It can be difficult to admit that your hero left a legacy that is very… mixed.

You’re a villain if you have anything but unfettered praise to offer for Archbishop Desmond Tutu, now that he has passed away, aged 90. He was a great voice for justice against Apartheid. That is how many in the world will remember him, and understandably so. It is impossible to look back on so much of what he had to say about racial segregation in South Africa in the early 1980s and not be impressed. Just read this account from Jim Wallis:

The former South African archbishop Desmond Tutu used to famously say, “We are prisoners of hope.” Such a  statement might be taken as merely rhetorical or even eccentric if you hadn’t seen Bishop Tutu stare down the notorious South African Security Police when they broke into the Cathedral of St. George’s during his sermon at an ecumenical service. I was there and have preached about the dramatic story of his response more times than I can count. The incident taught me more about the power of hope than any other moment of my life. Desmond Tutu stopped preaching and just looked at the intruders as they lined the walls of his cathedral, wielding writing pads and tape recorders to record whatever he said and thereby threatening him with consequences for any bold prophetic utterances. They had already arrested Tutu and other church leaders just a few weeks before and kept them in jail for several days to make both a statement and a point: Religious leaders who take on leadership roles in the struggle against apartheid will be treated like any other opponents of the Pretoria regime. After meeting their eyes with his in a steely gaze, the church leader acknowledged their power (“You are powerful, very powerful”) but reminded them that he served a higher power greater than their political authority (“But I serve a God who cannot be mocked!”). Then, in the most extraordinary challenge to political tyranny I have ever witnessed, Archbishop Desmond Tutu told the representatives of South African apartheid, “Since you have already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!” He said it with a smile on his face and enticing warmth in his invitation, but with a clarity and a boldness that took everyone’s breath away. The congregation’s response was electric. The crowd was literally transformed by the bishop’s challenge to power. From a cowering fear of the heavily armed security forces that surrounded the cathedral and greatly outnumbered the band of worshipers, we literally leaped to our feet, shouted the praises of God and began…dancing. (What is it about dancing that enacts and embodies the spirit of hope?) We danced out of the cathedral to meet the awaiting police and military forces of apartheid who hardly expected a confrontation with dancing worshipers. Not knowing what else to do, they backed up to provide the space for the people of faith to dance for freedom in the streets of South Africa.
Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.

It’s stirring stuff. It captures the imagination and displays genuine courage in an environment where standing up for the truth of the Gospel (and God’s grace on people of all colours, as well as the inevitable defeat of corrupt political powers, remember, is a feature of the Good News) had consequences. We ought to remember acts like these with admiration.

The world loves him. And the world isn’t concerned by the ways in which he departed from Christian teaching. The world – the world of media who are now publishing their accolades, at least – is not Christian, and places little stock in Christian truth claims and values. By loudly and exclusively appealing to his anti-Apartheid activism, the world is saying “look at this hero. How could you possibly disagree with him?”

Desmond Tutu was a force for great good in a South Africa blighted by apartheid. And he was a force for great evil and harm for the unborn, and for the integrity of Anglican Christianity when it comes to upholding Christian teaching on marriage and the sanctity of life.


Archbishop Tutu was a beloved figure for the LGBT movement. I don’t simply mean people who are homosexual or bisexual, I mean for the movement, which is something political, within and outside of the Church. Tutu supported same-sex relationships and marriage. He has famously remarked,

I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this. I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place. I am as passionate about this campaign as I ever was about apartheid.

Sometimes when he is quoted, he is talking in a context where the subject of violence or abuse directed towards gays is on the table. This clouds things somewhat, because of course even orthodox, historically-minded Christians oppose violence and abuse. But make no mistake, for Tutu it was a package deal. When he used the world’s language of “homophobia,” he was not just talking about violence and abuse. He was in favour of the recognition of same-sex unions as marriage, and he did not only mean in a legal context. He was in favour of the marriage of his own daughter, an Anglican Priest, to a woman. To its credit, the Church did not bend to share Tutu’s assessment, and his daughter was required to relinquish her priesthood.

Advocacy has consequences. That’s a good thing in the case of Tutu’s advocacy against Apartheid, but it’s a disaster when someone like Tutu uses his platform and his voice to advocate against the Church and the truth for which she stands. Numerous LGBT websites (to which I will not here link) are now writing about the hero they saw in him, and, much worse as far as Christians are concerned, clergy members who are openly advocating disobedience to Christian teaching on sex and marriage are making it plain that he was someone who advocated for their position and supported them in doing so. They will say they were excluded at one point because of their “sexuality,” when in reality they were excluded for openly defying what Christianity teaches about behaviour.



Archbishop Tutu was a proponent of abortion rights. He dismissed the claim that abortion is murder as mere “sloganeering,” and used some of the arguments that many pro-abortion rights advocates, such as the argument that if abortion is illegal or restricted, then it is accessible only by the rich. Lamentably, he belittled the claims of the pro-life movement as generating heat without light. The truth is unavoidable: Sometimes the truth, in bringing light, generates heat. That does not always depend on the truth-teller. Tutu has his own, highly idiosyncratic view of what it means to be pro-life: “I am also pro-life in the sense that I have a deep reverence for life and don’t want any of us to be frivolous in dealing with this matter.”

In time, the Archbishop’s views extended to the intentional killing of the seriously ill via euthanasia as well. On his 85th birthday, saying that he would like this option for himself, should the occasion arise, he called on political leaders to make it so. Although in more liberal wings of the Christian faith, this is a view that has begun to make some headway, even the very liberal Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia (ACANZP) made a submission against the recent introduction of euthanasia in New Zealand.

Desmond Tutu was a voice for the dignity and sanctity of some lives. But in view of the fact that tens of millions of abortions are carried out each year in the world, his acquiescence to the world is a betrayal, and a failure to use the voice he was given.

Woe to you when all people speak well of you, for this is the way their ancestors used to treat the false prophets.

Jesus, in Luke 6:26

So what do we say? It is tempting to speak with the world. He advocated what the world advocates, and he opposed what the world opposes. It is therefore easy to speak with the world when we speak of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, just as – at the global level, at least, it is easy to say the things that he said.

He did much good, yes. But. Let’s emulate that, and let us also see so much of what he said as a reminder that even great men have feet of clay. Let’s remember that we should not be willing to speak only when we know that we have the popular support of the world, who will speak favourably about us when we are gone. He will give an account to God, as we all must, and any time, such as this time when we are reflecting on Desmond Tutu’s life, is a good time to remember that.

Glenn Peoples