South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke at John Hopkins University last week. He brought with him the humor of the oppressed.
He started with an oldie: "In the beginning," said the first black man ever to head the Anglican Church in South Africa, "we had the land and the Europeans had the Bible. They said, 'Let us pray' and of course, we dutifully closed our eyes.
"Lo and behold," Archbishop Tutu continued, "when we opened our eyes, they had the land and we had the Bible."
He followed that one with a goodie: "A Zambian and a South African were talking," said the archbishop, "and in the course of the conversation, the Zambian mentioned his country's Minister of Naval Affairs.
"' What is this?' exclaimed the South African. 'How can you have a Minister of Naval Affairs when your country is completely landlocked?'
" 'That may be so,' replied the Zambian, 'but don't you have a Minister of Justice?' "
At times, Archbishop Tutu worked his audience as deftly as Bob Hope: "The South African government, with great excitement, announced the beginning of its new space program. 'For our first mission,' said a government official proudly, 'we will send a manned spaceship to the sun.
"Well, somebody felt compelled to mention that the spaceship would burn up long before it reached the sun.
"' What do you think, that we South Africans are stupid?' snapped the government official. 'We plan to launch the ship at night.' "
Each joke, of course, had a moral: That injustice can never be kept hidden. That injustice is not only immoral but ultimately very stupid.
"We live," said Archbishop Tutu fervently, "in a moral universe. You know this. All of us know this instinctively. The perpetrators of injustice know this. This is a moral universe. Right and wrong do matter. Truth will out in the end. No matter what happens. No matter how many guns you use. No matter how many people get killed. It is an inexorable truth that freedom will prevail in the end, that injustice and repression and violence will not have the last word."
The Nobel Prize laureate spoke Wednesday at Hopkins' George Huntington Williams Memorial lecture series as part of a U.S. tour thank Americans for their support in the anti-apartheid movement. He is a charming gentleman -- gray-haired but as sprightly as an elf -- who frequently flashed a broad, expressive smile and who spoke with a moral intensity that held his audience spell-bound.
He told his audience that each individual can make a difference in the struggle for freedom and he shared with us his unflagging faith that people will find the will and strength to try.
And he celebrated the diversity of his country.
"You are the rainbow people of God. Black and white and all of the colors in between," he said, quoting from a speech he made during a mass demonstration in South Africa.
"Our differences," he said, "were given to us by God so that we can know that we were made for togetherness, made for a network of interdepence."
"South Africa," he said, "can become the paradigm of the world. It has all the problems of the world, writ large and writ small. It has all the disparities between the First World and the Third World. And when we get it right, then the world will say, 'Ah, it is possible for peoples as diverse as those in South Africa to cohere into a community, to learn to live together.' "
Such a message, needless to say, carries a particular resonance in America. America, too, could become a paradigm for the world, for it is blessed with the same diversity as South Africa. But unlike in South Africa, our faith in a future in which peoples of all colors can live together in peace has begun to flag.
Efforts to promote understanding and mutual respect are derided by the conservative right as "political correctness," as // though such efforts were no more than a foolish fad. Efforts to enlarge and perhaps, deepen, our understanding of women, racial and ethnic minorities, homosexuals and others have been attacked under the banner of "traditional family values." The Republican Convention last August seemed to many to have been a celebration of intolerance.
In the past few years, America has engaged in -- and won -- a space race and an arms race. The American form of government outlasted the Soviet form of government in a Cold War. Now, perhaps, we are engaged in a Rainbow Race to see which society can find strength through diversity in an age of peace.
I believe we have a head start in this race, but the South Africans seem to be gaining fast. True, their society remains rocked by violence. They have taken no more than the first tiny steps toward building a multi-racial society.
But every South African I have met has shared Archbishop Tutu's unflagging faith that a new South Africa will emerge out of the violence and the chaos. They seem determined to forge a unified people out of the multiplicity of ethnicities there. And leaders -- such as Archbishop Tutu, African National Congress president Nelson Mandela and even President F. W. de Klerk -- have been steadfast in reminding individual citizens that each of them has an important role to play in forging this new society.
I wish we had such energy and commitment here. I wish we enjoyed the kind of moral leadership South Africa appears to enjoy.
The problems that paralyze this country do not seem as clear-cut as ending apartheid. America's problems seem to involve the self-destructive behavior of groups of people: violent crime, drug abuse, multi-generational poverty.
But at bottom, the solution to the self-destruction of so many of our people lies with all of us; first and foremost with a faith and commitment that people not only can be saved but are worth saving.
Our leaders today play to our anger.
Unless that changes, South Africa will overtake us in the Rainbow Race and leave us far behind. This is one race, above all the others, that I'd like to see us win.
Wiley Hall is a columnist for The Evening Sun.