by Allister Sparks & Mpho Tutu
HarperOne. 368 pages
reviewed by CAMERON BYRD
Toward the end of this book, written on the occasion of Bishop Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday, the authors raise this question: “What kind of person do we have here in this humble high school teacher who became a lukewarm priest and eventually grew into a turbulent peace activist and Nobel Laureate (1984) and is now entering his octogenarian years not just as a man for all seasons but for all faiths and all humanity?”
This is the question that authors Allister Sparks, a South African journalist, and Mpho Tutu, Bishop Tutu’s youngest daughter, who became an Episcopal priest, answer so lovingly in this portrait of a humble man who wanted to become a medical doctor but could not afford the tuition, and instead became an Anglican priest and the first black archbishop of Capetown, South Africa. While he never became a physician, he did become one of the prime healers of his nation, ridding South Africa of the disease of apartheid.
This portrait of Tutu invites us to share the journey of one who was full of compassion, love and forgiveness and who, in his fight against apartheid, saw himself not as a political leader but as a servant of God, filling in the gap while Nelson Mandela and others were imprisoned by the South African regime.
Born in South Africa in 1931 of a father who was a schoolteacher and a mother who cleaned and cooked for a school for the blind, Tutu rose to become one of the greatest moral leaders not only in South Africa but in the world. What comes through in this book is that he was a reluctant liberationist, preferring the more contemplative life, but circumstances in his country thrust him into the struggle for freedom.
The book tells of some moments in his life that were pivotal for him and where he had to take a stand against the brutality and dehumanization of his fellow citizens. At Fort Hare University, for instance, he literally threw himself on students who were about to be beaten and shot in order to prevent their injury and potential death. Particular attention needs to be paid to how his liberationist, incarnational theology and the African Ubuntu (a person is a person through other persons) philosophy informed his political activism, rather than the reverse. The authors also document how prayer and humor energized him to speak truth to the powers and principalities of his day, South African Presidents P.W. Botha and F.W. de Klerk and U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who pursued a policy of “constructive engagement” toward South Africa’s apartheid regime in the early 1980s.
Interspersed throughout the book are photographs of Tutu and reflections written by those who knew and worked with him, including family and friends, Nelson Mandela, Bono, the Dalai Lama and Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Joyce Piliso-Seroke, South African national secretary of the YWCA and a member of the Tutu-led Truth and Reconciliation Commission, wrote in her reflection: “ I just wanted him to touch me and I feel that Desmond, who is a man of God, has touched me.” You will feel similarly after reading this biography of this magnificent man.
CAMERON BYRD is a teaching elder of National Capital Presbytery and a professor at Howard Divinity School in Washington.