Archbishop Tutu talks to us this week about what he calls “the principle of transfiguration”. He says that, while we live in a “moral universe” where God is in charge and good is ultimately destined to prevail over evil, this truth is not always readily apparent. Sometimes, darkness, evil, and the powers that be seem to be winning.
He talks to us about one such time when:
Apartheid was in full swing as I and other church leaders were preparing for a meeting with the prime minister to discuss one of the many controversies that erupted in those days. We met at a theological college that had closed down because of the government’s racist policies. During our discussions I went into the priory garden for some quiet. There was a huge Calvary—a large wooden cross without corpus, but with protruding nails and a crown of thorns. It was a stark symbol of the Christian faith. It was winter: the grass was pale and dry and nobody would have believed that in a few weeks’ time it would be lush and green and beautiful again. It would be transfigured.
As I sat quietly in the garden I realized the power of transfiguration—of God’s transformation—in our world. The principle of transfiguration is at work when something so unlikely as the brown grass that covers our veld in winter becomes bright green again. Or when the tree with gnarled leafless branches bursts forth with the sap flowing so that the birds sit chirping in the leafy branches. Or when the once dry streams gurgle with swift-flowing water. When winter gives way to spring and nature seems to experience its own resurrection.
A transfiguration is a kind of miracle. The word literally means “transformation” or “metamorphosis”. It refers initially to that story in the New Testament where Jesus, normally a rather plain-looking carpenter from Nazareth, is momentarily seen by his disciples to be glowing with the light of eternity. They saw him for who he truly was: the one they came to call “the Son of God”.
There are other kinds of transfiguration miracles in the Bible. There is the Apostle Paul, who went from being a vicious hunter and killer of Christians to becoming the first great theologian of the faith he once persecuted. Then there is Peter, who denied three times that he even knew Jesus, but later became an outspoken leader in the early church. Finally, there is the example of the Cross itself, which hangs at the front of our church. It was a symbol of shame and death, but has become for us a symbol of eternal life. Paul, Peter, and the Cross: all of these are examples of the principle of transfiguration at work in the Bible.
Desmond Tutu has also seen the principle of transfiguration working miracles in his own life and that of his country. He tells the story of the 1994 presidential elections in South Africa. Tension was in the air as the day of the election drew near. There were massacres, conspiracies, and boycotts all around. This first free and fair election in decades seemed to be doomed to failure. However, they decided to go ahead with it anyway. On the day of the election, despite long lines and technical difficulties, there was no violence. Tutu says, “It would have taken just two or three people with AK-47s to sow the most awful mayhem. It did not happen.” He describes the act of casting his first vote at age 62 as “a deeply spiritual event.” After voting, he toured the other polling sites, where he saw a transfiguration miracle in progress. He writes:
People entered the booth one person and emerged on the other side a totally different person. The black person went in burdened with all the anguish of having had his or her dignity trampled underfoot and being treated as a nonperson—and then voted. And said, “Hey, I’m free—my dignity has been restored, my humanity has been acknowledged. I’m free!” She emerged as a changed person, a transformed, a transfigured person.
The white person entered the booth one person, burdened by the weight of guilt for having enjoyed many privileges unjustly, voted, and emerged on the other side a new person. “Hey, I’m free. The burden has been lifted. I’m free!” She emerged as a new, a different, a transformed, a transfigured person. Many white people confessed that they too were voting for the first time—for the first time as really free people. Now they realized what we had been trying to tell them for so long, that freedom was indivisible, that they would never be free until we were free.
The president they elected that day, Nelson Mandela, is himself a story of transfiguration. He was jailed for 27 years as a violent saboteur against the Apartheid regime. After his release, Mandela went on to become a living symbol of freedom and “one of the moral leaders of the world.”
Archbishop Tutu fervently believes that “nothing, no one, and no situation is ‘untransfigurable’”. No one is so bad that he or she is beyond hope or the love of God. This was one of the central features of Jesus’ life. He willingly associated with the most despicable members of society. He welcomed outcasts and pariahs. Jesus was not afraid to be labeled as “a friend of sinners” by the religious establishment of his day. Tutu declares, in the spirit of Jesus, that, “Societal outcasts remain God’s children, despite their desperate deeds”. He continues:
However diabolical the act, it does not turn the perpetrator into a demon. When we proclaim that someone is subhuman, we not only remove for them the possibility of change and repentance, we also remove from them moral responsibility.
There is no such thing as an irredeemable person. No matter how far we’ve fallen, God’s love never gives up on us. Do you remember that story in the Bible about the “thief” who was crucified next to Jesus? That word, “thief”, is not very accurate. This person was not a heroic Jean Valjean or Robin Hood type of character. In fact, centuries of church tradition have called him a “thief” in order to hide what he really was: a terrorist. Crucifixion was a punishment so brutal and so shameful that it was reserved only for those who tried to overthrow the Roman government by force. The so-called “thief” next to Jesus on the cross, if he was alive today, would probably be a member of Al-Qaida.
I tell you this so that you will realize the extreme lengths to which Jesus was willing to go in order to show God’s love for all people. The terrorist called out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And how did Jesus respond to this dying Al-Qaida terrorist? “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus says this, not because terrorism is justified, but because this person is just that precious to God. No one is irredeemable. God’s love never gives up (even at the bitter end for the most despicable people).
“This is all well and good,” you might say, “and it makes for wonderful Bible stories and spiritual principles, but what about real life? In the real world, people can be downright intolerant and intolerable!”
Archbishop Tutu realizes this. In fact, it’s fair to say that he knows this fact more intimately than you or I ever could. As chairperson of the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he was charged with the task of rebuilding his country after Apartheid. It was up to the members of this group to decide how they were going to deal with the horrible atrocities and hate-crimes committed in the name of racism. Should they hold something like the Nuremberg Trials, which were used to prosecute and execute Nazi officials after World War II? There were certainly those in South Africa who deserved it.
There was one white officer in the South African security forces who “shot and killed a fellow human being, burned his body on a pyre, and while this cremation was going on actually enjoyed a barbecue on the side.” Outside of South Africa, Tutu was one of the few who visited Rwanda after the brutal genocide that was committed there in the 1990s. He saw piles of skulls with machetes and knives still stuck in them. He said of the experience, “I couldn’t pray. I could only weep.”
How can there be any hope for us, as the human race, when we are capable of so much evil?
Desmond Tutu believes we can begin to devise an answer to that question by first looking at the horrified shock we experience when we witness or even hear about acts of human brutality. He says that the reason why we experience this shock is because we normally expect people to be good and decent. Goodness, rather than evil, is what we tend to think of as “normal” for human beings. People tend to instinctively believe that our lives were meant for something better than selfishness and cruelty. And, even though each of us is a mixed bag, neither perfectly good nor totally evil all the time, we tend to be good and do right more often than not. If this were not the case, says Tutu, we would not be so shocked when people behave badly. It would just feel normal to us. The horror we feel is a sign that goodness still lives and reigns in our hearts and in the world at large.
The next logical question that a rational person might ask then is this: If goodness reigns and God is still in charge of this world, why then is it necessary for any evil to exist at all?
In order to answer this question, Archbishop Tutu points us in the direction of freedom. Freedom is one of God’s greatest gifts to the world. We were made for it. Yes, God wants us to be good and do what is right, but God wants most of all for us to freely choose to do what is good and right. God wants to have a real relationship with us but, as we all know, a relationship can’t happen unless both parties are willing to participate. So great is God’s respect for freedom that God was willing to take the risk that we would not choose good.
As the gift of God, freedom is “an inalienable right.” Archbishop Tutu says that, “an unfree human being is… a contradiction in terms.” This, he argues is the primary reason why all injustice, inequality, tyranny, and oppression is destined to ultimately fail: “they seek to deny something that cannot be denied.” “The tyrant is on a road to nowhere,” Tutu says, “Freedom will break out. People are made for it just as plants tend toward the light and toward water.”
God has reverence for freedom. God could have made human beings like robots that always do what we’re told, but instead chose to make us as free partners and co-creators with God. The ancient saint and theologian, Augustine of Hippo, once said, “God without us will not as we without God cannot.”
Have you ever read the story of Exodus in the Bible? When the Hebrew people were suffering under the oppression of Egypt’s Pharaoh, subject to slavery and genocide, God decided that it was time for them to get back the freedom that had been taken from them. And what did God do? Instantly whisk the Hebrews away to the Promised Land with a snap of the fingers? No. God invited Moses to work as a partner. God worked through Moses to liberate the people from tyranny. But that’s not all…
Not only does God work through us, God also works with us. We are not given a task and left alone to complete it. Archbishop Tutu, tells a story from the Holocaust where a Nazi guard taunted a Jewish prisoner who was cleaning the toilets in a concentration camp. The guard asked, “Where is your God now?” The Jewish man replied, “Right here with me in the muck.”
There is a story in the Old Testament book of Daniel where three young Jewish men were forced into labor in the Babylonian Empire. The king of Babylon tried to force them to bow down in worship to the gods of Babylon. When the three young men refused, the king had them thrown into the fire, but they didn’t burn up. And when the king looked into the fire, he saw them walking around, unharmed. He also saw a fourth person in the fire with them, who had “the appearance of a god.”
When it comes to dealing with the evil in this world, God does not prevent us from facing it, but promises to walk through the fire with us and gives us strength to bear the pain.
God took an incredible risk in giving us freedom and calling us to work together as partners with God and each other in the task of creating a better world. But God has decided that the risk was worth it. Regardless of whether or not we decide to believe in God, God believes in us. God never gives up on us. God loves us with a love that will not let us go.