Seymour's Purple Mind

Friday, November 04, 2005

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Wisdom of Human Forgiveness

Sometime last spring, I noticed that Archbishop Desmond Tutu had been scheduled to speak in Greensboro as part of Guilford College's Bryan Series.

I noticed the date he had been scheduled to speak coincided with the 26th anniversary of one of Greensboro's darkest moments, the deadly confrontation that occurred on November 3, 1979 when Klansmen and Nazis showed up at a "Death to the Klan" rally organized by the Communist Workers Party.

Even more interesting was that the primary topic of Tutu's address was to be South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which Tutu co-chaired with South African President Nelson Mandela.

What struck me as interesting and made me wonder if the scheduling was coincidental or not was that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission had been formed in Greensboro to take a deeper look at what had occurred in Greensboro on that fateful day when I was only 7 years old.

I never followed up on securing tickets for the event, and with the busy season of teaching, it honestly had gotten tucked away in the back of my mind.

The day before Tutu was scheduled to speak, I received a reminder of the event.

jw, a fellow blogger, e-mailed me with an offer of a ticket she would be unable to use.

I immediately e-mailed her back to let her know I was definitely interested in the ticket she offered.

jw even made a special trip to make the ticket available for me. (Thank you, jw!)

I first heard of Desmond Tutu from Ms. Gloria Turlington, my seventh-grade social studies teacher at Allen Junior High School (now Allen Middle School), during the 1984-85 school year.

Social studies that year focused on Africa and Asia. Desmond Tutu had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and Ms. Turlington made sure we learned who Tutu was.

I don't know if I gained a clear understanding of South Africa's system of apartheid that year, but over time, I would gain knowledge of that modern-day system of white oppression against South Africa's blacks.

(Ms. Turlington was also my eighth-grade social studies teacher, and from her, I also gained knowledge of the Greensboro Sit-Ins and the Klan-Nazi's deadly confrontation with the Communist Workers Party. Thank you, Ms. Turlington!)

Tutu was an outstanding speaker.

It's amazing to realize that South Africa is now in its 11th year as a democratic society, with apartheid now a part of its past.

Modestly dressed, Tutu's power came through his words.

Hearing him speak, you understood completely why he deserves recognition as one of our world's great leaders.

At about 8:19 PM, after a brief film about Guilford College and introductory remarks by Joan Siefert Rose (general manager of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC) and Kent Chabotar (Guilford College's president and professor of political science), Tutu stepped to the microphone and began his address.

I don't think I was alone in being fully mesmerized by the beautiful power of his words and thoughts.

At the heart of his message was the profound concept of human forgiveness.

Black South Africans, like black Americans, have every reason not to forgive their oppressors. That they have done so is remarkable. Forgiveness never comes easily, and it often goes against our basic instincts.

Tutu actually began by requesting a moment of silence in tribute to a great American who recently passed away, Rosa Parks.

His next remarks brought laughter as Tutu told of dining in a restaurant and having a waiter notice his strange accent. The waiter asked Tutu if he was American. The waiter then asked, "Are you a famous singer or something?" Tutu told us, "I thought that was good for the soul," inspiring laughter from his captive audience.

He called it a privilege to come to our city, the first in our own nation to explore a truth and reconciliation effort.

Tutu recounted how some expected a race war in South Africa when apartheid was toppled.

Surely, black South Africans would desire revenge--perhaps in the form of violence--against the white South Africans who had treated its black countrymen with such thorough brutality and oppression.

Tutu argued that there was no doubt that the victory over apartheid would occur. In our modern universe, he said, there is no way that evil and injustice can have the last word. (I hope he is always ultimately correct in this view.)

Tutu praised the international community that protested on behalf of black South Africans against apartheid. He acknowledged American college students and others around the world for helping to change the moral climate in his own country.

Tutu said that it was fantastic to be able to say that black South Africans used to come asking for help and received support from abroad so that they are now free.

He pointed out how the skeptics and cynics predicted the most ghastly orgy of revenge but that the prophets of doom were proved wrong.

He added that those prophets of doom were proven wrong in part because of how the truth and reconciliation process amazed the world with the ability the forgive.

Many did call for Nuremberg-like trials as a means of securing so-called victor's justice.

But Tutu pointed out how devastating such trials would ultimately proven for his country.

Some complained that the perpetrators of apartheid were being let off lightly.

But Tutu asked, "Is this the case?"

He pointed out the far superior benefits of the restorative justice pursued through truth and reconciliation compared to retributive justice that focused instead on punishment.

Tutu emphasized that the essence of being human is that a person is a person to other persons.

"My humanity is caught up in your humanity. When you are dehumanized, I am dehumanized," he said.

Tutu said that God is smart: God created us so we can never be self-sufficient.

"I need you for what I lack as you need me for what you lack."

As Tutu remarked, we humans are created for interdependence; we can't say that others are superfluous.

He described how black South Africans gained knowledge of where the bodies were of loved ones who had been murdered. Even finding just a single bone of a loved one at least allowed for closure through a proper burial for that loved one.

As Tutu put it, "there can be no future without forgiveness."

He cited what occurs today too often in the Middle East with the neverending cycle of vengeful violence.

Toward the end of his address, Tutu said, "You and I are created by God to be like God. We each of us have a God-space within us."

He ended by mentioning some of the good things we are made for: laughter, compassion, caring, peace, joy, and happiness.

Tutu named some other great individuals: Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks.

Thank you, Guilford College, for arranging for one of the world's greatest leaders to address our community.

The lessons he shared are ones that will benefit any corner of our earth that embraces them, including our own corner right here in Greensboro.


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