ANYONE who hears Archbishop Desmond Tutu speak is likely to be struck by the unique grace and wit that characterize the South African cleric and anti-apartheid leader.
A new book that intersperses his sermons, speeches, and letters to the country's rulers with a concise historical narrative reveals something even more impressive: the influential role of people of faith in South Africa's political transformation, and Tutu's pivotal standing for truth at the darkest moments.
Seeing himself as a pastor and not a politician, Tutu was forced to act in the political arena by the imprisonment, exile, or murder of black political leaders. He wrote pungent, honest, beautifully reasoned letters to Afrikaner leaders, calling for specific steps to open the way to freedom. In return he got silence; an investigation into the finances of the South African Council of Churches, which he led; and increased repression. Yet he persisted, reminding his people often that God was in charge, no matter how hopeless the situation.
What comes across forcefully in ``The Rainbow People of God: The Making of a Peaceful Revolution,'' is what Tutu calls ``the centrality of the spiritual'' - in his life and all life. ``[T]he Spirit is not given so that the individual person may luxuriate in its possession. It is given to goad him or her into action, to prepare him for the stern business of loving God and loving neighbor....''
Tutu was often called to speak under the most tragic and dispiriting of circumstances: at the funerals of black-consciousness leader Steve Biko, killed in detention in 1977, and black-youth hero Chris Hani, murdered by a right-winger in 1993; as security forces demolished people's homes under the policy of forced removals; after massacres of children and arrests of nonviolent demonstrators.
Yet moved by his conviction that all people count as the image of God, that liberation would come because God is the deliverer, that he had been given the ministry of reconciliation because unity is God's intention, Tutu was capable of rousing words that separated right from wrong, hope from despair, and affirmation from condemnation.
His remarks at a 1990 conference spurred the apology for apartheid from a white theologian and Dutch Reformed Church leaders. His moral authority behind the call for economic sanctions was crucial to the world community's boycotts.
After Nelson Mandela's release from jail, Tutu stepped back from the political front line. Now he seeks to be with those who are hurting most, who remain in dehumanizing conditions. This book reminds us of their dignity, capacity to laugh and to love despite such circumstances, and also of the role of others of faith in bringing South Africa through dangerous waters.
After the exhilarating first democratic vote in April, Tutu's vision is of a diverse but blessed country that can succeed and could ``be a paradigm for the rest of the world.'' But he is alert to the tests ahead: ``[W]e are going to be going through a crucible. The level of expectation in some ways is probably unrealistic....'' The need, he says, is one of ``pouring oil and balm on wounds, of nurturing our people for the tasks of transformation.... It is to cultivate an authentic spirituality of transformation....''