Ethics & Christian living

The grace and truth of Desmond Tutu

This week the world said goodbye to one of its most attractive personalities.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu became a globally-recognised figure in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.  His faith, passion, bravery and humour inspired the world.

I remember reading Tutu’s 1999 book No Future Without Forgiveness on my honeymoon over 20 years ago. Re-reading it this week, I have realised how much the book influenced my thinking about grace and truth. 

Truth and reconciliation

It focusses on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa which was established following the first democratic elections. The new President, Nelson Mandela, asked Tutu to Chair the commission.

The Commission had a daunting task because the apartheid years had left a huge catalogue of unresolved crimes. Scores of activists had disappeared and been murdered by Police and security agencies. There were countless accusations against those who those who had abused their authority, as well as accusations against anti-apartheid activists. 

Limits of legal process

The new government acknowledged that legal processes would be limited in what they could achieve. ‘Normal’ criminal proceedings would be lengthy, exorbitantly expensive and would almost certainly never get to the truth about what happened to those tortured and murdered during those years. 

They looked at Nuremburg trials which followed the defeat of Nazi Germany in the WW2 and knew they had to take a different approach to help re-build a shattered country.

In contrast, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission would offer an amnesty to anyone who was willing to fully confess the facts of the politically motivated crime they had committed. 


The book profiles some of the harrowing testimonies that the Commission heard. Perpetrators of the most appalling crimes came forward to share the details of what they did. Partners and family members got to hear what actually happened to their loved ones.

The depth of anguish caused by State-sanctioned, racist violence is hard to imagine. It takes bold conviction for anyone to talk of forgiveness in such a context.


But No Future Without Forgiveness does exactly this. And in doing so it conveys a bold example of how Christian thinking can be applied in public life. 

Tutu’s long years of activism against the evilness of apartheid was anchored deep in his belief in God’s grace to all people:

‘What endows human beings, every single human being without exception, with infinite worth…is the fact that each one of us has been created in the image of God…This is what filled some of us to fight for justice and freedom. We were inspired not by political motives but by our biblical faith. The Bible turned out to be the most subversive book imaginable in a situation of injustice and oppression.’

Broad and radical

Tutu’s belief in God’s inclusive grace is matched by his profound commitment to truthfulness. Forgiveness, healing and reconciliation cannot happen without the truth being told, and inevitably, this often involves confrontation and conflict:

‘Forgiving and being reconciled are not about pretending that things are other than they are.  It is not about patting each other on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the degradation, the truth. It could even sometimes make the situation worse. It is a risky undertaking, but in the end is worthwhile because in the end there will be real healing from having dealt with the real situation.’

For Tutu this meant criticising oppression and violence when it was carried out by people of any colour or political perspective.  He was infuriated by the ANC’s attempts to censor the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report because of what it exposed.  As he put it:

‘Yesterday’s oppressed can quite easily become today’s oppressors’

Tutu’s example

Its good to quote Desmond Tutu and to celebrate his life and achievements. But its even better to take up something of his example.

Whilst few of us have public roles, all of us will be faced with the challenges of how to respond to conflict and pain. These difficulties scar and fracture our families, workplaces and communities.

Bitterness and ‘unforgiveness’ can be like a cancer that threatens and destroys what is good in our lives. In contrast, forgiveness can release and liberate us into wholeness.

Forgiveness cycle

In 2014, in collaboration with his daughter Mpho, Tutu wrote The Book of Forgiving. It includes a simple but profound 4-fold path of forgiveness which is helpful for anyone processing pain and injustice:

‘The Book of Forgiving’ Desmond & Mpho Tutu (p49)

I found this concept helpful when I was falsely accused of wrong-doing by a former colleague a few years ago and had to endure a week-long Employment Tribunal. In the end I was fully vindicated, but Tutu’s thinking and example helped me process what I went through. It helped me move on and be released from bitterness towards my accuser.

So lets be thankful for the amazing life and ministry of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. But even better, lets consider how we can put his example into practice.

6 thoughts on “The grace and truth of Desmond Tutu”

  1. Tutu – in the top ten of people we wish we’d met? (however awe-struck I’d have been!) And his commitment to forgiveness and truth seems to highlight the difficulty with the Jordan Peterson video you shared recently (though I admit I know him mostly through my kids’ listening & commentary). When a divisive figure appeals for an end to divisive talk it’s hard to know how to take it. By contrast with Tutu, it’s not (yet?) obvious that Peterson wants the truth to apply equally. I’d better work on that forgiveness cycle …


    1. thanks Steve. Yes, I must admit that since I posted that JP video and wrote that post, I have looked at his tweets more and read inflammatory comments which do not seem to be in the spirit of the video he did. Of course, many SAs would also see Tutu as a divisive figure – both the Whites who hated his theological/political perspective and some within the ANC who hated his criticism of them. Winnie Mandela alleged called him a ‘cretin’. But I would agree that the vast majority globally see him as a person who embodied forgiveness and reconciliation and this stands in contrast with Mr Peterson.


  2. Thank you Jon. I especially loved the 4-fold path of forgiveness you reproduced here. How simple, and how beautiful. It all comes down to the choices we make at the crucial times.


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