Thursday, November 12, 2009

Desmond Tutu and the Christian "Yes" to Life

As an anecdote to the melancholy musings of Simone Weil, I looked up some speeches and interviews of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Aside from being extremely moved by his commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation, with which we are all familiar, I was especially struck by his manners, affect and humor as the pure embodiment of joy. Indeed, one has to ask the question, what is Desmond Tutu laughing about? Born and raised in the evil regime of apartheid, Desmond Tutu watched his people experience daily humiliation, imprisonment, torture and abuse. Even after the extraordinary moment of liberation for black South Americans and the initiative of peace and reconciliation, South Africa is still plagued with corruption, the AIDS epidemic, and violence. But it is clear from the speech he gave at UC Santa Barbara that Archbishop Tutu laughs, tells jokes and dances - in fact, much more than the average white Americans who have not come even close to experiencing the evils that he has witnessed in his lifetime.

Christians so often fall into trap of warm-bath pseudo-theology (how nice it is to be told once again by some feeble-minded preacher that "God loves us all!" "Jesus loves us all!") that it would be easy to mistake Desmond Tutu's radical Christian rhetoric of hope as one of false optimism. But there is nothing easy about Archbishop Tutu's claim that God loves Bin Laden and George W. Bush, too. It is not easy because he is not saying that they are not guilty. Nothing can be farther from the truth than the claim that Desmond Tutu is indulging the brutal white oppressors. He makes it clear that he is far from granting them innocence. In fact, the concept of forgiveness would have no meaning if the forgiven person were to be found innocent. Responsibility being an urgent question in modernity (nowadays it seems that every criminal has the right to his or her crime based on his or her childhood traumas and adolescent misadventures), Desmond Tutu is holding the criminals responsible yet holding open the door.

Desmond Tutu's feat lies in his application in the political realm of two Christian notions that on the surface look like the most a-political notions of all: forgiveness and confession. These two notions do not sound as political as "the first will be last, the last will be first," the notion that makes the Christian roots of socialist revolutions unmistakable. Both forgiveness and confession are about surrendering power and rights. To forgive, as Desmond Tutu puts it beautifully, is to jettison one's rights to revenge. To confess, one admits one is wrong: both in the confessional booth or in mass, one is asked to kneel in order to display a physical sign of humility. Both confession and forgiveness give away power, which is why they are much more unpopular than their weaker kin, namely justice.

The word "justice" holds much more power in secular society, both as a name for our legal apparatus and for our so-called humanitarian activities, which often has "social justice" written all over their brochures. One wonders if the enormous satisfaction we get out of watching television shows about the court or the police has also to do with the momentary exhilaration of watching the bad guys get caught, prosecuted, etc. What is radical about Desmond Tutu's theology and political action is that he wants to go beyond justice, because he knows that justice does not restore equilibrium and harmony. There is almost something ecological about his way of handling human affairs: the issue is not so much who are the evil-doers, who threw the poison into the river, but how do we get the poison out of our community so that we all may drink good water again.

Without in any way disagreeing with Hannah Arendt's assessment of Adolf Eichmann as a buffoon, I wonder how the 1200 or so pages of his testimony (the inanity of which made Arendt laugh out loud instead of cry) would have been different if he were asked not to defend himself but to confess. I wonder if Arendt could have been spared her enormous irritation with the sob stories of victims (the very irritation that got her in trouble with the Jewish community all over), if they were not asked to perform their victimhood, if it was acknowledged as the premise of the trial that they had been hurt. Obviously this would not have been a conceivable model for the Jerusalem court, but is there any surprise that the defendant should always be someone who closes oneself off to the accusing party, for defense means no other than closing one's fortress, closing one to truth? Is there any surprise that a system based on justice and retribution would require that the accusing party to demonstrate their grievances?

Desmond Tutu's radicality lies in his transformation of the system of justice from the defendant-plaintiff model to the confessor-forgiver model, whose political value lies in its openness. What is interesting is that Archbishop Tutu's "political ecology" is only possible with a notion of evil that is not attached to a person but is something that takes a person hostage. It is a system that assumes that all human beings strive for life and the good the way plants strive for the sun and water. Nietzsche famously accuses Christianity of slave mentality, and whether he is right or not, he is calling attention to the inherent pessimism and perhaps masochism in a religion that is based on the idea of turning the other cheek. But in Desmond Tutu, we are reminded that if the good is on the side of the oppressed, it is also on the side of joy, harmony and peace. While the image of Eden might be a dangerous trap for the kind of utopian thinking that leads to bloody revolutions, it can easily be mobilized in Desmond Tutu's ecological ethics as the imaginary in comparison to which oppression and evil cannot but appear as an aberration. Eden, as an image of flourishing, of life, of harmony, is not so much our dream but "God's dream for us." Maybe the image of Eden is the secret to Desmond Tutu's seemingly perpetual smile, a smile that is as warm and genuine as it is enigmatic.

In listening to Desmond Tutu, one is struck by the sense of exaltation that permeates all his speeches and interviews. The use of metaphors such as an eagle being let free off the cliff, to "fly, fly, fly" certainly presents a very different image of Christianity than the "no to life." If only Nietzsche could have seen, instead of depressed, myoptic, crouching German Protestants of the 19th century, this African elder who laughs, who tells jokes, who shouts "Ubuntu! Ubuntu!" who leads his people away from violence, revenge and destruction and into the joy of life. No doubt, Nietzsche is right that Christianity as a tradition is itself largely responsible for secularism, disenchantment and the nihilism that ensues in the west. But it is perhaps not so much the presence of Christianity but the absence of "Ubuntu," the being of person through other persons, that made the white man so depressed, alone and full of resentment. Perhaps this is all the more reason that the white man needs the man of color to bring him back his humanity. The individualist white man needs the black man to teach him once again that life is joy only when it is not simply "my life" but the life principle itself that every being shares.

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