As Desmond Tutu steps out of public life, a particular memory comes to mind. It was at the WCC 2006 Assembly in Porto Alegre and I was sitting in an area that allowed me to watch those gathered in the hall – sometimes more interesting than the presentations.
Desmond Tutu contributed to a session on church unity. He received a universal standing ovation as he took his place to speak. The Assembly newspaper records: “A united church is no optional extra,” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu in an impassioned speech to the Assembly on Monday. It is “indispensable for the salvation of God’s world.” ... Apartheid had continued so long, he said, because the church was divided, and God called it to unity. “Jesus was quite serious when he said that God was our father, that we all belonged to one family, because in this family all, not some, are insiders.”
So far, so good. A spirited performance but not saying anything unexceptional for the occasion. But then he went on to spell out what ‘all are insiders’ meant. For example, “Bush, bin Laden, all belong, gay, lesbian, so-called straight - all belong and are loved, are precious.” All those people whom society and the church love to demonise and exclude. It seemed very clear from some faces at that point that they didn’t think that God ought to love such people and that such people were definitely on the outside of any family they belonged to.
Desmond Tutu left to a standing ovation but there were some who deliberately stayed seated. It’s an interesting thought that church representatives might protest against the idea that Jesus actually meant what he said. It was Tutu’s gift to be able to confront us with uncomfortable truths not with some economic or social theories but on the basis of the gospel.