Desmond Tutu’s lifelong campaign of nonviolence

Archbishop Tutu’s death prompts grief, but also profound gratitude for his relentless journey toward justice and a new world. 
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As the crisis accelerated in South Africa in the late 1980s, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was arrested with some 80 other members of the clergy when they tried to deliver a petition to the country’s parliament to protest the most recent crackdown on the anti-apartheid movement. “As officers bundled the protesters into police vehicles,” United Press International reported at the time, “riot-squad police fired a water cannon at hundreds of other priests and followers who knelt on the street and prayed.”

In 1988 the apartheid government of P.W. Botha was accelerating its attack on the nationwide freedom movement, and it had now turned its fire on the South African churches.  In a press conference after the arrests, Rev. Peter Storey, past president of the South African Council of Churches, pinpointed the regime’s strategy — and mistake.  The government believed it could wipe out the opposition with a new decree, he said. “This is just another one of its great blunders. The task of the church is to demonstrate that one cannot destroy the deep hunger for liberty, neither can you put the whole church in jail.”

The news of Archbishop Tutu’s death on Sunday prompts grief at his passing but also a profound gratitude for his relentless journey toward justice and a new world.  The New York Times got it right when it called him “a powerful force for nonviolence.”  His prophetic theology — and his commitment to embodied, risky, nonviolent action — helped crystalize and nurture a growing sense of what Rev. Storey called the church’s task.

It was no accident that the South African government turned its sights on the churches in 1988.  Tutu had made it clear since at least 1975 that the religious community’s job was to throw its lot in with the most repressed, the most marginalized, and the most under attack — which meant, practically speaking, siding with the Black majority and resisting the racist, white supremacist system and culture that South Africa had become. 

At great personal risk, Tutu ceaselessly called the government to account.  But he had also been enjoining the churches for more than a decade to take action.  Here he was not only questioning the traditional reluctance of most churches to resist the status quo, he was also challenging the white supremacy of the church itself.  The first Black Anglican archbishop in South Africa, Tutu, along with a handful of other key church leaders, sparked a process of soul-searching that helped move at least parts of the church toward a stance for racial justice and social transfiguration.

In early February 1988, church leaders gathered and planned “The Emergency Convocation of Churches in South Africa” for the following May 30-31.  As a nonviolence training geek, I was overjoyed some years ago when, at a library at the University of California at Berkeley, I unexpectedly came across a copy of the 76-page “preparations material” manual that had been created for this event.  In the introduction, it announces:

On the 2nd and 3rd of February, church leaders deliberated seriously and extensively on the deepening crisis in the country and on the need for an intervention by the church in South Africa.

They critically evaluated past attempts to persuade the government to end apartheid by negotiating with the legitimate and recognized leaders of the majority of the people in South Africa and no progress was made in this regard.  Being committed to nonviolent and peaceful ways of ending apartheid, an Emergency Convocation of Churches was decided upon to work on and develop effective nonviolent actions to pressure the government to the negotiation table and for the church to refuse to collaborate with the unjust system of apartheid.

The church leaders also agreed to go beyond the violence/nonviolence debate and focus on effective nonviolent action to end apartheid.

This booklet has been compiled as preparation material for this important gathering.

Delegates attending the Convocation are asked to reflect on, discuss and pray about these issues— and, most of all, to think about what creative actions the different churches can undertake in their witness against apartheid.

This is a rich and powerful preamble.  It declares its refusal to prop up apartheid and to create the conditions for the government to negotiate “with the legitimate and recognized leaders of the majority of the people in South Africa,” all rooted, not simply in words or intentions, but in action. Nonviolent action. 

As in many places, a vigorous “violence/nonviolence debate” raged in South Africa, rooted in the harrowing twists and turns of the decades-old struggle to dismantle the apartheid system.  This manual’s introduction proposed that the clergy dispense with this endless philosophical wrangle and, instead, see if, for the purposes of this new strategic phase of the struggle, they could unleash a dramatic way forward that squared the circle between both sides of the debate: action that was both “effective” and “nonviolent.”

As the manual makes clear, this commitment to a nonviolent strategy was not an academic exercise.  It was, instead, a wager that, in the face of the intransigent, military solution the government had chosen, it was critical that the movement find creative new ways to break the spiral of violence that, in 1988, seemed to be descending into an apocalyptic hell.  

Rev. Frank Chikane makes this case in Section 1: Theological Rationale, where he urges the churches to make a dramatic, if uncomfortable, shift. Recent events, he writes, have exposed “the hypocrisy of the Church of only talking about nonviolence rather than engaging in effective nonviolent action to pressure the apartheid regime to end this system.” 

The manual then goes on to amass a careful reading of lessons from recent nonviolent struggles for justice: the Gandhian movement for liberation in India; Archbishop Dom Helder Camara’s work in Brazil; Dr. King and the U.S. civil rights movement; and the successful people power movement in the Philippines that had brought down the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos two years before.

Section 2 provided a summary of the history of nonviolent action taken by the churches in South Africa, and Section 3 detailed contemporary “Church action in the present crisis” (which includes a fascinating correspondence between the church leaders, including Tutu, and P.W. Botha). 

The manual culminates in Section 4: Developing a Program of Nonviolent Effective Action, where a broad spectrum of strategies is listed and unpacked, from contextualizing the struggle in traditional Church ministries, to public actions for “telling the truth,” to intervention and non-collaboration strategies.  “It is necessary,” the manual concludes, “that those who are leading this initiative develop a clear vision of where we are going, as well as what kind of training will be required for effective nonviolent actions such as those that have been listed.”

Desmond Tutu’s spirit and leadership suffuses this document, which was just one of many steps taken to mobilize the people power — amassed by the grassroots movement across South Africa and buttressed by international solidarity — that brought an end to the apartheid system. 

Few could have foreseen in 1988 that, just two years later, there would be shift in government leadership, the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, and the beginning of an unstoppable process of historic change in the country.

Through it all, Tutu advocated “methods that could withstand the harsh scrutiny of history.” He offers us a powerful example of relentlessly and creatively unearthing the nonviolent option in often extremely trying circumstances — during the struggle to end apartheid and then wrestling with its aftermath, as he did in heading up the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  “No Future Without Forgiveness” was not only a resonant title for his 1999 book, but a challenging and enduring faith statement that guided him through the trauma and transformation of those years.

My friend and colleague John Dear had a long relationship with Desmond Tutu.  When he last saw him in Cape Town, he told the archbishop all about Campaign Nonviolence, which we at Pace e Bene were in the process of launching. John remembers him getting angry, saying, “It’s about time you’re doing this! We’ve all been waiting for this, the whole world has been waiting for this!”

Later John asked if he would send us a supportive statement, which he graciously did.

Archbishop Tutu, though, was way ahead of us. He had lived a lifelong “campaign of nonviolence,” and was constantly showing the world what it can look like.

We are deeply grateful for what Desmond Tutu revealed — that it is possible to change the world by endlessly saying yes to the rigors of challenging injustice and doing it with relentless, creative, nonviolent love. 

This story was produced by Campaign Nonviolence


Campaign Nonviolence, a project of Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service, is working for a new culture of nonviolence by connecting the issues to end war, poverty, racism and environmental destruction. We organize The Nonviolent Cities Project and the annual Campaign Nonviolence Week of Actions.

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.