Archbishop Tutu, advocate for interreligious dialogue

by PCID Staff

Upon the passing of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “mindful of his service to the Gospel,” as Pope Francis wrote, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue would like to re-present an article he wrote in 1985 for the Pro Dialogo Journal, “World Religion for Human Dignity and World Peace.”

Visit Vatican News for more on Archbishop Tutu’s life and death.

World Religion for Human Dignity and World Peace

Desmond M. Tutu

Pro Dialogo 58 1985/1

Editor’s Note: Rt. Rev. Desmond M. Tutu, Former General Secretary of the South Africa Council of Churches, recipient of 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, since November 13, 1984, Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg.


As you know I together with my fellow South Africans come from one of the most beautiful lands on this continent. It is a country richly endowed by God with all kinds of resources human and natural. The scenery is breathtaking and there are wonderful open expanses of land — there is nearly enough of everything to ensure that all the nearly 30 million people of our beloved country should live fulfilled and contented lives. But our beautiful land is one that is desperately short of justice and respect for basic human rights. You might recall that story about Zambia. A Zambian was boasting to a South African about the Zambian cabinet, going on to declare proudly that “We in Zambia even have a minister of the Navy.” The South African laughed scornfully and said “But you are a landlocked country. You don’t have a navy. How can you have a minister of the navy?” Quite undaunted the Zambian replied “Ah well, you in South Africa have a minister of Justice, don’t you?”

That commodity, basic justice which ensures that fundamental, human rights such as security of tenure, freedom from arbitrary arrest and subjection to inhumane forms of punishment and torture, freedom of movement, freedom of belief and association. That commodity in our beautiful land is in desperately short supply. I come from a country which asserts categorically that what gives value to a human being is a biological attribute, the colour of one’s skin. Most, even moderately intelligent people know that such an assertion is unbelievably nonsensical. I have often used the example of another physical characteristic e.g. the size of one’s nose to demonstrate how utterly ridiculous this central tenet of apartheid is. What in the name of everything that is good does the size of my nose tell you about my worth as a person? Can you judge from it whether I am intelligent, humorous or warmhearted or any worthwhile fact about me except perhaps whether I am handsome or otherwise?

Just imagine arriving in South Africa to go to a toilet and discover signs reading “large noses only” so that if you have a small nose, nature might then take its course somewhat embarrassingly, because you could not find a toilet reserved for small noses. Or if you were told that the university is reserved for large noses only; the first entrance qualification being not an academic one but a biological one. And if you were saddled with a small nose having to apply to the minister of small nose affairs for permission to attend the university reserved for large noses only. I just have to describe such situations for you here to see how utterly preposterous such an arrangement of society is.

Christianity and Judaism claim that what invests human beings, all human beings, with value, with an intrinsic and infinite worth is not some biological irrelevance or other, but the fact that each human person is created in the image of God their Maker. Consequently each person is a viceroy, a representative of their Deity. That is what makes human beings so priceless. I know of no major world religion that teaches that human beings are of other than this infinite worth.

For a start, whilst they may not necessarily use the same category of the Imago Dei as Judaism and Christianity, many faiths refer to the fact that of all creatures in the universe human beings (apart from supernatural beings such as spirits and angels) alone appear to have the capacity to engage in a dialogue with the Divine whether conceived as a monad or a plurality of gods. That surely must make an important statement about the partners in this human-Divine discourse. It is to assert that however subordinate the human partner, he has been exalted to the level where the Divine considers it important to be involved with him/her in a conversation. This Divine condescension serves to exalt the human interlocutor. I do not normally in any significant way engage in conversation with my dog except in the most figurative kind of way and even when I do, I do not really expect my dog to discourse with me in any profound manner.

In some of the non Judaeo-Christian major religions the value of humans is demonstrated further by the fact that the Divine Will assume human form — a kind of incarnation as in the Avatars of Hinduism. The reason for this Divine descent into the world of creatures is normally for soteriological purposes. I would say that in the phenomenon we have incontrovertible evidence attesting to the supreme value of human persons.

God does not normally, being all holy and transcendent, associate with what would be entirely alien to Divinity and impervious to it. Light does not assume darkness because there is no affinity between these two, they are totally at variance. Humanity and Divinity whilst belonging to distinct orders of being quite qualitatively different from each other yet in the major religions we have to deal with are not seen as utterly alien from one another and that human nature is utterly recalcitrant and impervious to the Divine. The value of human beings and their history is considerably enhanced through the fact that Divinity has deigned to be so intimately connected with both. This has happened as well in Christianity and to some extent in Judaism.

Another index of the value attaching to human beings is surely the divine soteriological interest in them demonstrated in all the major religions. The gods are concerned in different ways in these religions in the ultimate destiny of human persons. We are destined in most of the religions for a postmortem existence in heaven where we will be vouchsafed the beatific vision, or being privileged to inhabit Nirvana or Paradise and to exist in a life of union or absorption and complete identification with the deity however this deity may be conceived either as personal or suprapersonal. This hoped for eternal life is a high destiny and can mean inter alia only that human persons are of more than just passing interest to the Divine. The religious summum bonum is communion with the Divine. One could go on to point out that in all the major religions human beings are conceived as having the capacity to receive a divine revelation.

This may be subsumed under the discussion of the human partner in the divine human encounter and dialogue referred to earlier. It is significant that so far as we can tell, no other creature except perhaps angels and other superior spirits are so conceived as participating in the revelatory intercourse. In no known major religion are evil, suffering and the wanton destruction of the individual regarded as desired ends rather than what they are, aberrations that somehow must be overcome or circumvented.

For all these and other reasons that I need not rehearse here, we can assert unequivocally that all major religions have a high doctrine of man and woman. To quote a famous African speaking about the Divine-human relationship “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” Our final destiny, communion with the Divine speaks eloquently of our high dignity as human persons.

Religious imperatives

If the premises I have outlined above are true and I don’t know that anyone can seriously gainsay them, then the adherents of all major religions are under obligation to promote the well being of all human beings and to work assiduously to establish the dignity of the human person unimpaired. Any effort to undermine that dignity, be it undertaken by a repressive government or some group must be opposed strenuously as a matter of religious duty. St. Irenaeus a well known Christian thinker declared “The glory of God is a living man; the life of man is the vision of God.” To treat a man, woman or child as if they were less than a child of the Divine destined for a life of unimpeded union with the deity is commit not just a crime against humanity. It is veritably to be guilty of blasphemy for it is nothing short of dishonouring God himself.

You all know just how frequently religious persons are accused of the heinous crime of mixing religion with politics the moment they declare that a particular sociopolitical dispensation is unjust, oppressive and evil. It never ceases to amuse me that this is invariably the case. And yet were I to stand up here Nairobi and say I don’t think that apartheid is so bad after all I can bet you my bottom dollar that my erstwhile critics would hardly accuse me of dabbling in politics.

I want to stress that all religious adherents are constrained by the tenets of their faith to be concerned about the quality of life, of the treatment meted out to the inhabitants of their land and other lands for all religions are in principle universal in their ambit. It is not that they are motivated by an ideology, political or otherwise that they are to be so concerned. No, it is that they are under a solemn obligation to subject each human institution, be it political, economic or social to the litmus test of whether it is one that makes for life enhancement or for life diminishment. Is it the sort of environment that is hostile to a fulfilled life or one that promotes life, helping human persons to become more fully human (and in the case of the Christian with a humanity that is measured by nothing less than the humanity of Christ himself who for the Christian is the exemplar par excellence of what a human being is intended to be — compassionate, gentle, humble, a spend thrift for the sake of others, concerned for their well being and sensitive to what might undermine their sense of worth and security, aware of that worth in themselves as having been accepted and loved unconditionally by their God and Creator) their love for God, so they have been taught, carries as an inescapable corollary their love for their neighbour, otherwise their worship of God is condemned out of hand and rejected as an abomination and idolatry. Their love for God is to be expressed and authenticated by their love for and service of their neighbour “He who says he loves God and hates his brother is a liar ” so the New Testament asserts categorically; “For how can you say you love God whom you have not seen when you hate your brother whom you have?”

And so in Islam almsgiving is one of the 5 pillars of that faith. It underscores the fact that somehow we are to be the human partners of the Divine in the eternal transcendent reality’s enterprise to establish what in Judaeo-Christian terms is referred to as the kingdom of God. The eternal enlists our support to incarnate the divine compassion and love and to help bring into being the divine intention of fullness of life for all its creatures. And so we behold with awe and pride as a Mother Theresa and her nuns together with Hindu and Muslim ladies serving so gently and lovingly the derelicts picked off the streets of Calcutta so that they may die with some dignity. They pour oil on the sick making sores something which speaks of the divine balm of love and compassion. Many have been inspired to behold the Satyagraha (the soul force) of a Mahatma Gandhi as with his passive resistance he has overcome the recalcitrance of the British Raj, and identified himself with those whom he called the Harijan — God’s children, though Hinduism had stamped them as untouchable. We are constrained to work for more just societies in the lands where it has pleased the Divine to place us to be concerned about poverty, oppression, injustice and exploitation wherever these may occur striving with all our might and ingenuity to eradicate them, and to speak up on behalf of the divine reality we worship against all that makes us less than what God intends us to be. To be involved, to be so appalled by evil and injustice, to be compassionate to the powerless and the voiceless ones, to align ourselves with them against the powerful and the mighty ones, to wax indignant at man’s inhumanity to his fellow, is not to be a political animal. It is to have taken seriously the demands of our faiths. It is to be serious about our worship and adoration of the eternal and transcendent One for although He/It inhabits the very heaven of heavens yet he deigns to look upon the insignificant thing exalted to be the friend of the Divine. Jesus Christ must have scandalised the prim and proper ones, the supercilious religious leaders of his day when he told the parable of the last judgement. He was telling them what would be the criteria for admission to heaven and consignment to the other place. Amazingly he did not speak of religious exercises as narrowly conceived as for instance praying and attending worship services. What would serve to separate the sheep from the goats (destined for perdition) was whether they had or had not performed thoroughly mundane and secular things — feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and those who had been imprisoned. And more startlingly he declared that in doing these things to the least of his brethren they were doing it as to himself. The Divine -identifying so completely with its human creature. Staggering that is where we get our marching orders from when we declare apartheid to be a heresy to be wholly evil and immoral as nazism and communism.

It treats God’s children, as of little account, rubbing their dignity in the dust, destroying stable black communities for ideological reasons, stripping blacks of their South African citizenship and turning them into aliens in the land of their birth, and fobbing them off with the citizenship of Bantustan homelands with a spurious independence recognised only by South Africa and her satellites. To accomplish the grand designs of apartheid human beings, over 3 million, have been uprooted and dumped as if they were rubbish in poverty stricken Bantustan homeland resettlement camps. Blacks have to carry passes, instruments of a rigid influx control system to look them out of the urban areas where they have some chance of making a living, and imprisoning them in depressed rural areas, where black children starve not because there is no food since South Africa is a net exporter of food (when we have had no droughts) they starve because of deliberate government policy. Black family life is being undermined, undermined not accidentally but by deliberate government policy. Blacks have no meaningful participation in political decision making in the land of their birth. They have been locked out of the present constitutional dispensation in which coloureds and Indians are being coopted to entrench racism and help to perpetuate white minority rule as the junior partners of apartheid. The adherents of all faiths in South Africa as in other parts of the world can never remain silent in the face of injustice and oppression and suffering and poverty. If they remain silent then they are disobedient to the imperatives of their faith and compromise the ideals that have helped to form them.

My call is to all men and women of goodwill wherever they may be to stand up to be counted. Many countries in the so-called Third World are ruled by repressive military dictatorships. It is galling for me as a black person to have to admit this to be so, but often there is far less personal freedom and justice in many parts of independent Africa than during the much maligned colonial days. A small elite in these countries enjoys an unacceptably high standard of living whilst the bulk of the populace often suffers from grinding poverty. There is often corruption and vice in high places and the poor and the powerless, the exploited find themselves in much the same plight as before their countries gained independence. The only difference perhaps is that whereas the exploiter and the oppressor in former days was an expatriate colonial power, today it is their own brothers and sisters. The only way that seems left to the people to change an unjust and oppressive dispensation is by the all prevalent coup, the epidemic scourge of the Third World. My sisters and brothers, evil is evil, by whomsoever it is perpetrated. If people of faiths are to uphold the integrity of their religious profession then we must consistently condemn injustice, exploitation and oppression, arbitrary arrest and the execution of innocents who happen to be the ones who are pushed to the periphery of society outside the corridors of power. They have no one to champion their cause except the adherents of the different religions who must stand up and speak out on behalf of the hungry, the homeless, the poor, the oppressed and downtrodden, and the voiceless ones. If they fail to do so then their faiths deserve to be consigned to the limbo of the utterly irrelevant and useless. To champion the cause of the weak may bring the wrath of the powerful on those who do but we should not let that deter us.

And what of peace? All major faiths teach that the transcendent reality wills that all should live in harmony and peace. Very few religions teach as an article of faith, the desirability of war. War is a hostile environment for the enhancement of life. Consequently, all men and women of faith should be active promoters of peace and justice. There is war, the threat of war because there is injustice. There is poverty in many parts of the world because governments spend staggering amounts on weapons of destruction and death. We learn that every minute 30 children die for want of food and cheap vaccines. Yet every minute the world’s military budget absorbs US $1.3 million of public funds. The cost of a new nuclear submarine equals the annual education budgets of 23 developing countries with 160 million school age children.

It is a madness that countries can be counted great because of their highly developed technology of destruction and death and yet be short on compassion and caring for the weak. It is possible for the world to feed itself adequately if there is but the political will to do so. In 1983 USA farmers were paid to take 100 million acres of cropland out of production. In the meantime 450 million in the world are starving. The USSR spent US $1.3 trillion between 1960 and 1981 for military purposes, but ranks 25th among 142 countries in socio-economic performance. To be concerned for justice and human dignity as well as for peace are not-optional extras which we may take up or abandon as the whim strikes us. It is integral to being a religious person for the consummation to which most of our faiths look is a condition of unalloyed bus’s, fellowship, unity and true joy. Peace is not the absence of war, peace – in biblical terms means wholeness, fullness of life, it means righteousness and justice. It means compassion and caring. It means fellowship and sharing. It means life enhancement and not life diminishment. It means all that makes for a fully developed humanity of persons whose dignity is respected and who know that they count and that they are not to be exposed to want and poverty and disease and ignorance, who will have security of tenure, who will participate in the decision making processes that matter, who will enjoy freedom of worship, of movement, of association and who will be protected from arbitrary arrest and other arbitrary excesses of power. In short they will be free human beings enjoying what the bible calls the glorious liberty of the children of God. That is the enterprise in which God wants to enlist our support. Isn’t it exhilarating?