Before you call me blasphemous and prepare to cast the first stone, these are not my words. This is the title of a book I am currently reading by South African Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu. God is not a Christian – Speaking truth in times of crisis is a compilation of speeches made over the past 40 years by the fearless Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the first black Archbishop of Cape Town. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership role in the South African anti-apartheid struggle. Desmond Tutu is one of the world’s most prominent advocates of faith-based social justice and religious tolerance, a man who does not shy from speaking his mind and has a fierce and uncompromising determination to tell the truth as he sees it.
This book has inspired me to pen this column this month at a time when I am reflecting on the birth of Jesus Christ and the Christian faith, which I subscribe to as a believer, and the turmoil the world and our country continues to experience, some arising from religious beliefs. I have heard it repeated several times from the pulpit that unless you are a born-again Christian, you would not enter heaven, nor see the face of God. I also know of Christians whose sole mission is to convert Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and people of other faiths to Christianity, condemning those who do not renounce their faith and become Christians to eternal fire. I never enter into faith-based arguments and will not attempt to in this article, but instead will share Desmond Tutu’s words of wisdom from his book.
Desmond Tutu advocates for tolerance and respect of people’s faith, arguing that God is not a Christian. His first argument is that the accidents of birth and geography determine, to a very large extent, to what faith we belong. He says, “The chances are very great that if you were born in Pakistan you are a Muslim, or a Hindu if you happened to be born in India, or a Shintoism if it is Japan, and a Christian if you were born in Italy.”
His second point is not to insult the adherents of other faiths by suggesting, as sometimes has happened, that for instance when you are a Christian the adherents of other faiths are really Christians without knowing it. “We must acknowledge them (people of other faiths) for who they are in all their integrity, with their conscientiously held beliefs; we must welcome them and respect them as who they are and walk reverently on what is their holy ground, taking off our shoes, metaphorically and literally,” says Desmond Tutu in a speech he delivered during a mission to the city of Birmingham, England in 1989.
He continues to say that we must hold our particular and peculiar beliefs tenaciously, not pretending that all religions are the same, for they are patently not the same, and be ready to learn from one another, not claiming that we alone possess all truth and that somehow we have a corner on God.
Desmond Tutu reminds all Christians that God created us all, not just Christians, in his image, thus investing us all with infinite worth. He reminds us all that the eternal word enlightens everyone, not just Christians, but everyone who comes into the world; that what we call the Spirit of God is not a Christian preserve, for the Spirit of God existed long before there were Christians, inspiring and nurturing women and men in the ways of holiness, bringing them to fruition, and bringing to fruition what was best in all.
He says as a Christian you would be doing scant justice and honour to our God if you, for instance, deny that Mahatma Gandhi was a truly great soul, a holy man who walked closely with God. He says the Christian God would be too small if he was not also the God of Gandhi; “If God is one, as we believe, then he is the only God of all his people, whether they acknowledge him as such or not.”
Desmond Tutu is on the side of those who contend that Christianity does not have an exclusive and proprietary claim on God. He is emphatic that God is clearly not a Christian and his concern is for all his children. He says Christians do not have a monopoly on God. “To claim God exclusively for Christians is to make God too small. God is bigger than Christianity. God is not confined to one place, time, and people. He is the God of the entire universe, the God of all,” he says.
He adds that we must not make the mistake of judging other faiths by their least attractive features or adherents. We should deal with other faiths at their best and highest, as they define themselves. It is to do God scant honour to dismiss other religious insights such as those found in Buddhism as delusions. When we do that we bring our faith and the God we claim to be proclaiming in disrepute. He says the Buddhist greeting – “the God in me greets the God in you,” is a greeting Christians could make their own more truly since they believe that every Christian is a tabernacle of the Holy Spirit, God-carrier.
Archbishop Tutu says that to acknowledge that other faiths must be respected and that they obviously proclaim profound religious truths is not the same thing as saying that all faiths are the same because they are patently not the same. He tells Christians that they must proclaim the tenets of their faith honestly, truthfully, and without compromise, and they must assert courteously but unequivocally that they believe that all religious truths and all religious aspirations find their final fulfillment in Jesus Christ. But at the same time they must grant to others the right to command their faith, hoping that the intrinsic attractiveness and ultimate truthfulness of Christianity will be what commends it to others.