Thunderous applause filled the James Memorial Chapel at Union Theological Seminary (UTS) in New York City on May 16, as Desmond M. Tutu, Anglican archbishop emeritus of Cape Town, South Africa, became the 33rd recipient of the seminary's highest honor, the Union Medal.
The Union Medal is the seminary's equivalent of an honorary degree. It was established in 1991 to recognize people engaged in works of ministry in congregations, public service, government, business, education, and the arts. Previous medalists have included William Sloane Coffin, Jr.; Andrew Young; George Kennan; Gardner Taylor; Kurt Masur; Kim Dae-Jung; Marian Wright Edelman; and Judith and Bill Moyers.
"Friends, I am deeply touched by this prestigious honor," said Tutu. "Thank you so very much."
In conferring the award, Union recognized the spiritual leadership Tutu provided in the dismantling of South Africa's apartheid system; his pure stance of non-violence; his relentless quest to eradicate poverty, ignorance, and disease; and his visionary efforts to foster societal healing and democratic ideals.
"Archbishop Tutu is one of the most extraordinary leaders of our timeâ€”a peacemaker-activist, a truth-teller, a prophetic voice against the evil of apartheid, and a committed advocate for an inclusive church," said Union's president, Joseph C. Hough, Jr. "He is an inspiration for all who struggle against inequity and injustice everywhere. We are doubly pleased to welcome Archbishop Tutu at this particular time, since he could not be here last September when we hosted his fellow International Peace Councilors for their week of meetings at Union."
Scriptures had resonance
In his address entitled "The Explosiveness of the Scripture," Tutu said he accepts such honors "representatively" because he understands it is actually for the millions who fought apartheid, won and "demonstrated extraordinary magnanimity in choosing to forgive their oppressors rather than seeking revenge."
Tutu spoke of the clarity of being a Christian during apartheid, saying "it was easier to be a Christian in our set up than in yours, for it is quite clear where a Christian should stand."
"You can't suffer from a crisis of identity," he said. "[However] in situations where things are all right, it is often difficult to know what is unambiguously distinctively Christian."
Tutu said they "knew existentially if not cerebrally that we are nothing, we have nothing, [and] we can do nothing apart from God."
"The Scriptures really come alive because much of their original audiences were those who were being clobbered "a people in exile" so the Scriptures had to have a special resonance for those who were being roughed up good and proper," he said.
Power in the Word
Describing the Bible as "explosive, dynamite in situations of injustice and oppression," he said the "worst thing you could do when you wanted to oppress people was to give them the Bible."
"When people have been told they don't matter, they are inferior by reason of their race or skin color, nothing could be more subversive of that dispensation than the declaration that each person is created in the image of God, is a God carrier, is God's viceroy, [and] their worth is not dependent on something as extrinsic as ethnicity or skin color, which are but biological irrelevancies," he said.
He said God's love is present from the beginning and that "God does not love me because I am loveable; I am loveable only and precisely because God loves me."
"Biblical truth could never be an opiate to the people, for it spoke of a God who was notoriously biased, biased in favor of the poor, of the despised, of the weak, who rejected as abomination a religion no matter how elaborate and meticulous its ritual and worship if it did not issue in a concern for those who turned out to be God's favorites, the orphan, the widow and the alien," he said.
'We were created for togetherness'
In the midst of apartheid, which expounded separatism and alienation, Tutu said, "we were able to declare that the Bible and Christianity asserted unequivocally that we were created for togetherness, for family, for harmony; that in Christ there was neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek; that this Jesus was our peace."
"He broke down the middle wall of partition and describing his impending death on the Cross, which John described as Jesus being glorified, said, 'If I be lifted up will draw all to me,'" said Tutu. "He did not say some, he said all are insiders, all belong white, black, red, yellow, Arab, Jew, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, young old, male, female, rich, poor, gay, lesbian and so-called straight all belong."
"Would we continue to spend such obscene amounts on budgets of death and destruction knowing, as we do, that only a small fraction of those budgets would ensure that God's children, our brothers and sisters everywhere would have enough food to eat, clean water to drink, would have a good education and a decent home and affordable health care?" he asked.
Tutu said that the world will "never win the so-called war on terror as long as there are conditions that make people desperate."
"And if we really believed that our worth is intrinsic, not dependent on extrinsic attributes, would we really get so hot under the collar, threatening to breach communion over sexual orientation, because like ethnicity, like skin color and gender, it is a variable that does not affect the worth of a person?" he asked.
He said he "cannot stand silent when persons are penalized about something I believe they can do nothing about--”their sexual orientation."
"I do not believe that the Jesus who was on the side of the weak and the persecuted would accept the treatment generally being meted out by us Christians to an already persecuted minority," Tutu said. "Inasmuch as you have done or not done it to the least of my sisters and brothers, you have done or not done it to me? Who are these least?"
UTS, founded in 1836, is an independent, ecumenical graduate school of theology with the mission to educate men and women for ministries in the Christian faith, service in contemporary society, and study of the great issues of our time.