Desmond Tutu – A Spiritual Biography of South Africa’s Confessor

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The first biography of its kind about Desmond Tutu (with a foreword by the Dalai Lama and an afterword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu himself), this
book introduces readers to Tutu’s spiritual life, his prayer life and his spiritual practices and examines how it shaped his commitment to
restorative justice and reconciliation. It also shows how a living legend’s life can guide us during these times.

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The first biography of its kind about Desmond Tutu (with a foreword by the Dalai Lama and an afterword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu himself), this
book introduces readers to Tutu’s spiritual life, his prayer life and his spiritual practices and examines how it shaped his commitment to
restorative justice and reconciliation. It also shows how a living legend’s life can guide us during these times.

Desmond Tutu was a pivotal leader of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and remains a beloved and important emblem of peace and
justice around the world. Even those who do not know the major events of Tutu’s life—receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, serving as the first black
archbishop of Cape Town and primate of Southern Africa from 1986−1996, and chairing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 1995−1998—
recognize him as a charismatic political and religious leader who helped lay the foundations for a country ravaged by dehumanizing policies and practices by
those who called themselves “Christian”. This book shows how the inner landscape of Tutu’s spirituality, the mystical grounding that spurred his
outward accomplishments, often goes unseen.

Rather than recount his entire life story, this book explores Tutu’s spiritual life and contemplative practices—particularly Tutu’s understanding of
Ubuntu theology, which emphasizes finding one’s identity and wholeness in community—and traces the powerful role they played in subverting the
theological and spiritual underpinnings of colonialism and apartheid. Michael Battle’s personal relationship with Tutu grants readers an inside
view of how Tutu’s spiritual agency cast a vision that both upheld the demands of justice and created a space of grace to synthesize the stark
differences of a diverse society and help South Africans build a new community, new “samehorigheid”, and “Ubuntu”.

Michael Battle is an Anglican priest, Herbert Thompson Professor of Church
and Society and Director of the Desmond Tutu Center at General Theological
Seminary in New York, and President and CEO of the PeaceBattle Institute.

August 2021 • Softback

1 review for Desmond Tutu – A Spiritual Biography of South Africa’s Confessor

  1. Lisel Joubert

    (Lisel Joubert)
    The Dalai Lama in his foreword sets the tone for this remarkable book: “One must know that the spiritual life requires action in this world”. With this spiritual biography of Desmond Tutu, Michael Battle takes us on a journey to show how the spirituality of one man led to actions aimed at the restoring of justice in a country and the wellbeing of a nation.
    It is quite possible that the use of religious vocabulary in this book can fall strange on the ear of some readers. How does theological terminology fit in a biography of an important figure in Apartheid and post-Apartheid South Africa? What do words like holiness, saint, hagiography, mysticism, prayer, confession and forgiveness have to do with a history that was filled with injustice, fear, violence and displacement? Michael Battle (and Desmond Tutu) will tell you: “Everything.”
    In this book Michael Battle, Episcopal priest, author, chaired professor but more importantly friend of Desmond Tutu, narrates from his own shared experience and study of the life of Desmond Tutu a specific type of biography, namely a spiritual biography. In choosing this lens Battle reminds us that a person is more than what he or she has achieved, it also has to do with their presence – who they are. The life of Desmond Tutu, according to Battle, cannot be understood apart from his spirituality. It was Tutu’s deliberate choice to be in the presence of God that formed the person who played a major role in the transformation of a country.
    In writing a spiritual biography Battle reminds us that there is no dichotomy between “be” and “do”. This lens of the spiritual the author has chosen has not only to do with the content of the book but also the form. The book is divided in three main parts that present the themes of “Purgation”, “Illumination” and “Union”. For the reader not well versed in the language of spirituality these three words denote the classic three “stages” of mystical life. Battle therefore places this book within the world of mysticism. Mysticism has many definitions but Battle in the context of this book defines it as follows: “for me mysticism denotes a spirituality lived out in those seeking the tangibility of divine presence” (p xiii). The author distinguishes between spirituality and mysticism describing spirituality as practising the presence of God, and mysticism about seeing these spiritual practises not just as ends in themselves but as means as journeying towards and into God.
    The choice of mystical terminology is closely linked to another important theme in the book namely sainthood and hagiography. The author’s premise is that Tutu presented a corrective on a false understanding of calling and sainthood represented by many Afrikaans Reformed Churches of his day who identified themselves as a people called by God. Because sainthood has to do with being holy which in the Biblical sense means to be set apart, the Afrikaner people used this understanding in order to form their own identity. The argument Battle sets out is that the worldview of Apartheid was really one of hagiography, which Battle defines as determining the criteria for sainthood. Battle’s premise is that within this spiritual worldview Tutu becomes an alternative kind of saint turning “apartheid’s hagiography on its head” (pxiii). In doing this Battle depicts the bigger struggle against Apartheid as a spiritual struggle. Over against this understanding of hagiography Tutu proclaims there are no ordinary people. All are saints. One can see how this lens brings in another perspective of retelling the history of South Africa, not only using the usual economic and political perspectives.
    This spiritual terminology of mysticism and sainthood then becomes the place of entry into telling and sharing events and phases in the life of Tutu. In the Christian tradition purgation is a process of cleansing: “Purgation is the initial stage of “unknowing”, or cleansing dysfunctional ways of knowing God” (p54). In dialogue with this understanding Battle relates events in upbringing and early life of Tutu amidst racial and ecclesiological tensions where he had to discern what is really important. This entailed a journey of asceticism, repentance, humility and self-denial that has to be seen against the backdrop of the harsh world of Apartheid South Africa in which he grew up. This was a journey to claim his identity as a child of God in a world where he was seen as a second class citizen.
    In the second part Battle clarifies the theme of illumination focusing on Tutu’s role of confessor leading a nation to a place of recognising wrongs and addressing it. Events like the TRC are discussed. We are led through all the painful events that led to the new Democratic situation in South Africa focusing on the spiritual role that Tutu played in calling for forgiveness, healing and restoration.
    In the third part, Union, the focus is on cooperation with the One who is calling. In this instance the journey of Tutu becoming the one who wants to unify factions, warring parties and with wisdom bring about change. The focus is on his role as sage in the world theatre.
    Although these themes are part of the classical terminology that has been used for centuries to describe the transformative relationship of the believer in the presence of God Battle goes further in critically engaging these stages in light of an African worldview, where the focus is not on the individual but on community. Battle leads the reader into a well formulated discussion of Ubuntu and how it can be a corrective on individualistic understandings of faith. A person cannot be seen as separate from community in all its possible forms. The reader is led to understand how Ubuntu formed a foundation in the thought and life of Tutu in that he believes in the importance of turning to God in community and not just as individuals. This Ubuntu enables him to embrace all denominations and religions. In speaking from his own particularity he invites other faiths to do the same.
    Battle in taking the reader through the main events of the life of Desmond Tutu presents him as somebody rooted in God through daily discipline and practise, working not in a utopian setting but in a world riddled with violence during the most dangerous and conflicting times of South African history. These religious disciplines were also taught to him in community, reading influential works of the centuries (eg Simone Weil) as well in relationship with people like Father Trevor Huddlestone and Maggie Ross.
    From the earliest history of Christianity (eg the Desert Fathers) to modern day theologians Tutu learned that spirituality – prayerful Scripture reading, meditation, the use of sacraments, the Offices (daily prayers), and retreats – must be central in his life, lest he lead a distorted and defective life. Tutu qualifies. “I don’t claim to do all these things well (in fact I know I don’t) but I still try to grow. That is why I have said that it is my commitment to a relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ which constraints me to be what I am and to do what I say”. It is such a relevant and authentic spirituality that leads to involvement in the socio-political sphere. Therefore, prayers and marches are connected, mysticism is not to escape social action but to create it.
    What makes this book important in the times that we live in? Most importantly: “That we do not forget”. New generations from whatever denomination or religion cannot be allowed to forget the spiritual dimension of the fight against injustice. Interlaced with this remembering is the insight that in the spiritual formation of people and communities the focus on being is of crucial importance in a growing utilitarian world.
    Battle himself also identifies four key benefits in reading this book (p xvi): He wants the reader to recognise a discrepancy in Western culture and wants to show that spirituality is more intelligible through communal experience than individual experience. Secondly, he wants the reader in the process of reading to reflect on how to make spirituality relevant again in political structures. Thirdly, he imagines some of his readers as people who are not satisfied with the “routinized spirituality of dying institutions” and will hopefully in the life of Desmond Tutu recognise a different way of personal fulfilment. Fourthly, he hopes to offer means of thinking through spiritual practises that may address systemic causes of violence.
    This spiritual biography of Tutu who marched, protested, cried and prayed reminds the reader of the interconnectedness of prophetic work, justice and spirituality. Battle presents Tutu’s spiritual life as a paradigm in which mysticism is more about communal transformation than the Western obsession of self fulfilment. That is what we need in what Battle calls the demise of relationship between justice and spirituality in the West. Spirituality has everything to do with politics. Politics not defined as a card carrying choice but a commitment to society and moral leadership on all levels.
    This book is also worth reading because of its groundedness. For a reader not so conversant with all the theological themes that are introduced in the book Battle makes it accessible in its lived manifestation in the life of Desmond Tutu. This is not just theological terminology consisting of philosophical wordplay but the aliveness of faith.
    The other important contribution of this book is that it deals with the South African context and the contextualisation of spirituality in this continent and specifically our country. In deconstructing individualistic Western perceptions of being human and the implications thereof in relationship to creation: “From this African sensibility of interdependence and relationality Tutu understands Christian spirituality, and he displays this throughout his ministry in the world” (p 296)
    In tracing the life of Desmond Mpilo Tutu from the small stage of a village in rural South Africa to the global stage through the lens of his spirituality Battle engages us to rethink our easy dichotomy between politics and religion and invite us to go on a journey to retrieve the spirituality of justice in order to continue writing new hagiographies in a world which longs for the healing presence of God to manifest in the whole of creation.

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