Jollity and laughter seem to well up in Desmond Tutu as much as any other emotion. Better, he has the gift for letting it out. The Anglican bishop, who is the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner and the general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, came to a reception in his honor in a monastic-like meeting room at the Washington Cathedral. For every one of the 20 r so guests, Tutu had a latitude of witty stories and wry comments that grew wider with joy in each telling.
Before the reception, in a late Sunday afternoon religious service that included a chorale prelude from Bach and prayers by an Islamic imam and a Buddhist venerable, Tutu delivered a 20-minute sermon. He spoke of God's love, man's hope and South Africa's racism. Between the sacred and profane, the bishop called on the 900 people in the pews to pray for the freedom of his homeland. After Tutu finished his sermon and walked in a procession down the central nave and beneath the cathedral's high-reaching clerestory, applause broke out.
Like Mother Teresa, Adolpho Perez Esquivel, Alva Myrdal, Mairead Corrigan and other recent winners of the Nobel Peace Prize who were not internationally hailed before their award, Tutu is taking advantage of his new prominence. In addition to speaking at the Washington Cathedral, the site of Martin Luther King's last sermon before his assassination, Tutu was asked to give testimony at a House subcommittee hearing specially convened for him.
The question about a freshly empowered voice like Tutu is not whether the Nobel enhances him but how much he enhances the Nobel. The answer is, plenty. Beneath his two public statements in Washington -- before church and state -- is a political and religious philosophy of cast-iron strength. It is on display in two collections of his writings: a 1981 book, "Crying in the Wilderness," and another published last month, "Hope and Suffering."
Both volumes (published by Eerdmans) show a man angry about the "vicious, evil, unchristian" racial policy in South Africa, a country of "casualties and disaster." To understand Tutu -- to value him as a leader who is not given to mere moral posturings -- it helps to be familiar with some of his Biblical mentors like the prophets Amos and Isaiah. The context of their anger, like Tutu's, was from close contact with the powerless and their suffering.
In early 1981, Tutu writes, blacks in South Africa "knew they were in trouble when their white compatriots went into transports of ecstatic delight and joy when Ronald Reagan won the U.S. presidential elections. Anything that pleases most white South Africans cannot fail to depress most blacks."
Tutu has an accurate fix on those Reagan officials who have been pleasing white South Africa: "I am unable to see what the U.S. has to show as a positive gain from South Africa for its policy of constructive engagement . . . Chester Crocker, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, made an extraordinary statement . . . He said that in the struggle between black and white in South Africa, the U.S. would not take sides. Admirable impartiality, but how can you be impartial in a situation of injustice and oppression? To be impartial and not to take sides is indeed to have taken sides already."
Much of Tutu's writing is generic with black consciousness. "In our African understanding, part of Ubantu -- being human -- is the rare gift of sharing. This concept of sharing is exemplified at African feasts even to this day, when people eat together from a common dish, rather than from individual dishes. That means a meal is indeed to have communion with one's fellows. Blacks are beginning to lose this wonderful attribute, because we are being inveigled by the excessive individualism of the West."
During the reception at the Washington Cathedral, Bishop Tutu went out of his way to have a personal exchange with everyone. Then the host, Bishop John Walker of Washington, asked his South African brother for some words for the whole group. Tutu used a metaphor of flowers. "You wilt," he said of the South African government, "when you are among those who keep suppressing. You blossom when you are among those who keep affirming."
Tutu gestured toward Walker and the other guests, most of whom were being renewed by the peacemaker to make black South Africa's struggle for freedom their own.