Desmond Tutu: ‘We need to be able to listen’

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is scheduled to receive an honorary degree and give Gonzaga University’s commencement speech on May 13, despite … Continued

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is scheduled to receive an honorary degree and give Gonzaga University’s commencement speech on May 13, despite protests by some conservative Catholics who oppose granting a position of honor to someone supportive of abortion rights and gay rights. Below is Tutu’s response to the controversy, written for On Faith:

Sang Tan


South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu addresses youths during the opening ceremony of the One Young World World Summit at Old Billingsgate in London.

There was a time, many centuries ago – when human migration was taking place relatively slowly, on foot – that all people in the village would have looked pretty much the same. There was one village lifestyle, one belief system and one set of cultural practices.

Other villages in the neighborhood may have had great similarities to ours. We were generally tolerant of those who looked and behaved as we did, and intolerant (often fearful) of those who did not.

Villages expanded into cities, and cities into states.  Today, it is possible to fly to the furthest point on the planet in half a day. While some nations (and cities and institutions) still try to regulate belief systems and cultural practices, the reality is that – provided we have the means – we trade, communicate, love and play globally.

We have evolved into a pluralistic world. Not all our children’s classmates are necessarily white, or necessarily Jewish, for example. The owners of Italian restaurants are not necessarily Italian. If you have to have a blood transfusion you cannot guarantee that the donor looks or behaves anything like you.

As Jesus says, in Matthew 5:43, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

Ours is a world in which we have become and are becoming increasingly dependent on each other. To prevent catastrophic levels of global warming requires a global response – as does arresting the inexorably increasing gap between rich and poor.

Resolving the plight of the Palestinian people is in the interests not only of Palestinians. Plans that are afoot to mine some of the most pristine remaining rain forests in Africa do not just affect Africa. The amount of fuel consumed in North America affects its cost in Samoa.

Because we live in a pluralistic, global world we need to be able to listen to other viewpoints, place ourselves in the shoes of others, and respond fairly, magnanimously and pragmatically.

I am not speaking theoretically, but practically. These are concepts that apply between nations and regions, but equally in communities and among neighbors.

The chancellor of one of South Africa’s top universities tells the story of a crisis of conscience he endured soon after his appointment, about a dozen years ago, at a time that the country was really battling to come to terms with HIV and AIDS.

As a member of a faith opposed to the use of contraception, at the helm of a politically progressive institution with an impeccable record in the South African struggle for human rights, he was confronted with student demands that the university install condom dispensers.

To cut a long story short, the university installed dispensers – and the rate of new HIV infections in the student body dropped.

The reality of the scourge of HIV and AIDS, combined with the chancellor’s willingness to hear the views of others and his understanding that we live in a pluralistic society of a diversity of ethnicities, cultural practices and beliefs, outweighed his personal convictions.

Yes, some of us may have larger noses than others, or are of a relatively darker hue. Some of us may worship in churches and others in temples. Our economic circumstances may differ and we play different games. Yet we have many things in common, and what ultimately binds us together is our common humanity.

Martin Luther King said: “Too seldom do we see people in their true humanness. A spiritual myopia limits our vision to external accidents. We see men as Jews or Gentiles, Catholics or Protestants, Chinese or American, Negroes or whites.  We fail to think of them as fellow human beings made from the same basic stuff as we, molded in the same divine image.”

We are members of one family, the human family, and we are dependent on each other. We have the right to express our opinions; as my wife never hesitates to remind me, “You have the right to your wrong opinion!”

But too seldom do we listen to one another. Too often do we regard ourselves as somehow being “right” in the way we lead our lives – while “others, because of their otherness, must be “wrong.”

God is not a factionalist. Surely St. Peter does not stand at the Pearly Gates and  grant tickets only to Lutherans or Hasidics or Sunnis or Jains… or to Christians, but not to Buddhists?

The ethic of reciprocity enjoins us to treat others as we would like others to treat us. It is a basic philosophy that just about all organized religions have in common. It does not apply only to people who look like us or perform identical rituals.

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  • immigrant1

    How is this article a response to the controversy regarding Tutu being granted a position of honor to whilst supporting abortion rights and gay rights?
    If he is looking for biblical support for his views he is quoting the wrong book. Sure God isn’t factionalist and St. Peter does not stand at the Pearly Gates and grant tickets only to Lutherans or Hasidics or Sunnis or Jains… or to Christians, but not to Buddhists. According to the Bible He has given His people the freedom to choose whether they go to Heaven or Hell by the basis of their actions. In other words if a person believes abortion is not murder then that person is playing the freedom card the wrong way and would not be given a free pass to heaven.

  • RosevilleMom

    Beautifully written. No wonder he is a source of inspiration to many. Ironically, Bishop Tutu was the speaker at my commencement many years ago. And, yes it was a Catholic university and we were extremely excited about him being present. Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t as much the Church leaving the people as it is people leaving the Church

  • amelia45

    Thank you, Bishop Tutu, for demonstrating what it is to be a Christian – and especially being the example of what is good in the situation when many of my own faith are definitely not living up to the demands of Christianity.

    Something is happening to my Church, they are shutting down, closing themselves off from living in and engaging with the wider world. They are “hunkering down” – and I am not sure why. They cannot win by isolating Catholic people from the wider world or ignoring and refusing to debate opposing views. And, they cannot win by demanding a “radical obedience” which is nothing more than a mindless conscience.

    God bless.

  • csintala79

    A citizen’s has the constitutional right to be sent to hell for adhering to false doctrine.

  • catatonicjones

    this heaven described in your fantasy is an awful place, why would anybody want to spend eternity there with such a malicious and brutal despot running the place, and all your neighbors are jerry falwell or ned flanders.

  • shanti2

    An acquaintance of mine, a simple Hindu farmer, when confronted by a Christian missionary about going to hell, remarked that as far as he knew, only Christians and Muslims went to hell, that he didn’t have hell in his religion so he was pretty sure he wouldn’t go there.

  • usapdx

    It be great if the pope would read your comment.


    They are not listening because Tutu is a black man. Not content with having declared open war on America’s first black president, mainly because he is black, the American Catholic bishops and their racist conservative followers have decided to also declare war on all women and blacks in the Catholic church.

    The abortion and pro-gay stuff is just a facade. It’s because of the color of Tutu’s skin.