Holy Innocents and Desmond Tutu

Lost between the rush up to Christmas and the rest that we require afterward is an ancient Christian observance on December 28. It is often skipped over, partly because the other holidays crowd it out, but more because of what it commemorates: the massacre of the holy innocents. In the Christmas story, when King Herod got word that an infant born in Bethlehem had a royal lineage, he commanded his troops to slaughter all the local male children under the age of two. (Matthew 2:16) When threatened, as Herod was, ruthless rulers have a tendency – and the authority, to eliminate the competition.
There are many who question the historical accuracy of the story. But very few can discount the threat that Herod felt and sought to act upon, because we know that threat ourselves; and the temptation to turn innocents into enemies. And though we do not have the authority (thank God) to eliminate those on the other side (whatever we determine the other side to be), we are subjected to an endless cacophony of voices that want us to silence them or dismiss them – or keep our distance from them. And those voices have some purchase on our psyches, because we all have a baked-in need to escape, or eliminate threats. Demagogues and ruthless rulers know this about us, and are expert at exploiting it.
Enter Desmond Tutu.
Which is an odd, if not heartless thing to say given that the world is mourning his death, and remembering his witness, passion, commitment and basic goodness. But what lay beneath his brilliance, eloquence and fearlessness was his faith. He began every morning with silent prayer and the celebration of the Eucharist. His daughter was a member of the congregation I served in Worcester, Massachusetts, and on a few occasions a small group of us from the church were invited to share in that daily devotion with the Archbishop when he came to visit her. The service was very simple – conducted in her living room; and deeply solemn. His faith, nurtured by a fierce spiritual discipline, led him to claim the innocence of every human being. Even those whom he fought against in the struggle to end apartheid. Even those who dismissed him or marginalized him or secretly (or not so secretly) wished to eliminate him.
Archbishop Tutu believed that we are made in the image of God, that we are imago dei. He also was a champion of the Zulu word ubuntu, which holds that we are “persons because of other persons”. He recognized that people had the capacity to do cruel things to one another – and that injustice can become national policy (as in apartheid), but he steadfastly held to the conviction that all people have goodness planted in them, and that no one is beyond redemption. And that there is always possibility for reconciliation, a conviction that carried him – and much of the country, if not the world, through his leadership of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Twenty-five years ago tomorrow, the Archbishop came to preach at the same Worcester, Mass. church on the occasion of his granddaughter’s baptism. He began his sermon by thanking the congregation, which was a bit disorienting given our gratitude that he was willing to be with us. He thanked us because, “your prayers ended apartheid”. He told a story of a nun who lived alone in the woods in northern California who wrote to tell him that she got up every morning at two a.m. and for an hour prayed for an end to apartheid. “They didn’t stand a chance,” Archbishop Tutu thundered; against a nun praying in northern California.
That story, indeed his life, was a testimony that we all are innocents in the eyes of God. Even when – no, especially when, we brutalize one another. Violence, dismissing, distancing and eliminating were not in the Archbishop’s portfolio. And he went around the world preaching that they should not be in ours either. It was not an easy conviction to hold onto. But he did, with grace, eloquence, humor – and faith. He is gone from us now – but his witness lives on.

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