Last week, I urged everyone to find the joy in this festive season, rooted in our collective work for justice as we prepare to close one year out with hopes for a better one in the future. Today, my joy is diminished as we bid farewell to a true voice for justice for all, one whose circumstance and character catapulted him to extraordinary prominence. I was truly humbled to call South African Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu a friend, honored to have his strong and supportive words serve as introductions to three of my books and his inimitable presence on video and in person added to countless conferences and events I helped organize. The “Arch” truly provided a human entranceway for so many freedom fighters who would find no similar source of sustenance from anyone near to his level of global prominence. It was not just that he had an unquenchable thirst for the liberation of all, leading him to a genuine, independent radicalism that defied easy ideological definition and defied the power brokers of every continent and corporation. It was not just that he fashioned — even in the busiest and most repressive of times — an administrative center that enabled clear access to so many grassroots resistance initiatives. Archbishop Tutu’s head and heart, his prayers and actions, triumphantly focused on reconciliation and reparations borne of that resistance.
In the days to come, the leaders of almost every nation, the politicians, and pundits of the most powerful on earth, will line up to claim him as their own. But the still-colonized people of the world who the Arch strenuously supported and defended will hopefully also remember his love — be they the Puerto Rican nation seeking freedom from direct U.S. colonialism or the Tibetan people seeking freedom from China, be they the people of Western Sahara or West Papua or of Palestine, who as subjects of modern settler-colonial Israeli apartheid were of particular concern to this servant of God. We would also hope — but do not expect — that their colonizers, who will be among the first to claim Tutu as a source of inspiration (out of both sides of their mouths), would follow the freedom-loving directions that the Archbishop set forth. Those still imprisoned for political reasons (and their jailers) should also remember his consistent calls for their release — be they well known figures such as American Indian Movement elder Leonard Peltier or Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, or the lesser-known names of the wrongfully incarcerated of every nation (including, in the U.S., Sundiata Acoli, who is just a few years younger than the Arch). Freedom for all would be a far more fitting tribute to the life of Archbishop Tutu than the hollow words we will undoubtedly hear repeated in the coming days, and “peace on Earth, good will towards all” would be a more significant refrain if put into practice by the arms manufacturers and weapons peddlers of the planet.
The Arch was a great strategic thinker, and I remember sitting with him privately some years back in his office in Cape Town. Our conversation spanned so many topics across a world of injustices, but I recall two points of both tactical and spiritual significance. In discussing the then still-incarcerated Puerto Rican patriot Oscar Lopez Rivera, termed by many South American heads of state “the Mandela of the Americas,” the Arch weighed in on how best to balance his ongoing support for Oscar’s immediate and unconditional release with the need to also understand the mind of the man who would be destined to release him: Barack Obama. Students of realpolitik, we realized that Obama wouldn’t simply set Oscar free based on moral suasion. The right words and right timing had to be considered regarding the call for release. Then, as we moved to another “agenda item,” we reflected upon the people of Palestine, who had just suffered a bombing raid by the all-powerful and unregulated Israeli Defense Force. “God must be weeping now,” the Arch sombrely repeated to me, heartsick about both the immediate human toll as well as the difficulties ahead.
On this day, I will try not to weep for our loss of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who — as I just wrote to his daughters — lived such a truly extraordinary and meaningful life. As we send the family our condolences and best wishes for a healing time ahead, let us do as the Arch would do, with steadfastness and humor and a focus on what needs to be done rather than its costs. Let us work to heal the earth, and to heal one another by redoubling our fight to free the land and its peoples, to free all political prisoners, to build a beloved community of liberation where all can find the enduring peace which is the fruit of our struggles for structural justice.
Founded in 1964 to advance research on the conditions of peace and the causes of war and violence — with five regional associations covering every corner of the planet — the International Peace Research Association (IPRA) is the world’s most established multi-disciplinary professional organization in the field of peace, human rights and conflict studies.
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