In honor of the development of The Desmond Tutu Center, a joint effort of Butler University and Christian Theological Seminary, Tutu spoke at Clowes Memorial Hall on Sept. 12. The Desmond Tutu Center will focus on developing leadership in social justice and reconciliation on campus and throughout Indianapolis. Rev. Allan Aubrey Boesak, a longtime friend of Tutu will lead the program, in position of the Desmond Tutu Chair for Peace, Global Justice, and Reconciliation Studies.
The night was a success in many aspects. There was a good turnout (over 2,100). Tutu was entertaining and inspiring in a simple, storytelling fashion. Butler even had the good sense to include a musical number featuring the Indianapolis Children’s Choir to get people with their “awwww” faces on to prepare for the 81-year-old Tutu’s lecture.
However, the night reminded me of seeing Bob Dylan in 2010. The music, the lyrics and the Dylan who delivered them was not what he had been and therefore performed and was applauded for what he had already accomplished, not what he is accomplishing.
Tutu is a great man, demanding respect for the work and life he has lived. But Tutu is no Dylan. His work is still relevant (no offense, Bob).
Even so, the night’s speech, material and the hoopla surrounding Tutu were more of a reminder of what Tutu has done for social justice and the figure that he has become in social consciousness, rather than focusing his power and influence on the positions he is currently taking on Syria and LGBT issues, of which little was mentioned.
Starting off on a somber note, Tutu asked for a moment of silence to memorialize of the Sept. 11 attacks and the Sept. 12 death of South African student leader Steve Biko but the night quickly took on classic Tutu character. With self-deprecating and “no-pun-intended” punning inducements of laughter breaking in between stories of reconciliation and his journey for racial justice in South Africa, Tutu spoke on the necessity of the center and the role of youth in social change.
“We would not have seen our freedom without your help,” he said, speaking of the American college students of whom protested to get Congress to impose sanctions against apartheid South Africa.
He continued his time with lighthearted banter and chuckling along with the audience on the contradiction of Biblical teachings vs. modern-day Christians. He spoke of a Universalist heaven, where Muslim, Jew, Christian, black, white, gay, straight will be welcomed and recognized as men and women created in God’s image. Only when prompted did Tutu speak on American involvement in Syria.
“I salute the American people because they learned a lesson in 2003, because now a majority of the American people are saying no to a military intervention,” Tutu said. “You Americans are some of the most generous creatures God ever created. Why don’t you drop food and not bombs?”
This was part of a one-minute answer to a Q&A following the lecture. This is the quote making headlines today. This is the leadership that should have been the focus of dedicating a center of peace and global reconciliation. Cutting the fluff of the night (c’mon we know Tutu is awesome), and speaking wisdom into the global issues of now would have been the true smashing of the champagne on the hull of the center and its mission.
Perhaps tonight was not the night of looking forward, but it will be interesting to see the direction that Boesak takes Butler and the Christian Theological Center’s endeavor into social justice. He will teach three courses per academic year: two at CTS this fall and one at Butler in spring 2014 and oversee community and national conferences that promote the values of the center, according to a Butler press release, promoting the idea that Indianapolis should be seen to the rest of the world as a global example of reconciliation.
“Indianapolis provides a distinctive setting in which the richness of Tutu’s life and work—religious, inclusive, prophetic, and reconciling—may be carried forward into the 21st century,” Butler President James M. Danko said to Fox 59. “The Desmond Tutu Center at Butler University and Christian Theological Seminary can distinctively honor the man and advance his legacy.”
But so often, as happened in at Clowes on Sept. 12, individuals focus on the name and not the ideals of the person it honors. Let’s hope this was just a necessary shake-off of pretension and soon the real work and spirit of Desmond Tutu can affect Indianapolis through his center.