Being (W)holy Selfish with Desmond Tutu

Greg Marcar is the Harold Turner Research Fellow at the Center for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago

In Being Disciples, Rowan Williams offers a meditative aside on his experience of Desmond Tutu and the reflections about the nature of self-love which arose from these encounters:

I have a theory, which I started elaborating after I had met Archbishop Desmond Tutu a few times, that there are two kinds of egotists in this world. There are egotists that are so in love with themselves that they have no room for anybody else, and there are egotists that are so in love with themselves that they make it possible for everybody else to be in love with themselves…They have learned to sense some of the joy that God takes in them. And in that sense Desmond Tutu manifestly loves being Desmond Tutu; there’s no doubt about that. But the effect of that is not to make me feel frozen or shrunk; it makes me feel that just possibly, by God’s infinite grace, I could one day love being Rowan Williams in the way that Desmond loves being Desmond Tutu… [1].

William’s comments here are characteristically illuminating. In the personality of Desmond Tutu, he suggests, we find a form of self-love that facilitates the flourishing of others. The context of Williams’ remarks is his broader discussion (in the same chapter of Being Disciples) on “holiness.” The holiness exhibited by Jesus involves going to where it’s most difficult for human beings to go. Rather than involving a separation from the world, holiness on this view entails the fullest involvement with it. Similarly, true holiness does not render others alienated from the holy person or from themselves but conversely enables them to work towards their own flourishing in renewed hope of God’s activity within their lives. As Williams writes, “holy people… actually make you feel better than you are…the holy person somehow enlarges your world, makes you feel more yourself, opens you up, affirms you” [2]. In this post, I will aim to sketch some further contours of Tutu’s holy and self-giving selfishness from his own writings.

Williams does not straightforwardly say that Desmond Tutu loved Desmond Tutu; rather, he says that Desmond Tutu loved “being” Desmond Tutu. This sense of “being” the person that you are, I suggest, is meant by Williams in the same sense as he discusses being Disciples, i.e., as “a state of being.” In his article on Christianity and human rights, Tutu observes that to “be” a person at all is to have the capacity “to choose to love or not to love, to be able to reject or to accept the offer of the divine love, to be free to obey or to disobey. That is what constitutes being a moral agent” [3]. Tutu locates the crux of human personhood in the ability to love, which is also the source of human agency.

Another dimension to Tutu’s thought which deserves highlighting is his insistence upon relationality as the true ground of human identity. Speaking of the concept of “Umbuntu” to his moral anthropology, Tutu remarks that

Umbuntu is the essence of being human. It speaks of how my humanity is caught up and bound up inextricably with yours. It says, not as Descartes did, “I think, therefore I am” but rather, “I am because I belong.” I need other human beings in order to be human [4].

Put simply, Tutu’s theological egoism did not make him an individualist.

This maximally outward-facing, relational way of being oneself within the world is illustrated most clearly by Tutu’s stance towards injustice and oppression wherever it happens to manifest. Tutu is deservedly famous for his fight against the injustices of apartheid in South Africa throughout the second half of the Twentieth Century. Considering the scale of apartheid’s injustice and the monumental task of opposing it, it would have been understandable if Tutu had limited his attentions to this issue. For Tutu, however, to neglect any dimension of human injustice would be to have neglected the whole. In his “Forward” piece to The Global Guide to Animal Protection (edited by Andrew Linzey), Tutu compares the task of opposing injustice to “fighting a multiheaded hydra.” One cannot rest with having only tackled one head of justice, as whenever “one for of injustice appears to be vanquished, another takes its place” [5]. As Tutu exhibited throughout his life, to truly oppose one form of injustice and prejudice is to oppose all forms. Just as Tutu’s holy egoism did not render his outlook individualistic or inward-looking, so too it stands diametrically opposed to any moral blind spots or indifference concerning the suffering of sentient beings.

While the task of opposing injustice and championing human rights continues, I have no doubt that Tutu still loves being Desmond Tutu, in and through being with God.

[1] Rowan Williams, Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life (Eerdmans, 2016), 52.

[2] Ibid., 51.

[3] Desmond Tutu, “Religious Human Rights and the Bible” Emory International Law Review 10 (1996), p.66.

[4] Desmond Tutu, God Is Not a Christian: And Other Provocations, ed. John Allen (HarperCollins, 2014), p.22

[5] Desmond Tutu, “Foreword: Extending Justice and Compassion” In The Global Guide to Animal Protection, ed. Andrew Linzey (University of Illinois Press, 2013)

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