Interview: Desmond Tutu on gay rights, the Middle East and Pope Francis

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Desmond Tutu speaks at Clowes Hall, Butler University. Photo courtesy Butler University

Desmond Tutu speaks at Clowes Hall, Butler University. Photo courtesy Butler University

(RNS) Retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his fight against apartheid in South Africa, continues to speak around the globe on justice and peace. Butler University and neighboring Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis announced Thursday (Sept. 12) that they would name a center for the 81-year-old icon.

Desmond Tutu speaks at Clowes Hall, Butler University. Photo courtesy Butler University

Desmond Tutu speaks at Clowes Hall, Butler University. Photo courtesy Butler University

Just before the announcement of the new center, Tutu spoke with Religion News Service about faith and justice, Israel and Palestine and Pope Francis’ recent selfie and lifestyle choices. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How are you?

A: As well as can be expected for a decrepit old man. (He cackles.)

Q: How do you feel about this center named after you? 

A: I’m blushing. Naming a center after a person who is still alive can make it seem that an individual somehow on their own was able to accomplish what he accomplished. It was our people. I am thrilled and yet am so aware that any achievement has an aspect that we owe it to the people.

Q: How has your faith influenced your work on justice?

A: We’re not in this struggle because we’re following a particular agenda. It’s precisely because we believe in the kind of God depicted in the Scriptures and in the life of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is quite exhilarating to speak about a God who has an incredible bias, a notorious bias in favor of the downtrodden. You look at Exodus and the Israelites’ escape from a bottomless pit. God is not evenhanded. God is biased up to his eyebrows.

Q: What is the most pressing issue in which Christians need to relate their faith to power and injustice?

A: Anywhere where the humanity of people is undermined, anywhere where people are left in the dust, there we will find our cause. Sometimes you wish you could keep quiet. It’s the kind of thing you heard the prophet Jeremiah complain of where he says, “You know God, I didn’t want to be a prophet and you made me speak words of condemnation against a people I love deeply. Your word is like a fire burning in my breast.”

It isn’t that it’s questionable when you speak up for the right of people with different sexual orientation. People took some part of us and used it to discriminate against us. In our case, it was our ethnicity; it’s precisely the same thing for sexual orientation. People are killed because they’re gay. I don’t think, “What do I want to do today? I want to speak up on gay rights.” No. It’s God catching me by my neck. I wish I could keep quiet about the plight of the Palestinians. I can’t! The God who was there and showed that we should become free is the God described in the Scriptures as the same yesterday, today and forever.

Q: Pope Francis recently said of those who are gay, “Who am I to judge?” What do you make of the pope so far?

A: He’s taken a selfie! (cackling) He’s a tremendous breath of fresh air. The things he has done in a short period of time: the fact that he does not live in a huge papal mansion and just dropped by in the dining room where ordinary people have meals. You think of his background, where he didn’t use limousines in South America, that he used public transport. I’ve got to say to you that I’m so, so thrilled that he is there at this crucial moment in the history of our world.

I say somewhat facetiously, “I’m so glad I’m not God.” Can you imagine being God and looking at Syria and saying: “These are my children. Look at what they’re doing to each other.” God looks at the Middle East, looks at Palestine. When you go to the Holy Land and see what’s being done to the Palestinians at checkpoints, for us, it’s the kind of thing we experienced in South Africa. Whether you want to say Israel practices apartheid is immaterial. They are doing things, given their history, you think, “Do you remember what happened to you?” Then they clobber you and say, “You are anti-Semitic.”

Q: How do  you respond to your critics?

A: I regard Abraham as my ancestor. Some of the greatest inspiration I have got has come from what we call the Old Testament prophets and what Jews would say “our prophets.” I don’t often want to speak. I try to be a reasonable person and to be diplomatic, but you go to that place and you see the settlements, you see what has happened to the land that was owned by the Palestinians. I have often said to my Jewish friends: “Please just remember where you come from. Remember Yahweh, who said to the Israelites, ‘Treat the alien well with justice.’” Almost all of the passion that we have has come from the inspiration that we have got from the Jewish Scriptures.

Q: With Syria dominating the international conversation, how should countries respond with justice?

A: I’m so thankful a significant majority of Americans are saying no to military intervention. We’ve got to find a solution that will in the end be one that makes Syria a better country, a better people. We can be human only together. A person is a person to other persons. We so desperately long for all of us to learn that we are meant for one another. We are meant for complementarity. The Syrians are members of our family.

  • Barbara

    What a wonderful man. We love you, Fr. Tutu!

  • boarderthom

    Whether one sides with the religious conservatives who are against marriage equality or the gay activists and their allies who are working for it, all of us can benefit from forgiveness and reconciliation. All of us want to be happy, no one wants to suffer, if you act with that in mind, it will be a good start.

  • Bmoresara

    None of us wants to suffer. However, some of us want others to suffer.

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  • I have loved Archbishop Tutu from the first time I heard him 31 years ago. His comment that “God is biased up to his eyebrows” is truly stunning. The cliche is that there are two sides to every story, but my conviction has been that where injustice is practiced against a whole people, as in the case of the Palestinians, then there is only one side, the side of Justice, and we need to speak and act with the conviction that justice is in the nature of God. Thank you, dearest Bishop.

  • Rick

    Wow! saying that Desmond Tutu is like the prophet Jeremiah is blasphemy! God is loving, but God is not accepting of homosexuals actions. God does judge, and he has prophets who stand up and speak words of judgment, not words of blasphemy and apostacy.

    There are many who will follow Mr. Tutu, and Mr. Tutu was used in a great way to battle apartheid, however homosexuality is in a whole different category. In the Bible God calls it an abomination, and God judged those who were involved in this moral sin of depravity, just as he judged those involved in abortion.

    People need to choose their side, choose God, or choose the opinion of the majority of people today including the backslidden church. Even in the evangelical circles, Stephen Mansfield had Desmond Tutu endorse his book on “the faith of Barack Obama” on the front cover. Stephen Mansfield was a pastor in the Bible Belt in Tennessee! What a fall, what a stoop by Mr. Mansfield to have a pro homosexual spokesman endorse his book on then Senator Obama. Sadly a lot of Christians bought into the book that painted Obama as a man of truth and character, yet more sadly many “Christians” voted for him again after his decisions in office lifted restrictions on abortion, assisted the LGBT agenda, assisted Muslims world wide while hurting Christians in other nations and went against Israel. Any Christians that read their Bible will realize that our nation is on the verge of ‘judgment’ due to our sins. We like Israel are shaking our fist in the face of ALMIGHTY GOD, and are killing our children, taking God out of school, and indoctrinating homosexuality in our schools, and churches, and allowing nations who hate God, and who hate Israel to destroy the Judeo Christian ethic that made America great! The Bible states that righteousness exalts a nation. If that is so, then wickedness will do the opposite, it will humble a nation. The answer is not in who we elect, the answer is like in the days of Josih, we need to “slay the priest of the high places” in the spiritual realm. Not physically go out and slay these people. We need real PROPHETS to tell Desmond Tutu to be quiet, and for writers like Mansfield to shut their mouths and stop writing things that go against God. Quite telling Americans how godly that ungodly people are. If your pastor is pro LGBT, then he needs to be fired! If the president is anti God, someone needs to tell him. It really does not matter what title people hold, they are NOTHING STANDING BEFORE GOD ALMIGHT AND HIS ALMIGHTY WORD. God is going to be exalted, and man is going to be humbled. Those who stand before God not have to bow down to men. Men who go against God, no matter what their title, will lost in the end. King Zedekiah did not listen to Jeremiah, and he had to watch his sons be slain, and then after that his eyes were poked out by the King of Babylon. What a way to see your last picture before your eyes get taken from you.

    Wake up people, Desmond Tutu is a disgrace to the things of God, he is not a prophet, he is a ‘leader’ who is leading the blind. He is not a man of God, he does not properly teach his Bible. He is assisting the world on our spiral downward.

  • Rick

    Desmond Tutu says he would rather go to hell than to ‘homophobic heaven’, and anyone wanting to follow him is headed there according to the Bible. Obviously people have to decide to believe their Bible or believe what apostate priest and pastors will tell them.

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    Thank you for your courage to stand up for the real truth no matter how much people oppose your voice