Tutu on Hope versus Optimism in the Middle East

Boston Globe, Oct. 26, 2007
Realizing God’s dream for the Holy Land

By Desmond Tutu

WHENEVER I am asked if I am optimistic about an end to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, I say that I am not. Optimism requires clear signs that things are changing – meaningful words and unambiguous actions that point to real progress. I do not yet hear enough meaningful words, nor do I yet see enough unambiguous deeds to justify optimism.

However, that does not mean I am without hope. I am a Christian. I am constrained by my faith to hope against hope, placing my trust in things as yet unseen. Hope persists in the face of evidence to the contrary, undeterred by setbacks and disappointment. Hoping against hope, then, I do believe that a resolution will be found. It will not be perfect, but it can be just; and if it is just, it will usher in a future of peace.

My hope for peace is not amorphous. It has a shape. It is not the shape of a particular political solution, although there are some political solutions that I believe to be more just than others.

Neither does my hope take the shape of a particular people, although I have pleaded tirelessly for international attention to be paid to the misery of Palestinians, and I have roundly condemned the injustices of certain Israeli policies that compound that misery. Thus I am often accused of siding with Palestinians against Israeli Jews, naively exonerating the one and unfairly demonizing the other.

Nevertheless, I insist that the hope in which I persist is not reducible to politics or identified with a people. It has a more encompassing shape. I like to call it “God’s dream.”

God has a dream for all his children. It is about a day when all people enjoy fundamental security and live free of fear. It is about a day when all people have a hospitable land in which to establish a future. More than anything else, God’s dream is about a day when all people are accorded equal dignity because they are human beings. In God’s beautiful dream, no other reason is required.

God’s dream begins when we begin to know each other differently, as bearers of a common humanity, not as statistics to be counted, problems to be solved, enemies to be vanquished or animals to be caged. God’s dream begins the moment one adversary looks another in the eye and sees himself reflected there.

All things become possible when hearts fixed in mutual contempt begin to grasp a transforming truth; namely, that this person I fear and despise is not an alien, something less than human. This person is very much like me, and enjoys and suffers, loves and fears, wonders, worries, and hopes. Just as I do, this person longs for well-being in a world of peace.

God’s dream begins with this mutual recognition – we are not strangers, we are kin. It culminates in the defeat of oppression perpetrated in the name of security, and of violence inflicted in the name of liberation. God’s dream routs the cynicism and despair that once cleared the path for hate to have its corrosive way with us, and for ravenous violence to devour everything in sight.

God’s dream comes to flower when everyone who claims to be wholly innocent relinquishes that illusion, when everyone who places absolute blame on another renounces that lie, and when differing stories are told at last as one shared story of human aspiration. God’s dream ends in healing and reconciliation. Its finest fruit is human wholeness flourishing in a moral universe.

In the meanwhile, between the root of human solidarity and the fruit of human wholeness, there is the hard work of telling the truth.

From my experience in South Africa I know that truth-telling is hard. It has grave consequences for one’s life and reputation. It stretches one’s faith, tests one’s capacity to love, and pushes hope to the limit. At times, the difficulty of this work can make you wonder if people are right about you, that you are a fool.

No one takes up this work on a do-gooder’s whim. It is not a choice. One feels compelled into it. Neither is it work for a little while, but rather for a lifetime – and for more than a lifetime. It is a project bigger than any one life. This long view is a source of encouragement and perseverance. The knowledge that the work preceded us and will go on after us is a fountain of deep gladness that no circumstance can alter.

Nothing, however, diminishes the fear and trembling that accompany speaking the truth to power in love. An acute awareness of fallibility is a constant companion in this task, but because nothing is more important in the current situation than to speak as truthfully as one can, there can be no shrinking from testifying to what one sees and hears.

What do I see and hear in the Holy Land? Some people cannot move freely from one place to another. A wall separates them from their families and from their incomes. They cannot tend to their gardens at home or to their lessons at school. They are arbitrarily demeaned at checkpoints and unnecessarily beleaguered by capricious applications of bureaucratic red tape. I grieve for the damage being done daily to people’s souls and bodies. I have to tell the truth: I am reminded of the yoke of oppression that was once our burden in South Africa.

I see and hear that ancient olive trees are uprooted. Flocks are cut off from their pastures and shepherds. The homes of some people are bulldozed even as new homes for others are illegally constructed on other people’s land. I grieve for the land that suffers such violence, the marring of its beauty, the loss of its comforts, the despoiling of its yield. I have to tell the truth: I am reminded of the bitter days of uprooting and despoiling in my own country.

I see and hear that young people believe that it is heroic and pious to kill others by killing themselves. They strap bombs to their torsos to achieve liberation. They do not know that liberation achieved by brutality will defraud in the end. I grieve the waste of their lives and of the lives they take, the loss of personal and communal security they cause, and the lust for revenge that follows their crimes, crowding out all reason and restraint. I have to tell the truth: I am reminded of the explosive anger that inflamed South Africa, too.

Some people are enraged by comparisons between the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and what happened in South Africa. There are differences between the two situations, but a comparison need not be exact in every feature to yield clarity about what is going on. Moreover, for those of us who lived through the dehumanizing horrors of the apartheid era, the comparison seems not only apt, it is also necessary. It is necessary if we are to persevere in our hope that things can change.

Indeed, because of what I experienced in South Africa, I harbor a vast, unreasoning hope for Israel and the Palestinian territories. South Africans, after all, had no reason to suppose that the evil system and the cycles of violence that were sapping the soul of our nation would ever change. There was nothing special or different about South Africans to deserve the appearance of the very thing for which we prayed and worked and suffered so long.

Most South Africans did not believe they would live to see a day of liberation. They did not believe that their children’s children would see it. They did not believe that such a day even existed, except in fantasy. But we have seen it. We are living now in the day we longed for.

It is not a cloudless day. The divine arc that bends toward a truly just and whole society has not yet stretched fully across my country’s sky like a rainbow of peace. It is not finished, it does not always live up to its promise, it is not perfect – but it is new. A brand new thing, like a dream of God, has come about to replace the old story of mutual hatred and oppression.

I have seen it and heard it, and so to this truth, too, I am compelled to testify – if it can happen in South Africa, it can happen with the Israelis and Palestinians. There is not much reason to be optimistic, but there is every reason to hope.

Desmond Tutu is the former archbishop of Cape Town, chairman of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

1 Response to “Tutu on Hope versus Optimism in the Middle East”

  1. 1 mlyon01 October 27, 2007 at 11:06 pm

    I think we need to be very careful about this approach to this problem. Tutu correctly states there is no reason for optimism, an expectation based on evidence of positive movement. Likewise, just being able to stay alive depends on the hope that someday the residents of Israel/Palestine (or whatever that region becomes named) will live in equality, peace, and in security, security not only for their safety but also for their needs for food, housing, water, education, and a stake in their future.

    So where’s the disagreement? Today, October 27, 2007, hundreds of thousands marched against war in the Mid-East. Two themes were “Peace Now!” and “No justice, No Peace!”

    Are these demands complementary or contradictory? I would say they’re contradictory. “Peace Now” says that peace and reconciliation is the ultimate goal that we need to work for directly. “No Justice, No Peace” says more than simply you can’t have peace without justice. “No Justice, No Peace!” says that until we get justice, we should not, will not, give the rulers peace. It’s the opposite message of “Peace Now.”

    Tutu says based on what’s going on now, there’s no basis for optimism, but that based on his experience in South Africa, there’s reason for hope, because nobody in South Africa could have dreamed that change could come there.

    But what change did come there? We should look at the posting of the shack dwellers elsewhere on this blog, who have demanded housing ever since the new government came in, and have been ignored while living in squatter camps like Latin American favelas, and whom business and government are trying to remove as eyesores, particularly before the Olympics. A month ago, Sept 28, South African police shot rubber bullets into a crowd of people protesting lack of housing. See

    The South African government has moved in a completely free market direction, services that were state-run for year like water and electricity are being privatized, and for millions life is actually worse than before. I do not believe the people of South Africa are living in the day they longed for, particularly for youth, about half the population, who were the driving force behind the resistance but are now suffering unemployment as high as in Palestine and are very angry and violent. Liberal pacifist observers say youth were used as violent shock troops by the ANC and their present violence is a continuation of their debasement, but I don’t believe this. Youth were the leaders of the rebellion, and now capitalism has failed them. See

    The faces of the government were changed, but the power was left in the hands of banks and finance capital. As the John Pilger article referenced in the Shack dweller page on this blog says, the change was not really a change, in spite of the fact that the apartheid government’s most hated, most feared opponent was moved from decades of prison to head of state.

    Before we start advancing god’s dream for the Holy Land, let’s have Him go back and fix South Africa. Until then, No Justice, No Peace!

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