It astonishes me to think that three of the moral giants of our time have deep roots in South Africa.
Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (pictured both on the cover of a new book and in the photo below right).
Yes, Gandhi was a native of India, and it was in India that he did his most impressive life's work, but he spent 21 formative years in South Africa first as a young lawyer.
I'm not sure I can explain how one country can help produce such towering people, but I can celebrate these leaders. And one way to do that is to learn more about them.
That's why I'm glad that Tutu's daughter and others have created Tutu: Authorized, a far-ranging biography that includes insights from many souces. Its official publication date is Oct. 4 but it can be preordered now. (The book is issued on the occasion of Tutu's 80th birthday on Oct. 7.) The perhaps-surprising thing about this authorized biography is that, although it certainly is full of praise for Tutu, it also includes crtical comments and analysis of his strengths and weaknesses.
For instance, I was surprised to learn how long it took for Tutu to have any sense of calling to the ministry even though he'd committed to becoming a pastor because "it was a job and he needed one." Only later did he really believe himself to be called by God to the ministry. The authors are Allister Sparks, a journalist, and the Rev. Mpho Tutu, the archbishop's daughter.
Tutu, who helped lead South Africa out of the evil system of racial segregation known as apartheid, "did not do it alone," as the book says. Indeed, Tutu is known for what's called "ubuntu theology." It's an approach that emphasizes our interconnectedness. Ubuntu theology insists that if one member of the community is not well, the whole community is not well.
Desmond Tutu was a bit of a reluctant leader of the liberation movement in South Africa. He stepped into the interim leadership role when just about everyone else, including Mandela, had been jailed, silenced or both. Part of the story in this book is how he managed to walk a careful line between appealing for support to more militant segments of the oppressed society and, at the same time, not alienate powerful white interests who could easily jail and silence Tutu himself.
When Mandela finally was released from prison, Tutu moved out of his political role and more intentionally back into his role as an Anglican clergyman, in which role he became a champion for peace and -- like Mandela after him -- a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
In addition to many excellent photographs, the book is full of lots of interesting family history along with words about Tutu from such people as Barack Obama, Bono, the Dalai Lama and Bill Clinton.
We may have to wait until some years after Tutu is gone for a definitive biography by a qualified historian, but in the meantime this book can help introduce people who may not know much about Tutu to this remarkable man.
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AS FOR GOD, I'M THINKING, I'M THINKING
A new Harvard study finds people who are more intuitive in their thinking processes tend to believe in God more than do people who are more reflective thinkers. Intuitively that seems right but I bet if I reflect on it for awhile I'll disagree.
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THE BOOK CORNER
All Is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir, by Brennan Manning. Yes, I declare it legal to talk about two new books in the same blog posting. And like Tutu: Authorized, this life story by former Franciscan priest Manning is due out officially Oct. 4 but can be preordered now. Manning has lived a rocky, desperate, redeemed, fallen, glorious life and his many fans will want to hear what he says are his final words, given that he's in his late 70s, is frail and in ill health. There's something profoundly sad about the story he tells, especially his relationship with his emotionally distant mother, whose funeral Manning failed to attend because he had passed out drunk in a motel room. Many other family dynamics come into play in this story as well, and few of them seem healthy. Still, even though there's pain and depravity and even desperation in Manning's story, you also will find redemption and a sense of both forgiveness and reconciliation, not just with other people but also with God. And it's God's amazing love for him and for all of creation that Manning moves us to ponder. For, as he writes, in the end all is grace.
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P.S.: The Vedanta Society of Kansas City will present the third Arjun Kumar Sharma Memorial Lecture at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Hall, 7725 W. 87th St., Overland Park, Kan. The speaker will be Swami Sridharananda, the sixth president of the Ramakrishna Order of India, with which the Vedanta Society is affiliated. For more details, click here.
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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online. To read it, click here.