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Desmond Tutu provided a model for the constructive use of religious idioms in politics. In polarized times, he will be missed.


With the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu – he was 90 – the world lost a moral and spiritual voice, closely associated with the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which served as a model for resolve historical conflicts and the resentments they generate in society. He also lost the last of a generation of leaders who engaged in public life not as the pursuit of political power, but as a moral exercise aimed at extending the dignity and decency of all human beings.

The contribution and leadership of Archbishop Tutu’s anti-apartheid movement began shortly after World War II and continued until 1991. Perhaps because of his leadership of the Anglican Church in South Africa, Tutu was not imprisoned or exiled, like many others – including Nelson Mandela – were. For decades, he held a mirror in front of the South African government and urged the global community to do more to end apartheid. As Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store said of his Nobel Peace Prize, which he received in 1986, “Never has a peace prize been so appropriate”.

But perhaps more importantly, at a time when the politics of many countries were dominated by religious divide, Archbishop Tutu’s spirituality was inseparable from his political morality – a morality that was expansive and inclusive when he was part of it. of fighting against a powerful state system, and without hard feelings when that system finally broke down. Like Congressman Gandhi and, perhaps to a lesser extent, his friend the Dalai Lama, Tutu provided a model for the constructive role of religious idioms in politics. He might be disappointed by the collapse of democratic values ​​and the decline in respect for diversity in so many parts of the world today. Now, unfortunately, there are few leaders of Desmond Tutu’s stature to lead future Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on December 28, 2021 under the title “The Archbishop’s Lesson”.

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