Bishop Desmond Tutu and Moral Authority

Westminster Abbey: If you had only an hour to take in London, that’d probably be the place to go. Kings and queens, explorers and philosophers, artists and soldiers are buried there, their effigies made to resemble them as they were in life. Effigies of Mary Queen of Scotts, and Elizabeth I, who ordered Mary’s execution, lie in close proximity with this shared epitaph: “Consorts both in Throne and Grave, here we rest two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, in hope of our resurrection.”

In another section, along a wall far beneath Gothic arches, is the tomb of William Wilberforce. His epitaph says: “His name will ever be specifically identified with those exertions which removed from England the guilt of the African slave trade and prepared the way for the abolition of slavery.”

Of course, in other areas of the Abbey are the tombs of British colonizers who went to Africa with schemes and dreams in their hearts, imagining “heathens” who could be easily brought into bondage, and even accepting the idea that God had ordained African slavery in the Biblical account of Noah cursing Canaan to be a “servant of servants”(Gen. 9:25).

There are stained glass windows throughout the edifice, and two facing each other from either end of one of the abbey’s chapels, where religious services are conducted daily.

I attended the celebration of “The Ascension of Our Lord” there on May 13, 2010 at 5:00 p.m. The sermon was delivered by The Most Reverend Dr. Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus from South Africa.

I watched congregants enter, some pausing to face the cross at one end of the chapel, bowing slightly, others simply taking a seat. I was in one of the first rows, and watched the choir boys in their white tunics march reverently up the aisle, then the procession of priests and Anglican presidents. One swung pungent incense. Another, wearing a gold mitre and carrying a gilded cross on a large staff—a metaphorical shepherd’s staff, I would imagine, made triumphant by that cross—looked solemn and regal.

At the end of the processional was Bishop Tutu, shorter than any who had gone before, wearing a scarlet cassock and matching cap.

I could not help but notice the sweetness of his face. I can come up with no better word. His face was both noble and child-like.

The choir sang, and we congregants joined in:
Hail the day that sees him rise, Alleluia!
Glorious to his native skies, Alleluia!
Christ, awhile to mortals given, Alleluia!
Enters now the highest heaven! Alleluia!

The president of the Abbey pronounced the glorious phrase repeated on Easter morning throughout the world: “Christ is risen,” and we responded in unity, “He is risen indeed.”

There followed readings about the Ascension, more songs by the choir, and finally, the sermon by Bishop Tutu.

His theme was obvious from the beginning, and is indeed the theme of his life: The image of God is in every person. “Racism,” he said, “is not just a bad thing. It is not just evil. It is an act of blasphemy, for God has imprinted His image into every human being. We know that any division, any persecution based on race or ethnicity is simply balderdash, and we can say so forthrightly. Every human being is a God-carrier, and the human body a sanctuary for the Holy Spirit.” He reminded us that every Christian is called to liberate the oppressed and enslaved, to care for the earth, to serve humanity.

Bishop Tutu radiated love. I could feel it in waves of energy—one of the signs I have learned to recognize as an indicator that I am being spiritually moved. Spiritual communication activates the mind, invigorates the spirit, and calls our very cells to attention. I have had the experience in many places, within the LDS Church and in other settings as well. Bishop Tutu had that quickening effect on me, and I noticed later that any tiredness I had felt earlier was completely gone. I had been renewed.

I was seated only ten feet away from him, and looked over at him periodically before and after his sermon. The small smile never left his face. When it was time to invite congregants to receive either the Eucharist or a blessing (or neither, if such was their choice), I saw his smile get a bit bigger.

The choir boys came forward first. If they carried their program, it indicated they would receive a blessing but not the Eucharist. Bishop Tutu looked each one in the eyes and smiled with such tenderness that I had to wonder if the Savior looked just that way as he blessed the “little ones.” Were those the eyes? That the expression? Every twinkle saying, “I love you. Don’t forget who you are.”

The rest of us were called up next. I took my program with me, but I knew I wanted a blessing from Bishop Tutu. I know not all Mormons would do as I did, since our doctrine would not recognize his priesthood authority. I recognized his moral authority, however–his discipleship, and it is a rare thing for me to turn down a blessing from someone I know to be a disciple of the Lord I serve.

I came forward, looked probingly into his eyes, then closed them reverently as his hand came down on my head. So gentle. I looked at him again, then returned to my seat. I could imagine myself embracing him.

And so, since Thursday, I have been reading about Bishop Tutu. I knew quite a bit already. I knew he chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-Apartheid South Africa, when murderers or tormenters were asked to fully confess what they had done, and many were granted amnesty. Almost all, said Bishop Tutu, faced the families of those they had blinded or killed or maimed, and begged forgiveness, though such was not required by the TRC court. Though there is a variety of opinion on how successful the TRC was, its intent was exemplary. And even the most vicious supporters of Apartheid—those who had permitted the political mandate to lead them into unthinkable darkness—were not demonized. As Wayne Northey quoted Bishop Tutu in the Catholic New Times on 10/6/02, “[T]he Good News of Jesus has a bias for sinners contrary to the normal standards of the world. No situation in this theology is irredeemable and devoid of hope…Love is much more demanding than law [and] we inhabit a moral universe. Good and evil are real and that they matter, [but] that love is stronger than hate; life is stronger than death; light is stronger than darkness; and laughter and joy and compassion and gentleness and truth–all these are so much stronger than their ghastly counterparts.”

Before me stood Desmond Tutu, who had once run to a man about to be “necklaced” (executed in a prolonged, torturous way by having a kerosene-filled tire bind his arms and chest and set afire) and threw his arms around him to prevent the murder. The man was set free.

And yet there was nothing pretentious about Bishop Tutu. Even as a tearful woman waited at the exit to present him with some letters, he merely smiled–just as he had smiled at the choir boys. The woman turned to the rest of us: “Last July, he saved the lives of thirty-six people. These letters are from their families, thanking him.” Bishop Tutu smiled again. It appeared to me that the woman was about to kneel at his feet. He raised one arm and made the sign of the cross before her, as though to say, “Not I. I am not the Savior.”

As I left Westminster Abbey at 6:30 p.m., looking back to see Bishop Tutu’s face one last time, I saw the sun performing its glorious alchemy in the stained glass above me. Orange had become gold; purple had been transmuted to ruby, and indigo to sapphire. I had asked my husband, when we had toured the place a week earlier, who was in the center of that particular spread of stained glass. The figure was a bit androgynous, and I thought it might be Elizabeth I. “That’s Christ,” said Bruce. “They were Christians, you know.”

I have thought deeply about Bishop Tutu’s moral authority since that service. I believe moral authority is foundational to any priesthood authority. (See D&C 121:41-43.) Though surely not the same thing as the divine proclamation “I am that I am” (Exodus 3:13), it nonetheless reflects being as power, and righteousness itself as authority. Any who truly follows their ethics, even risking their lives to sustain principles they know to be right and good, has moral authority—whether or not the world recognizes it. In the case of Desmond Tutu, the world DOES recognize it, and his signature can save a life.

I listened to an interview with Bishop Tutu this morning ( I found one line particularly compelling: “I believe,” he said, “we have underestimated what Apartheid did to all of us.” Not just whites, not just blacks—to ALL of us. He went on to recount an experience wherein he started doubting the ability of two black pilots on his plane when they encountered some serious turbulence. He realized he had not really sustained faith in the very people he had helped to liberate.

As a Mormon, his declaration continues to resonate with me, though with other words than “Apartheid.”

I believe we have underestimated what the priesthood restriction did to all of us.

Did we persuade our brothers and sisters to doubt the imprint of godliness in their images and to imagine that some other figure (Cain, for instance) had usurped the divinity God had endowed them with? Did we give ourselves permission to engage in oppression and alienation in the name of the very one who found himself most at home with the poor and the downtrodden? Do we continue to justify ourselves in such thinking or to permit others to perpetuate it down to the next generation? Are we so fearful of acknowledging how wrong some of our past teachings were that we will not fully acknowledge what we did? Will we keep ourselves from “truth and reconciliation” for fear that others might doubt current prophetic authority–thus, ironically, losing some of our own moral authority?

Thankfully, any with real moral authority recognizes that (as the title of one of Tutu’s books suggests) there is “No future without forgiveness.”

Lest this post seem merely a condemnation of the LDS past, let me conclude with a quote from Bishop Tutu, who would certainly choose to be called HOPEFUL. He refers to “ubunto,” the process of forming and sustaining a community, and says that “ubunto” summons “a man regal in dignity, bubbling over with magnanimity and a desire to dedicate himself to the reconciliation of those whom apartheid and the injustice and pain of racism had alienated from one another.”

May we move forward to that kind of a world—fearlessly, and with a full willingness to receive the gifts and blessings of all “God-carriers” who surround us, and to bless them generously in return.


  1. Thank you for sharing your experience with Bishop Tutu. What a beautiful and hopeful way to start my day :)

  2. I don’t have experience with Apartheid, but having spent some time in post-colonial Africa, I think the scars are very real and will take a long time to overcome. That kind of legacy not only affects the way the white people view Africans, but much more importantly, the way Africans view themselves. 40 years of independence, and it is still very clear that (for example) English is preferenced over native languages; you might expect that from us, but when people explain to you why their own mothertongue is inferior or unimaportant or that they don’t plan to teach their it to their kids is very…jolting. It seems that it goes beyond shaking a collective people’s confidence in themselves.

    Thanks for the recounting. What an enviable experience.

  3. Great write-up and thoughts about this experience that you’ve had. I have enjoyed the Anglican services I’ve attended in London though I haven’t been to one with a high-profile speaker like Bishop Tutu. Still, the sermons I have attended have been very brave, e.g. taking an unequivocal moral stance on issues such as climate change/environment in the case of the service I attended on First Advent (in the context of a sermon about the Second Coming). Another brave sermon was also during the Christmas season and the preacher compared working long hours in law firms to sacrificing children to Moloch — and this was in a service specifically for City lawyers put on by the local parish church.

  4. Thank you. I believe there is much, much good in this world. And to me, this represents a true disciple of Christ. I don’t know enough about the details of Bishop Tutu, but I picture him serving the people like this much before I can picture him worrying about a billion dollar shopping mall.

  5. Margaret, thank you for sharing this experience with us, and for adding your thoughts. You’ve given me some things to ponder as well as simply enjoy.

  6. Thank you, Margaret.

  7. Well written. The moral authority angle has given me a way to unravel my discomfort with some of the “one and only true prophet” rhetoric in yesterday’s RS lesson.

  8. Latter-day Guy says:

    Thank you. This was both lovely and incisive.

  9. What a great retelling of what must have been a wonderful experience. I liked your pairing of Bishop Tutu’s moral authority with the passage from D&C 121. I think it provides us a standard to measure up to, and is one that Bishop Tutu and other leaders who have radiated “moral authority” would recognize. Having lived a life that spanned both before and after the ending of the priesthood ban, I often see bits of the folk doctrines and beliefs that are still present out there. The ban did affect all of us, and we are not yet free of our past transgressions. I am not totally free of these yet myself, though I am trying.

    This made me think of the Jewish ritual cleansing of the house of any leavened remnants prior to the passover Seder. Perhaps we need a ritual cleansing of these remnants of the misunderstandings and false readings of scripture that served as the sustaining foundations of the ban from our own lives, and set an example for the others around us to do the same.

  10. Wow. Excellent Margaret. I have always thought that people like Bishop Tutu and Mother Teresa have an endowment of the Spirit, but I like your reference to ‘moral authority.’ That describes well the reason we should pay attention to them, just as we do to our own leaders.

  11. Margaret, this was simply lovely. A great gift you’ve offered us.

  12. What a wonderful experience you had in Westminster Abbey — lucky! Thanks for sharing it.

  13. Wow, I’m so envious! What an amazing opportunity to listen to a truly incredible person. Thanks so much for writing about it so beautifully and sharing it with the rest of us. I feel inspired.

  14. And for the record, I would pretty much just consider Bishop Tutu a prophet, in the most meaningful sense of the term. I felt similarly to Nicole in #7 about that particular lesson.

  15. Margaret,

    What a pleasure to read your post and impressions of a man I respect and admire. What he said about “The image of God is in every person, and Racism is not just a bad thing. It is not just evil. It is an act of blasphemy, for God has imprinted His image into every human being. Every human being is a God-carrier, and the human body a sanctuary for the Holy Spirit,” reminds me of what Leo Tolstoy, another great figure outside mormonism worth emulating, wrote in his diary towards the end of his life: “We acknowledge God only when we are conscious of His manifestation in us.” I dwell on those thoughts in the following article on God and Destiny:

    Again, thank you for writing so inspiringly about one who dares to say what others do not dare imagine: “No future without forgiveness”…

  16. In general I find the over-idealization of any human being a sticky issue at best. Not because those people haven’t or aren’t doing good things, but because we then too easily turn those people into caricatures and end up focusing on either that person’s past actions or simply our idealized image of them instead of the very complex and nuanced realities of the issues they dealt/deal with and their own complex and nuanced personalities. Joseph Smith is an obvious example. I find the complex character of a human Joseph Smith who experienced miraculous yet not always easy to comprehend experiences a far more engaging than the Orthodox-saint-like character we often present. Or take Martin Luther King, Jr. A giant of a man in many respects, but far from perfect personally, and when he turned against Vietnam (correctly and courageously), many of his public supporters turned against him. Too “controversial” a topic you know. And remember when he was assassinated, he was fighting for equal pay for garbage men despite their race. Not exactly a hot button issue to most in the nation at the time like segregated buses and lynchings, but one he considered every bit as important to completing the task of civil rights.

    In that vein with regards to Bishop Tutu. Here is a man who has stood up against Apartheid and racism, yet has his own failings. In post-genocide Rwanda he addressed a stadium full of citizens and scolded them for supposedly making white racists appear to be correct in their attitudes towards Africans. Not only was the comment out of place, but it was just rather bizarre and left most of the folks in the audience scratching their head. On the other hand, look today at how he courageously stands up against Israeli racism and Apartheid (see for example ) and yet here he is largely ignored or even derided, especially in the United States despite the fact that he (and many, many other South African supporters of Palestinian rights) know Apartheid when they see it.

    Let’s see people in three dimensions. And when they become public figures for a cause, let’s focus on the principles they believe in. (Not by the way saying here that Margaret isn’t, just trying to raise I think an important point in this context).

  17. “Racism is not just a bad thing. It is not just evil. It is an act of blasphemy, for God has imprinted His image into every human being.”

    I love this.

  18. Amazing experience! While I’m jealous of your experience, I’m equally grateful that you shared it with us.

  19. Aaron Brown says:

    Simply lovely, Margaret. Thanks for this.

  20. Most great men (and women) are complicated, sometimes full of contradictions. Witness David in the OT, or Joseph Smith or even Oskar Schindler. Bishop Tutu has greater moral authority than most great men because he earned it the hard way. I envy you the opportunity to be in his presence.

  21. Well, unlike N-A A, I don’t think Tutu’s comments on Israel and the Jews are to his credit. In my view they weigh rather heavily in the demerit column.

  22. gst, I think that N-A A’s comment and the Israel issue are totally irrelevant to the post.

  23. Margaret, the spirit of that event just radiates from your account! Absolutely, wonderful. Thank you for sharing that. You make me want to do better in so many ways.

  24. Elouise says:

    Margaret, words almost fail me to say what a gift you have given us all with this post. The light radiates from your narration, as Steve says, and Something echoes from it in the silence. Thank you.

  25. I am always touched when my friends read anything I’ve written, and especially when they take the time to comment. I admit that Elouise has long been elevated, in my mind, to goddess stature. Thank you for those beautiful words, Elouise.
    As for the complexity of any person we want to lionize–well, yeah. But that’s another post. I predict that somebody someday will write a play about Mother Theresa which includes her more melancholy journal entries and her struggles with doubt.

  26. Aaron R. says:

    This is a beautiful post. Thank you so much for sharing your experience.

    The statement you make and the rhetorical questions you raise in connection with the Priesthood ban are concerns I have raised with our SP (we have an increasingly multi-cultural and aged stake) and though he is sensitive to the issues he feels reluctant to have public discussion of these issues on a Stake level. I sense that this is one area where grass-roots change will have an important impact on the Church more generally, but how to approach this is a more difficult issue.

  27. Aaron, I agree. As many know, I am in contact with a bunch of missionaries in Africa who Bruce and I had in our branch when we served in the MTC. I have spoken with them about the issue when they’ve asked specific questions, but find myself reluctant to introduce the questions myself. I don’t want to create stumbling blocks. Nonetheless, the issue will get to Africa. It has not gotten there yet in a widespread way, though that’s inevitable. At some point, we will need to be very upfront about our history and active in boldly and publicly disavowing the false teachings in our past. Elder Holland has done that with the rubbish about fence sitters in the P.E., but the more pervasive teaching has to do with curses. We have all sorts of scholarly answers to the questions, but we will need apostles, not scholars, to speak truth to power.

  28. It has been cleaOrcor a long time that Margaret can write, and this piece is yet more evidence of that fact. What is becoming more clear is that she has developed a certain moral authortty of her own around the meaning and consequences of the former LDS priesthood restriction. It is not so much that she claims to have the answers as that she is unafraid to keep asking the questions. There is more than one way to produce light …

  29. Margaret…beautiful recounting of a wonderful experience.

    I will tell you from my own experience in South the main ward in our stake the black members sat in the last row of the chapel and none of them had callings…YUCK. There was already a huge prejudice before the church came and some converts took the priesthood ban as a critical evidence that the church was true-a foundational principle. No small number of white people left when the ban was lifted…SWK was a fallen prophet, church wasn’t true anymore. Others did very well, were SO grateful, were so happy and welcomed new priesthood holders in with open arms.

    I was there just before mandela was elected and the tension and race issues were at the forefront of everything. Some people had the vision that the church would keep going and God sees all his children equally (I’m thinking of one surprising branch in a very AWB (think KKK) area, that welcomed in black families amazingly and leaders squashed any sense of racism very openly and completely.

    I consider some cultural issues fallen…and so difficult to overcome and realize all the ways it affects our vision. Some things are so ingrained you could never even notice them to question’s just a given

    It is always easier to see these cultural issues in another persons culture-like the indian culture in the areas I served invovled beating your wife…totally normal…sigh…which lead to NO temple worthy indian men-thus no native leadership..always white shipped in leadership. Then the white leader didn’t understand other perfectly acceptable indian culture issues-they didn’t understand the background of little things and dismissed it as not important of wrong. This has changed, in the sense that some few Indian men have stopped beating their wives, some youth have grown up and intermarried (now that you can there) and there is another generation growing up without abuse…but still much of the beautiful part of the culture.

    It was wonderful to see the temple though, just a HUGE breath of fresh air-people of all races working together normally…I don’t know how to explain just walking into the temple and seeing the mix of races and people together…it really was like heaven.

    oh dear..too long. I fear I have entered RM stuck on stories mode

  30. I really appreciated this beautiful post. I listened to the NPR interview with Bishop Tutu last week as well; it was fabulous. I was in a terrible mood before turning on the radio, but was filled with the spirit as I listened to him speak of forgiveness, healing, and community-building.

    I would love to learn more about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Does anyone have any recommended readings on the topic? Or on Bishop Tutu?

  31. Britt said  – ‘Some things are so ingrained you could never even notice them to question’s just a given’

    I love this. I also find it perplexing to try and work out what parts of myself are influenced by the culture I am in. 

    Just to change the slant ever so slightly on the post… Moral vs priesthood authority can perhaps be applied within the church, just in a different way. If I have a real problem, I have a shortlist of people that I would go to to talk about it & perhaps seek help from. None of those people are ‘appropriately’ connected to me through priesthood hierarchy.

    In short it seems that I value ‘moral’ authority more than ‘official’ authority when, according to my perception, I cannot get both in the same person. 

    The other thing that I have observed in passing is the almost obituary like praise heaped upon general authorities. I think they are wise men, and also committed disciples of christ; however for me, no general authorities address has ever had the same power, influence, or meaning that a discussion with a true friend has had. When people say ‘I can’t say it better than the prophet’ from the stand, I respectfully disagree.

    In summary, priesthood hierarchy on the earth sometimes has an abitrary quality to it, perhaps leaving it lacking in this ‘moral’ authority.   

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