The death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the age of 90 is a significant event for many in the world and in the Church, and the eulogies have flooded in. A hero of the anti-apartheid movement, it is hard to understate his political significance – especially of course for South Africa, but also throughout the world.
He was a winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1984, an ally of Nelson Mandela and the first black Archbishop of Cape Town. His role in leading the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was crucial. The fact that South Africa did not descend into a vengeful bloodbath was to some extent due to him. He also showed tremendous courage in criticising the ANC when it descended into factionalism and corruption.
Those who met him spoke of how kind and humble he was towards them. In addition to this, his effervescent personality and his sense of humour and fun endeared him to many people. So much so that his fellow Episcopal priest Michael Battle in his book Desmond Tutu: a Spiritual Biography of South Africa's Confessor argued that he should be made a living saint.
After his death leaders of both Church and State throughout much of the world queued up to offer their praise. In the UK Boris Johnson, Justin Welby, the Queen, Keir Starmer and many others joined in.
It seems as though everyone praised him. And therein lies the problem. When the whole world praises you – including those who hate Christ and his Church – then beware. Jesus foretold that his disciples would face trouble and persecution in this world. He also gave this stark warning - "Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets" (Luke 6:46).
Is it possible for us to have a more balanced assessment before we appoint the archbishop as the next saint?
Without taking away from any of the above there are some troubling aspects in Tutu's life.
At a personal level he was no Mother Teresa – his office enabled him to live in a mansion and travel the world. He educated his children overseas. He fitted well into that celebrity world - although to be fair to him he seemed also to remain a 'man of the people', for example allowing poor black children to swim in his episcopal swimming pool.
I am more concerned about the impact of his political and theological views, though.
Take for example his treatment of Winnie Mandela. She was the leader of a 'football club' which used violence, rape and murder – including the practice of 'necklacing' – putting rubber tires filled with petrol round victims' necks before setting them on fire. She was brought before the Truth and Reconciliation Committee to give account for the murders of a 14-year-old boy called Stompie Seipei, and Abu Asvat, a Soweto doctor.
Tutu, after calling her a 'great person', said her greatness would be enhanced if she apologised. She kind of apologised, stating that 'things went horribly wrong' – and she walked free.
Contrast that with his treatment of Tony Blair after the Iraq war when he refused to even sit down with him and called for both Blair and Bush to be tried for war crimes in the Hague. No Truth and Reconciliation for them. You don't have to agree with either Blair or Bush to see that it's hard to square Tutu's effusive praise for Winnie Mandela with this condemnation.
But it was his attitude to Israel which has really taken the shine off his halo. He likened Israel to Nazi Germany as an apartheid state, and was even so crass as to suggest that the gas chambers provided a "neater death" than South African apartheid.
He was the patron of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre which views Israel as the oppressor, conveniently ignoring the fact that Israel is a democratic nation, unlike the surrounding Islamic countries that are seeking to destroy it.
The harm that Tutu did by referring to Israel as an apartheid state has been enormous – especially since at the same time he kept relatively silent about the anti-democratic and anti-Christian regimes seeking to destroy Israel.
Theologically his views on Christ and the Bible were more aligned with Western liberal Protestantism, with its imperialistic attempt to impose Western progressive values on both Africa and the worldwide Church. For example, he wrote a foreword to Gene Robinson's In the Eye of the Storm which fully supported Robinson's heretical views and stated that he was 'proud to belong to the same Church as he'. Unusually for an African bishop, Tutu supported all the Western progressive causes – the LGBTQ agenda, euthanasia and abortion. Do saints support killing children in the womb?
There have been numerous quotes cited by people in the past days which are supposed to reflect the Christian wisdom of the archbishop. Two in particular have been doing the rounds.
The first is, "We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven. God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are quite low."
While the first part is certainly true, the latter is cute – but biblical nonsense. God's standards are incredibly high. In fact, in his eyes there is none good, no not one (Mark 10:17, Psalm 14:3). Without holiness no one shall see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14) Jesus even told a seeker that without the radical rebirth of the Holy Spirit of God no one could see the Kingdom of God (John 3:3).
The second is, "When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible, and we had the land. They said, 'Let us pray.' We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible, and they had the land."
It's a neat soundbite but like all caricatures, although it contains an element of truth, it is distorted in its simplicity. It was not the missionaries who took the land from the Africans while the Africans were praying. Indeed, it could be argued that it was the missionaries who helped open the eyes of the Africans especially through education. Both Mandela and Tutu were educated in church schools – as were many other African leaders. But sadly, Western progressives prefer simplistic memes which confirm their prejudices rather than the complexities of historical truth.
Most people are complex and Tutu is no exception. It is foolish to lionise or demonise him. We can appreciate his courage, leadership and political significance while at the same time not accepting him as a prophet or spiritual guide. In biblical terms all the Lord's people are saints – the holy ones called to belong to Christ (1 Corinthians 1:2). But all of us are also sinners (1 John 1:8) – and we won't be completely made whole until we get to heaven (Revelation 14:13). It is not for us to make the judgements that only the Judgement Day will reveal (Acts 17:31). The Lord knows those who are his. (2 Timothy 2:19).
Meanwhile those of us who are left on this earth will serve it best by preparing for heaven, loving, serving and following Christ, his people and his world. Happy New Year.