical interpretation of the gospels. My Cape Town visit led me deep into Jubilee 2000, which saw the richest nations forgive the loans of the least. The organization enlisted me to fight what he called economic slavery. It also helped in the fight for universal access for AIDS drugs. And, many years later, it supported the equitable access campaign to COVID-19 vaccines.

His encouragement and admonishment inspired me to join forces with other campaigners and co-found three NGOs, DATA (RED), ONE and ONE. Tutu was also the international patron of ONE. To address extreme poverty, they all had to deal with structural racism. Tutu’s description of Tutu’s inexplicable joy was matched by an uncontrollable hatred for injustice.

His life’s work made clear it was never enough for activists to call out injustice. Tutu had the gall to demand we also sup with our enemies—make ourselves known to each other in what Pope Francis later described as a culture of encounter. Tutu presided over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This was no look in the mirror. Instead, it was an intense stare at each other.

The public confessional that it offered had its own value. In this radical space the Arch’s own weeping and wailing appeared to offer extra cover for others to break down in telling their stories; as he saw, it might take such permission for a society—not just an individual—to open up its heart and its wounds to the scrutiny of a collective conscience. This idea has rippled through Northern Ireland, Bosnia, the Middle East—almost every corner of conflict in the world.

For this and so many reasons we will miss Tutu’s work and his witness. We will miss his voice in a world stained by what Tedros Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, has called “vaccine apartheid.” We will miss his example at a time when truth is under siege and reconciliation a distant dream, a time when, in America and the wider world, racial injustice remains deep and unresolved.

We live in an era that is no different from the one defined by Desmond Tutu. This means we must face hard facts and confront harder truths. It’s time to examine how we got here, as people and countries. Tutu’s work, which was never his alone, must go on. While we are broken, scarred, and split, we must see ourselves in all of our brokenness before we can heal.


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