In the tasty casserole that is theology there are many layers. Some layers tend to be more important than others, but to forget any one layer always lessens the whole. In theology, there are at least three layers: study, prayer, and action. I think all three are vitally important for theology to really be theology. But is one more important than the others?
The Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, Desmond Mpilo Tutu, while clearly a participant in the first two layers of theology as a profound thinker and educator and as a man of prayer, is perhaps best known as a theologian of action. Beginning in the late 1970s, he non-violently fought an unrelenting war on the injustice of apartheid, preaching peace and justice ex cathedra (as bishop of Johannesburg, Lesotho and finally Archbishop of Cape Town), and preaching from the streets, amongst the protesters, risking his life on nearly a daily basis for two decades until he saw apartheid fall. Immediately, he began working for reconciliation and forgiveness. He chaired what is arguably the most extraordinary committee every convened by a government, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is credited for preventing a race-war that would have destroyed South Africa and would have had devastating consequences for the entire continent. That work completed he moved on to champion the causes of eradicating HIV/AIDs and poverty in Africa, as well as continuing to call all people of the world to peace, forgiveness and reconciliation. How beautiful the feet of them who preach the Gospel of Peace.
His theological action, as well as his career as bishop was preceded by a successful academic career, but still much of his theological writing has grown out of his lifetime of theological activism. His themes are relatively simple, forgiveness, unconditional love, justice, peace and non-violence and yet these Sunday School ideas are lent a deep profundity by the power of Desmond Tutu’s witness. It is his right theological action that gives him authority to speak. Furthermore, these mainly ethical concerns of his are radically rooted in the theology of creation, anthropology, and Incarnation; all good Christian ethics is really theology, and all good theology leads to good Christian ethics.
One central and influential theological concept that Archbishop Tutu is credited with bringing to the attention of the Church is the African theological concept of Ubuntu. As Tutu puts it, Ubuntu means that “my humanity is inextricably bound up with yours, so that we can only be humans together.” There is a no more elegant theology of the Other than Ubuntu theology.
I fear–partly due to recent controversy–the idea of Ubuntu has been written off by some as a liberal theological fad that has no root in orthodoxy, but before one makes hasty judgements one should consult Archbishop Tutu on the subject both in books like No Future without Forgiveness and in some of his recorded interviews (ignore the ridiculous guy in the beginning), speeches, sermons (like one linked to the word “liberal” below), and lectures.
Archbishop Tutu is one of the main reasons I began to look into the Episcopal Church. He is, I believe, one of the finest examples of a Christian anywhere in the Church universal, and certainly in the Anglican communion. While many in the Anglican communion, especially many of his brothers in the global south, feel that he is entirely too liberal, and while many in the Episcopal church may even feel that he is a bit too traditional, and while many others think he is just plain silly, I feel that he is quintessentially Anglican. Aren’t we too liberal for some, and too traditional for others? Aren’t we the “laughing-stocks” of Christianity (praise be to God)?
His life and example point to one of the things that fascinates me very much about this church: how does the Anglican church–which for much of its history was an imperial church, spreading the imperial gospel of English domination–how does such a church produce remarkable men like Desmond Tutu? How did it turn itself around like that, from being a force of oppression and injustice to being one the most stalwart and proven means of their dismantling? The Anglican communion may not always have the recipe just right, but one must admit that those three elements of study, prayer and action are vividly present in this weird, troubled, and hopeful church. One should also admit that in Desmond Tutu the Anglican church has an incredible witness of God’s coming reign of peace and justice.