I know “the Reverend and the rock star” sounds like the start of a joke, not the description of a friendship. Improbable as it was, Desmond Tutu, who died on Dec. 26, and I did have a friendship, and it’s been one of the blessings of my life. Not just to know him, but to have the chance to learn from him, to take inspiration from him, and to try to get a grip of the radical Christianity he preached even, at times, against the orthodoxy of his own church.
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 was in the room when he raged against his own government as represented by the African National Congress (ANC), promising he would be praying against them if they didn’t change their ways. Prophet versus Profit. He could be pushy with his fans too, i.e. me. “Do it!” he once chided me, “or I will personally stand in the way of you entering the gates of heaven. I’m an archbishop… I have influence.” His understanding of scripture demanded he afflict the comfortable as surely as he comforted the afflicted.
Tutu’s concern for structures as well as individuals helps explain why his ministry focused not only on the consequences of injustice, but also its causes.
There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.
U2 played our first anti-apartheid gig in 1979 in Dublin, before we even had a record deal. We were teenagers who had grown up around a home-grown version of religious apartheid—applied by the U.K. to Catholics in Northern Ireland. Even then, Tutu was describing apartheid as less a structure than a metaphor for good and evil—a spiritual complement to Nelson Mandela’s more secular analysis. Beginning in the Eighties, both men had a serious impact on our band and, ever since, on my activism.
One of the first things I had to learn from him was just to listen. This, it turns out, takes a serious resolve for someone like me—someone with a big mouth and a foot the size of it.
I cannot forget the look on the very reverend’s face the first time we met him in 1998, when U2 and other guests crowded into his office of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Cape Town. The look wasn’t indulgent or even dutiful, it was polite verging on dismissive. If I could have spelled it out: TOURISTS. “Let us bow our heads,” he said to the traveling circus (half of whom were not at all religious). “And let us ask the Holy Spirit into the room to bless the work going on in this building, and to search all of our hearts for how we can do more to fulfill Your Kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven.”
The Arch wasn’t messing about. For all the mischief he was known to make, he was just not going to let us waste his time, and he wasn’t going to waste ours. He talked a while about the philosophy behind truth and reconciliation—about his deep belief that they have to happen in that order, that we need to see ourselves before we can be redeemed. Only after the truth has its way can a clenched fist become an open hand.
Then without warning he trundled us upstairs, where he had assembled a hundred or so volunteers in a large room. He announced, again without warning, that U2 was “here to play for you.” Which was awkward. We had no instruments, and we’ve never been known for singing a capella. We attempted a version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” to which he added the full stop and amen: “Neither have we.”
At one point just before we said our goodbyes, there was a moment of silence I attempted to fill with what I now recognize as a fairly inane, if not inept, line of conversation. Possibly remembering his espresso prayer meeting in the office, I asked if it was hard to find time for such prayer and meditation with all the work he was leading. Wherein he shot me another one of those looks, which if I could have spelled it out might’ve been: NOVICE. “How do you think we could do any of this work,” he berated me, “without prayer and meditation?”
This man had no distance to travel to the sanctuary of his faith. It was not a church or a cathedral. He just had to close his eyes and he was there. He taught me that prayer is not an escape from real life but a passage to it.
This was about midway through my forty-year stalking of The Arch and his radical interpretation of the gospels. The Cape Town visit took me knee-deep into the Jubilee 2000 campaign, which led the richest countries to forgive the debts of the poorest. It enlisted me in the fight against what he described as economic slavery, and in the battle for universal access to AIDS drugs and, all these years later, in the campaign for equitable access to COVID-19 vaccinations.
As a result of his admonishment and encouragement I teamed up with campaigners I met along the way to co-found three NGOs: DATA, (RED), and ONE, for which Tutu was the international patron. All three, in addressing extreme poverty, have had to come to grips with the structural racism that Tutu described, pairing his limitless capacity for joy with a limitless anger at injustice.
His life’s work made clear it was never enough for activists to call out injustice. Tutu had the gall to demand we also sup with our enemies—make ourselves known to each other in what Pope Francis later described as a culture of encounter. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Tutu chaired was not a look in the mirror, it was a hard staring at each other: of the 7,112 applications, only 849 were granted amnesty.
But the public confessional it provided had value in itself. In this radical space the Arch’s own weeping and wailing appeared to offer extra cover for others to break down in telling their stories; as he saw, it might take such permission for a society—not just an individual—to open up its heart and its wounds to the scrutiny of a collective conscience. This idea has rippled through Northern Ireland, Bosnia, the Middle East—almost every corner of conflict in the world.
For this and so many reasons we will miss Tutu’s work and his witness. We will miss his voice in a world stained by what Tedros Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, has called “vaccine apartheid.” We will miss his example at a time when truth is under siege and reconciliation a distant dream, a time when, in America and the wider world, racial injustice remains deep and unresolved.
In our era no less than the one that Desmond Tutu defined, we have to face difficult facts and confront even harder truths; we need a thorough outing of how we became ourselves, both as countries and as individuals. Tutu’s work, which was never his alone, must go on. We are wounded and scarred and divided but we need to see ourselves, in all our brokenness, before we can mend.