ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU has said that he will ``sadly but very firmly'' return his honorary degrees, including one from Harvard, to those universities that have bestowed their recognition upon him - without, however, divesting their portfolios of holdings in South Africa. The archbishop is allowing the colleges a year to acknowledge their inconsistency, and repair it. What student being granted a diploma this spring by gracious but self-assured academic eminences in black robes will not find a small pleasure in the university being the one graded and placed on probation?
The archbishop is the most serious of men, but part of his charm is that he retains a bit of the personality of a mischievous schoolboy. There is a prankish delight in the perfect symmetry of the exchange he threatens. The universities admit him to the community of the educated; he excludes them from the community of the morally committed.
After confronting apartheid hard-liners, the archbishop is handling American liberals with a little neat jiu-jitsu - and one hand tied behind his back. He is, in effect, telling the universities, the self-proclaimed repositories of civilization and high values: You're trying to resolve your guilt on the cheap by giving me an honorary degree, patting me on the head, and declaring: ``You're doing really wonderful work down there. Keep it up.'' Well, if I have to return the degree, I'm saying: ``You're not doing such wonderful work up here. Put up or shut up.''
As usual, Dr. Tutu is the most skillful of protesters - a gentle master at the art of public embarrassment. He knows just how to use the church as his stage and play the clerical costume for all it is worth. But he is not merely pitting one institution against another here. He is staging his ingenious little boycott as an individual - a protestant in the ultimate sense of private conscience.
He understands that to accept honors is to accept the moral authority - the honorableness - of the society bestowing the honor. One kneels to be knighted, and in so doing, acknowledges one's subservience even while improving one's status. By returning a degree, if he must, the archbishop will restore his power to judge the institution, and by the very act, exercise that power fully - as an equal.
The archbishop, with all due publicity, is playing a modern game - the agile and passionate individual vs. the sluggish and confused corporate dragon. He is fighting the institution of apartheid, and all the institutions that abet it, with every strategy of civil disobedience known to a contemporary activist.
But he is also a minister, and no matter how urgent he takes his social and political task to be, it is clearly part of what he sees to be a larger mission, and he makes us see this too, or at least feel it. Beyond the immediate necessity of abolishing apartheid - with a minimum of bloodshed for those who have already suffered cruelty enough - there remains a world of unnumbered injustices, countless atrocities. What can one man or woman do about that?
Tutu speaks for the efficacy of the witness rather than the activist who would replace one ideology, one system, with another. He concedes, while taking his stand, that honest and thoughtful countrymen disagree about the effectiveness of sanctions against South Africa. But one must act, one must speak out, however imperfectly, else how can one's prayer be connected to one's life? This is his imperative that extends outside the particularities of his own history.
On the Sunday after Tutu delivered his ultimatum to the universities, the minister preaching at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard observed that Christianity is a ``vagrant religion.'' His sermon had nothing to do with Tutu - and everything. By ``vagrant religion'' he seemed to mean that every Christian wanders alone with his conscience, like a prophet in the desert. But the knowledge that others are in the same predicament makes all the difference - with some of those others even serving as models. By taking his ``vagrant'' positions with so much reason, passion, and wit, Tutu offers courage, good cheer, and, yes, a sort of companionship to all pilgrim-hoboes. A Wednesday and Friday column