On Boxing Day, Archbishop Desmond Tutu died.

Central to his legacy is his leadership of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), an eight-year process of hearings established by South Africa’s National Unity Government in 1995. Having spent decades speaking boldly and loudly against the apartheid regime, Tutu now found himself right at the heart of institutional life in South Africa, helping discern a way forward for a fractured nation.

The TRC was a bit like a court, but which offered amnesties instead of sentences. The main aim was to give voice to those who had suffered brutality and abuse during apartheid, while also creating the opportunity for repentance, reconciliation and forgiveness where possible. It ran from 1995 to 1998, with the final report completed in 2003. In this time, it held 2,500 hearings concerning historic human rights abuses, and received over 7,000 amnesty applications. 

As the name suggests, the commission was interested in both truth and reconciliation. It understood that there was no way forward without an honest reckoning with the past, but also aimed to break new ground for South Africa – even, perhaps, to bring healing.

There is much to say about the TRC, both in celebration and in critique. Tutu would have been the first to admit that it did not achieve everything it to set out to do. Significantly, although the TRC recommended economic reparations to address the social fallout of apartheid, this was never followed through by the government, with implications that persist today for millions of economically excluded black South Africans. And yet there’s no doubt that the TRC was a major milestone in South Africa’s journey out of its history, and in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people involved or who watched the proceedings. It’s been praised worldwide, and similar commissions have been inspired to deal with the past elsewhere – Canada, Sierra Leone and Australia just a few examples.

So, what can those of us seeking justice in the way of Jesus learn from Archbishop Tutu, and from the way he lived?

1. True justice is costly

Tutu’s practice of reconciliation and peace-building was profoundly shaped by the cross of Jesus. This meant that he championed restorative justice over retributive justice. Much of the criticism levelled at the TRC was that it was too soft on white perpetrators. Understandably, people wanted those who had committed horrendous crimes to be punished – to pay for what they did. But Tutu knew that violence could never ultimately be redemptive. His theology gave him a radically different understanding of justice, which was less about retribution and more about restoring the relationships and the personhoods that are damaged or lost. This was the vision to which he committed his life, and for which he laboured at great personal and public cost. He knew and lived out the reality that God’s justice cannot be separated from God’s love and mercy (Ps. 85.10; Mic 6.8). 

It was Tutu’s theological understanding of restorative justice shaped the TRC. On the one hand, it guarded against a cheap forgiveness – a declaring of ‘”peace, peace!” when there is no peace’ (Jer 6.14). This is why truth mattered so much. If the goal was healing and restored relationships, then that required the hard work of genuine reconciliation:

‘Forgiving and being reconciled are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the degradation, the truth.’[i]

Restorative justice doesn’t ignore or excuse evil. On the contrary, it requires that the truth be told and that perpetrators be held accountable for their actions. Reconciliation is not cheap. Crucially though, restorative justice breaks the cycle of violence. Retributive justice pays back violence with violence. There are countless examples of retributive justice through human history. But what has been achieved? So often, the oppressed become the oppressors; new wounds are opened up, new generations grow up in fear and resentment, and new animosity is created that will only lead to more violence. Tutu knew that the only way to break this cycle of violence was the way of Jesus – the way of costly, self-giving love.

Again, that did not mean excusing or turning a blind eye to evil. Forgiveness did not mean forgetting. ‘It means taking what has happened seriously and not minimising it; drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence.’[ii]This ‘drawing out the sting’ meant being willing to do the hard work of forgiving those who did terrible things, and the even harder work of building a better future together with those ‘others’ who have done you so much wrong.

Tutu’s life witnessed to the beauty of God’s restorative justice, but he refused to sentimentalise that task and pretend that true justice is achieved easily. Denial and retribution come easily, but true justice is always costly. ‘It cost God the death of His only begotten Son.’[iii]

2. The importance of prayer

I did not know about this until reading through Tutu’s account of the TRC in No Future Without Forgiveness, but prayer was absolutely central to the whole project. As soon as he was appointed to the Commission, Tutu mobilised prayer among monks and nuns across the Anglican Communion. We can’t know exactly what difference that global army of intercessors made, but at the very least it is a reminder to us of the power of prayer. If the Archbishop felt the ‘desperate need for regular intercession’ then who am I to think that I can begin to seek God’s justice in my own strength?[iv]

In this regard, Tutu stood in a long line of activists and public leaders who understood that their political advocacy was neatly interwoven with a spiritual struggle.

3. The importance of lament

In the footage of Tutu’s life that has been circulating in the news since his death, the clips that really struck me where those of the Archbishop weeping with victims as they testified before the TRC. In our current culture, where leadership is so often (mis)represented as a Darwinian competition for strength and achievement, with constant attention to projecting an image of tough, professional capability, it is deeply moving to watch someone in a position of great authority display the vulnerability of grief.  

Here again, Tutu was shaped by his biblical faith, where lament goes hand in hand with the prophetic vocation to seek justice. As Walter Brueggeman puts it:

“Hope expressed without knowledge of and participation in grief is likely to be false hope that does not reach despair. Thus…it is precisely those who know death most painfully who can speak hope most vigorously.”

Tutu’s was a way of uprooting injustice not from the safety of distance, but in deep solidarity with its victims. He stared ‘the beast of our dark past in the eye.’[v] In so doing, he not only led his people through the catharsis of grieving what must be grieved, but he witnessed profoundly to the crucified one he served. It was this very ability to grieve that opened up the way to a different kind of future – and, paradoxically, to joy.

4. The importance of joy

Alongside grief, Tutu modelled the vital role of joy in sustaining a lifelong pursuit of justice. His was not a fake joy or toxic positivity – it was the deep, irrepressible joy of one who knows all too well the depth of human depravity and the reality of radical evil, yet remains confident in the coming of Jesus to put the world to rights. Fleming Rutledge says it well: ‘His laugh is an eschatological sign of God’s triumph over evil.[vi]

As we head into a new year and new university term, with so much around us that feels uncertain, fragile and hurting, we need the witness of disciples like Archbishop Tutu. We need his example to guide our pilgrimage, to re-root our practice of justice in the cross of Jesus, and to propel us to the hard, costly work of restorative justice in the contexts in which God has placed us. 

I leave the last words to the Archbishop himself:

‘For we who are Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are proof positive that love is stronger than hate, that life is stronger than death, that light is stronger than darkness, that laughter, joy, compassion, gentleness and truth, all these are so much stronger than their ghastly counterparts’[vii]



[i] Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (London: Rider, 1999), 218

[ii] Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, 219

[iii] Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, 218

[iv] Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, 72

[v] Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, 91

[vi] Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 124

[vii] Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, 76

Image: Niklas Maupoix/Flickr