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Last Updated August 7, 2006

Archbishop Desmond Tutu Speech

Human rights activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who won the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his work against apartheid in South Africa, spoke at 8:15 p.m., Thursday, March 18 in Bender Arena at American University. The following is a transcript of his speech:

Thank you. Thank you very much. Ladies and gentleman, friends. Good evening. [a quiet response from audience] Oh please… Ladies and gentleman, Good Evening!! [A loud response from audience] Now, that sounds like you really did want me to come here. Thank you so very much for having invited me to come to your great school and to be addressing you at this particular time. We, in South Africa, will be celebrating ten years of freedom. [applause] Sometimes when you come to address a meeting such as this one and you are introduced they will sometimes say ‘oh he is well known and does not really need any introduction.’ One time I was in San Francisco when a lady rushed up, very warmly greeted me, and said ‘Hello Archbishop Mandela.’ [laughter] Sort of getting two for the price of one. [laughter]

But, it is a very great joy and privilege to be here. You would not be normal people if you were not sometimes, some what depressed by all the news reports that we get today. Most of the news is somber news. It’s news of war, of conflict, of violence—news of horrendous diseases such as HIV AIDS, news of poverty, and you would be very odd if some times you didn’t feel shocked. There is a book of cartoons by a celebrated English cartoonist, he has died. It’s a collection, of very nice line drawings, entitled My God. One of them shows God looking at posters that say ‘God is dead’ and God says ‘oh dear that makes me feel so insecure.’ But the one that I wanted to refer to particularly is God looking somewhat distraught, and quite upset really, and God says ‘Oh Dear me, I think I lost my copy of the divine blend.’

When we look at the state of the world sometimes we wonder whether God had any plan at all. When you read of disasters–floods over there; drought over there. You wonder, God couldn’t you have organized this slightly better? I mean, couldn’t you organize so that there was just about enough water for everybody? Not a great deal of water over there drowning people, and then this side no water and people dying of thirst and so on.

It almost seems as if human existence is just meaningless gibberish. As someone has said ‘a tale full of sound and fury signifying nothing.’ But is that in fact the whole picture? Haven’t we in our time seen the Berlin Wall collapse? Have we not in our time seen the shackles that bound people for so long–as in South Africa–fall from their wrists and ankles? And for that incredible day, when almost all of the world sat watching, that remarkable spectacle, of an old man emerging from prison and didn’t that somehow make you feel exhilarated? Feel good that you were human. Haven’t we seen a small, little woman dispense compassion and caring and love for derelicts in Calcutta? And really get to feel good that we human beings can in fact become so unselfish? Haven’t we? Haven’t we seen all of those extraordinary things?

I said we in South Africa are going to be celebrating next month ten years of our freedom. Ten years since we won—what can only be described as a spectacular victory over the awfulness of injustice and oppression. But you know, that victory is one that would have been totally impossible without the support of the international community.

We owe more than we can ever say to the many, many, many people around the world. People, people who were ready to boycott South African goods on our behalf. People who were ready to go on demonstrations and rallies on our behalf. And even be ready to be arrested on our behalf.

I remember coming to this country in the eighties, and especially being exhilarated by particularly young people. I used to go to university campuses and college campuses and meet up with students who ought to be worried about grades and degrees of that sort. And they were doing nothing of the kind. Fantastic. Well, of course I know, I suppose it’s an occupational hazard not to be concerned about the things that you are supposed to be concerned with. But, never mind! The thing is, there were young people–sometimes when I went to California–sitting out in the baking sunshine, in their demonstration, seeking to persuade their institutions to divest. Worrying about people ten thousand miles away. Fantastic! And I have often said I am not quite sure what cockles are, but they certainly warmed the cockles of my heart, whatever those my have been.

And so, it is an incredible, incredible privilege to be able to come back. It is not necessarily you but you belong in, in this long line of fantastic young people. And so it is appropriate because our lives are not atomistic. We are connected with those who have gone before, as we will be connected with those who come after. And so it would be appropriate to say, even to yourselves, on behalf of the millions and millions and millions of our people who today enjoy freedom—thank you, thank you thank you, thank you.

Now it would actually be nice if I was able to clap for you and all of those people out there. You’d look at it a little odd though, of course, and some out there, would say that proves what we’ve always told you… a screw loose in that guy’s head. So I invite you to join me in clapping you and for all of those others out there. Ssshhh. I know. I know. I know you are shy and reserved. And, so I discovered actually, that I, in fact, have a magic wand, which when I wave over you, turns people into instant South Africans. [laughter] So I take off my wand and I wave it over you. Fellow South Africans: how about giving these Americans a real humdinger of an applause. [applause]

Thank you, and I wave it over you and you return to your former shy selves. But thank you very much. That may seem to be an act, but you know what you accomplished. No, you don’t, you don’t. Because you have not been unfree. And so you don’t know just what it means to be free. Because it’d be like I’m trying to describe to a blind person a gorgeous sunset, or trying to describe to someone who is deaf, the beauty of a Beethoven Symphony. You have accomplished something that is quite extraordinary that enables us now to walk tall.

The upholders of apartheid never in their wildest dreams imagined that they would ever lose power. None of these dictators ever think this. They think that God is a kind of accident that happens to somebody else, never to themselves, and they strutted the world stage like cocks of the walk supported by a conniving cannibal west. This country had a policy of constructive engagement with apartheid South Africa, helping to perpetuate our oppression and humiliation. They never thought those who upheld apartheid that this is a moral universe, and because it is a moral universe, right and wrong matter.

That this is God’s world, and God is in charge. In the darkest moments of our struggle we sought to uphold the morale of our people. We sought to keep the light of hope burning by telling them,
‘Hey the perpetrators of injustice, however powerful they be, have already lost.’ And we would say to them, this is God’s world. God is in charge. Of course there were many, many moments we wish we could whisper in God’s ear, ‘God, for goodness sake, we know you are in charge. Why don’t you make it slightly more obvious?’ And then, apartheid collapsed, and freedom arose as a phoenix from the ashes.

Now we can hold our heads high. All of us. For I used to say to white people in South Africa, you will never be free until we blacks are free. Because freedom is indivisible. You can’t hold someone down, oppressing them, without joining them down there in the gutter. And so, our concern for black freedom was also, at the same time, a concern for the freedom and liberation of white people. They have discovered that is so, now. Where they used to be the piriah of the world, now they are accepted and they can walk around no longer skulking. They are proud to blazon the use of the South African flag, and are proud to let the world know that I come from Mandela’s land. The demise of apartheid, the collapse of communism, and all of that ugliness—that is proof positive of the fact that this is, in fact, a moral universe. That even an injustice can never have the last word.

You know, you and I are rightly appalled when we hear, or read, of this or that other awful occurrence. When something like the outrage in Madrid happens. When you get the things in Baghdad. When you hear of the molestation of a child. You are quite rightly outraged. I have not, as yet, ever heard anyone stand up and blatantly announce, ‘I am a child molester.’ ‘I am an abuser of women.’ Even the worst possible dictator will never say, ‘You see me. I am in this position and I violate human rights.’ None of them ever says that. Not even dictators such as those you have in Burma, or anywhere else in the world. Why… why…Why is this so? Why are you appalled when something awful happens? When you see children starving? Why? Why are you appalled when you see long lines of refugees running from this or that, fleeing from oppression or some other disaster? Why? Well, it is because you and I acknowledge that that is not the norm. That evil is not the norm. Injustice is not the norm. Poverty is not the norm. War is not the norm. It is one of the most almost incontrovertible pieces of evidence… that those are the aberrations.

The norm…the norm…the norm is goodness. The norm is compassion. The norm is gentleness.
Because that is what you and I are made for. Isn’t that fantastic? That you and I are created for goodness. You know it. You know it. Who, of you, has never experienced when you have done something gratuitously good, when you have been nice to someone when you needn’t have been. You have a wonderful glow inside of you. You really feel good.

The opposite is, I mean when you have done something lousy. Your body tells you. You, you feel it in your stomach. Anger, resentment affects you…affects you. Your blood pressure goes up because our nature is in fact to be good. That is, that is, what we are created for. That we are fundamentally good.

OK, you want some more evidence? Well, isn’t it extraordinary in cultures that seem to set such a high score in success. Cultures that are hard nosed, aggressive, macho. Who are the people we revere? Isn’t it extraordinary that people we hold in high regard are not aggressively macho? You could say a lot of things about Mother Theresa. Macho is not one of them. [laughter] She was minute like salt. [laughter] You could put her in your back pocket more or less and forget about her. But, you can’t, you couldn’t, because she seemed to have an aura, a charisma, and why, why, why did people feel so good about her? It’s because she is good. That she, here was this one who expanded herself so prodigally on behalf of derelicts.

Didn’t you, didn’t you feel good a few years ago, watching on television; a student in Beijing, standing in front of a tank, and as the tank approached, he stood there and made it veer, and then stood in front of it and made it change direction. It might not have changed a great deal. We don’t know, in fact. But, it was a moment when human beings all over the world were thrilled. You were thrilled that a human person could be as brave as that and you, and you sort of wished to identify.

Who, who is the most admired state person in the world today? It is not, it’s not someone heading a country that is militarily powerful, economically prosperous. Almost without any doubt Nelson Mandela is regarded, everywhere, universally, as a remarkable human being. He was a president of a country that well, I mean, even in my wildest moments of patriotism, I couldn’t say that we were anything more than just very small beings— militarily, economically. And yet, and yet, in the presence of this shuffling old man, people’s knees sort of buckled, because you are aware, you are in the presence of an extraordinary human being. Why? Why? Because he’s good.

When the world expected, that after twenty seven years of incarceration, he would emerge consumed by bitterness and resentment and anger; he awed the world by an exhibition of quite extraordinary magnanimity. He invited to his inauguration as president his white jailor. And said, ‘come as a VIP guest to my inauguration.’ And throughout his time as president and since, he’s been an icon of what most of us would like to be. He’s been someone who has said, ‘we will walk the path not of retribution or revenge but the path of reconciliation and forgiveness.’ --Mahatma Ghandi [applause]

So have I satisfied you that you are actually, you are actually, fundamentally good? Have I proved my case? Oh, I haven’t? Well actually God thinks so. God thinks. Do you know that God has the highest regard for you? For God you are special, with a specialness that is not replicated. You are unique. There isn’t anyone quite like you, not even your identical twin. Now you know the meaning of unique, don’t you?? Well, one day for my birthday, my wife gave me a birthday card–which is the least you can expect from your spouse for your birthday. And, on the outside it showed a couple and the caption read, ‘we have a beautiful and unique relationship,’ – which is rather nice, isn’t it? And, when you turn inside it said, ‘I am beautiful and you are certainly unique.’

But you, you, you are special to God, and God loves you. God loves you as if you as if you were the only person on earth. Your name is engraved on the palms of God’s hands and God loves you not because you are lovable. But it is fantastic. You don’t have to earn God’s love for you. You are lovable, really, only because God loves you. And God loves you even before you were. Because of an extraordinary thing that God says in the Bible to Jeremiah the prophet. When God wanted, Prophet Jeremiah said, ‘God please no, no don’t do that to me, you, please God, no, oh please God, I’m too young.’ And God said, ‘Jeremiah, long before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. You aren’t an afterthought. It is not as if I scratched my head, and said, gee whiz these Israelites are in real trouble, a pickle now what am I going to do? Ah yes, I think I am going to call Jeremiah to be a prophet… Ah Ha! From all eternity, Jeremiah, you have been part of my divine plan.’

Now you can believe this about yourself. That you, from all eternity, you have been part of God’s plan. You…You….You…I. And for those who are Christians, Ephesians says, ‘God chose us in Christ to be God’s children before the foundation of the world.’ We didn’t have to do anything. It was given freely and your worth is infinite. You aren’t an after-thought. Isn’t that beautiful?? You aren’t an after-thought. You aren’t an accident. Some of us might look like accidents. But I mean no, no one is an accident. Isn’t it incredible?

And so God said, ‘I have a dream, I have a dream, that my, my children will come to know that they are family. I have a dream. I have a dream that they will recognize there are no outsiders in this family. That all, they all belong.’ Fantastic. Too many of us think it is, oh well, sentimental stuff. That isn’t it. Some of the most radical political stuff that we are family. All, all, held in an embrace of love that will not let us go. God gives up on no one. All. All rich, poor; tall, short; substantial, not so substantial; beautiful, not so beautiful; clever, stupid. All, all, all, men, women, children; old, young; white, black, red, yellow. All, all, all, all, all, gay, lesbian, so-called straight. All, all, all, all, all. [applause] All belong. All. Sharon, Arafat, belong in this family. Bush, Bin Laden, family. Family. Family. It’s explosive stuff really, it’s explosive stuff. Imagine if they really believed it. If, if as you took off with your bombers you realize, hey, I will drop these on my family, my sisters, my brothers. If we accepted this, how in the name of everything that is good, can we justify spending as much as we spend, on what we call budgets, defense budgets. How, how could we possibly? [applause]

How could we possibly justify it when we know a very small fraction of those budgets would ensure that our sisters and brothers, and children over there…our family would have clean water, enough to eat, decent education, educate, health care. We know this if we are family. No outsiders. All are insiders.

God says, ‘Please, please help me realize this dream.’ And some of God’s best collaborators are the young, because you dream. You dream God’s dream. You dream that it is possible for this world to become a better world and I have been told that at this university especially, you make a point about service. That many of you go out to other parts of the world. Fantastic! Because when you look around, there must be times when God said, ‘Gee, whatever got into me to create that lot?’ When God sees the kind of things we do to one another. God sees the Holocaust. God sees genocide in Rwanda. God sees apartheid. God sees racism. God sees. There’s a whole long list. And God weeps. God weeps to see our inhumanity to one another. God weeps and then, God sees you…as you go out to these poverty stricken places, where you don’t get any publicity. You go and you help and you build schools, and you build clinics, and you help, and you help. And the smile breaks through God’s tears, and God, God begins to smile and says, ‘Yeah, they have vindicated me. They vindicated me. Yea, yea.’ And then, God’s smile is like sunshine breaking through the rain. God smiles and says, ‘Yea, yea, they are helping me to realize my dream. For I have made for this world goodness, love, laughter, joy, compassion, peace, caring, gentleness. Help me. Help me. Help me realize my dream. Help me, help me make this a home that is hospitable to goodness, to laughter, to joy, to peace, to caring. Help me, help me. I have no one, God says, except you.’ [applause]

Thank you.

American University
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President John F. Kennedy spoke at American University's Spring Commencement on June 10, 1963. In this speech Kennedy called on the Soviet Union to work with the United States to achieve a nuclear test ban treaty and help reduce the considerable international tensions and the specter of nuclear war at that time. (text of speech)

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