Mogan: Desmond Tutu, source of change

Tom Mogan

“We are free today because of you!” These words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, directed towards college students in the United States, speak profoundly to the possibilities of social change. Tutu has credited the anti-apartheid activism found on many college campuses during the 1980s and 90s with helping to bring down an evil form of government in South Africa. In a time when governments around the world try to solve problems through violence and war, it is particularly instructive to reflect on the lessons learned through one of the great liberation movements of our time. Desmond Tutu’s visit presents us with this opportunity.

Simply put, Archbishop Desmond Tutu is one of the most important and beloved religious leaders of the twentieth century. He began his ministry as an Anglican priest in South Africa, struggling against the inhumane system of racial segregation and discrimination known as apartheid. His tireless efforts on behalf of nonviolent resistance to apartheid led to his selection as the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner. In presenting the award to Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize selection committee cited a remarkable incident that speaks to Tutu’s unrelenting belief in the power of nonviolence. When innocent women and children were killed in a massacre in a suburb of Johannesburg, Tutu stood among the angry victims and said, “Do not hate, let us choose the peaceful way to freedom.”

After the fall of apartheid in 1994, Tutu was asked by former South African president Nelson Mandela to lead the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a committee designed to investigate the abuses that took place under apartheid. After four years of difficult testimony, the Commission’s first report concluded that apartheid represented a crime against humanity.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission now serves as a model for communities seeking to heal from injustices stemming from racial, religious and ethnic discrimination. In his 1998 book “No Future Without Forgiveness,” Tutu applies to everyone the lessons learned in this process when he asserts that the “wholeness of relationships is something that we need in our families and friendships, for restoration heals and makes whole while retribution only wounds and divides us from one another.”

In addition to recognizing the power of forgiveness, Desmond Tutu’s visit presents an opportunity for all of us to consider the difference between performing charity work and working for social change. The performance of acts of charity without an examination of the underlying causes of poverty, inequality and racism will rarely lead to the type of social change that Tutu espouses. We need not look any further than our own campus for opportunities to educate ourselves on these global issues and to act in solidarity with those oppressed. Mission service trips and service learning courses are two examples of ways in which you can begin your journey toward the creation of a more just and more humane world.

Indeed, the student anti-apartheid movement demonstrated that real social change is possible. In this spirit of hope, we will honor the life and work of Archbishop Desmond Tutu by presenting him with the Adela Dwyer/St. Thomas of Villanova Peace Award on Wednesday. This is an important moment in the history of Villanova University, a time to share a few moments with a man who exudes optimism and hope for the future. So, take advantage of this incredible opportunity presented before you and be prepared to be moved and, hopefully, be inspired to act!