AUM professor reflects on appointment of Archbishop Tutu, humanitarian hero


Bishop Desmond Tutu died on December 26, 2021 at the age of 90.

Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, Tutu helped lead the struggle against apartheid in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s and chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990s.

Dedicated to non-violence, he promoted the idea of ​​a “rainbow nation” in which people of all colors recognized each other’s humanity. As one of the world’s most admired humanitarians, Tutu spoke on behalf of oppressed peoples around the world and was particularly known for his haunting oratory and playful sense of humor. In many ways, he was the South African version of Martin Luther King Jr.

In the fall of 2009, Archbishop Tutu was nominated for the Templeton Prize, an award honoring those whose “exemplary achievements” in science or spirituality have benefited humanity. I was asked to write a letter of support for Tutu’s appointment and gladly accepted.

My letter read as follows:

Dear Ms. Marchand and the Templeton Prize Committee:

I am writing to support the nomination of Archbishop Desmond Tutu for the 2010 Templeton Prize. As a student and professor of South African history, I have followed Archbishop Tutu’s career over the past twenty-five. last years. I am also the author of Desmond Tutu: A Biography (Greenwood Press, 2004).

Desmond Mpilo Tutu is one of the greatest humanitarians in the world. As general secretary of the South African Council of Churches and later as Archbishop of Cape Town, Tutu played a pivotal role in ending apartheid, South Africa’s legalized system of racial discrimination. He urged black and white South Africans to lay down their arms, recognize each other’s humanity and forge a common future in which all citizens are treated equally before the law. In one of the most polarized societies in the world, he has consistently advocated non-violence and dialogue. He articulated a vision of a “rainbow nation” in which all South Africans could share the land they loved. In 1994, Tutu’s vision became reality when apartheid gave way to a new democracy.

Without the leadership of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, apartheid could still exist. South Africa could easily have been stuck in a deadly deadlock like parts of the Middle East or embroiled in a racial civil war. Instead, he has become a beacon of hope for the rest of the world.

After the end of apartheid, Archbishop Tutu promoted national healing by chairing the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Instead of offering a blanket amnesty to apartheid-era officials or holding Nuremberg-style war crimes tribunals, the commission implemented a historic compromise. It offered conditional amnesty to those who had committed human rights violations and encouraged victims to testify of their pain and suffering. Tutu and his fellow commissioners sought to heal the wounds of the past and enable South Africans to build a new future together after decades of civil war. If someone without Archbishop Tutu’s moral authority had been appointed to head the commission, the whole exercise could have collapsed, and with it, South Africa’s hopes for a peaceful future.

After a successful career in public service, Tutu retired as Archbishop in 1996 and presented the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission a few years later. Its job was apparently done – South Africa was a democracy and the truth commission had accomplished its mission. Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997, Tutu could easily have stepped into the shadows and declared his life’s work accomplished.

But Bishop Tutu never opted for the easy way. Since his official retirement, he has redoubled his efforts to promote peace and reconciliation in the world. He has been a key player in The Elders, a group of respected humanitarians working to improve conditions in some of the world’s hotspots. He traveled frequently to Northern Ireland to promote national healing and worked for peace in the Middle East. He created the Desmond Tutu Peace Center to encourage nonviolent change and train young people for future leadership positions. In addition to speaking to audiences around the world, Archbishop Tutu has published extensively, including An African Prayer Book (1995), No Future Without Forgiveness (1999) and God Has a Dream (2004).

Many of the Archbishop’s ideas have relevance beyond South Africa. Articulating the concept of “ubuntu”, an African philosophy of community spirit, Tutu reminded the world that “a person is a person through other people” and that humanity is interdependent. Tutu has repeatedly emphasized the intrinsic worth of all people. In his words, “God has a dream” that all people will recognize their common humanity, regardless of color, beliefs, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. Tutu is perhaps best known for his advocacy for forgiveness and for urging victims of human rights violations to embrace “restorative justice” rather than retaliation.

Now over seventy years old, the indomitable spirit of Archbishop Tutu is unwavering. He is always ready to stand up for what he thinks is right, even if his positions are controversial. He believes the clergy should be open to everyone, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. He spoke out against corruption in South Africa and boycotted a peace conference there when the Dalai Lama’s invitation was canceled by the South African government. He criticized the policies of the Israeli government, but defended the right of its citizens to live in peace and security. At the root of all his statements is a dedication to peace, justice and human rights.

In the words of Sir John Templeton, Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a true “entrepreneur of the spirit”. With his unwavering faith in “God’s dream”, he embodies the best instincts of all of us.

I therefore recommend Archbishop Tutu for the 2010 Templeton Prize with great enthusiasm.


The Templeton Prize honors individuals whose exemplary accomplishments advance Sir John Templeton’s philanthropic vision: to harness the power of science to explore the deepest questions of the universe and the place and purpose of humanity within it .

Archbishop Tutu received the Templeton Prize in 2013.

Steven Gish is professor of history at Auburn University in Montgomery. He is the author of Desmond Tutu: A Biography.

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