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Archbishop Desmond Tutu: peacemaker in a diverse nation

The South African cleric discusses how the Bible guided his anti-apartheid struggle and shaped the words he wrote and spoke, now compiled in a book

TO most people, rainbows are nature's prisms of colors observed after a rainstorm.

To Desmond Tutu, the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, rainbows are symbols: of peace and reconciliation; of coming prosperity; and most of all, a symbol of what is possible in racially divided lands.

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``It is to say if this incredibly unlikely bunch of people in South Africa of different races, different cultures, different religions can begin to cohere as one community, then it must be the case that everywhere that will be something that can happen, that really all of us are ultimately the rainbow people of God,'' Dr. Tutu said in a recent interview in New York.

Yes, ``the rainbow people of God'' is part of the name of the archbishop's new book (``The Rainbow People of God: The Making of a Peaceful Revolution,'' see review, right), but it is also the way Tutu sees his fellow countrymen. ``At home in South Africa I have sometimes said in big meetings where you have black and white together: `Raise your hands!' Then I've said, `Move your hands,' and I've said, `Look at your hands - different colors representing different people. You are the rainbow people of God,' '' Tutu said in 1991 while preaching at the remote town of Tromso in Norway.

Behind Tutu's rainbow is the Bible. It sustained him through the dark days when it seemed that apartheid would always remain. The Bible's assertions ``are quite startling,'' he says. Startling? ``You know, the thing about being created in the image of God.''

This assertion he believes ``was the most subversive thing you could ever come up with'' since it refutes any claims of superior worth because of a biological attribute. But, for Tutu, the Bible did more than just destroy apartheid's racial superiority claims. It was a comforter. No matter how bleak the situation appeared, ``you didn't lose God's word, God was in charge.''

To Tutu, God is not neutral; rather, God is biased, ``always on the side of those who don't deserve it - the weak, the oppressed, but also the sinners.''

In fact, Tutu believes many Christians misunderstand their faith. ``We tend to turn the Christian religion into a religion of virtues,'' he explains, ``but it is a religion of grace - you become a good person because you are loved. You are not loved because you are good.''

Tutu considers the history of Christianity ``the goriest you can think of'' with countless wars between Christians. The wars and periods of intolerance lead him to declare, ``We [Christians] can't get on our high horse and make out we are better than other people.''

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As the apartheid years dragged on, Tutu became aware of how devastating racial separation was - not just for the oppressed, but for the oppressors. ``Their humanity was being destroyed,'' he recalls thinking. He told audiences, ``Black liberation is an absolutely indispensable prerequisite to white liberation - nobody will be free until we all are free.''

Tutu sees racial gulfs around the globe, not just in Africa. He points to Europe with its burgeoning neo-Nazi movement and to the United States where David Duke, with Ku Klux Klan ties, ran for governor of Louisiana. He urges citizens around the world to stand up to this racism. ``One of the things we learned was the interconnectedness of us all. Freedom is indivisible,'' he says.

A corollary involves wealth. ``You cannot be prosperous for your own account,'' he states. He advises the industrialized nations to forgive the debt of the African nations which are burdened by interest payments.

On a personal level, there have been peaks and valleys for Tutu. Perhaps one of his lowest points followed a probe into the affairs of the South African Council of Churches, when he found himself under fire for accepting an overseas gift that helped him buy a house. Tutu recalls that during cross-examination in a related case the lawyers made it appear that he had used his position to feather his nest. ``I was feeling rotten,'' he remembers.

A dejected Tutu was driving behind a bus, back to the black township of Soweto where he lived. ``The people in the back of the bus turned around and saw me,'' he recalls, ``and they waved madly and I realized then how much you owe to other people.'' He says one of the buoying aspects of life for an African is the larger sense of community.

Now, that community has been expanded to include South Africans of all races. In fact, Tutu believes the South African experience is ``a spectacular vindication of the fact the Lord said, `I want you to be one.' Not `I want you to be uniform. I want you to be one out of diversity.' '' This sounds a lot like a rainbow.

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