Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1931-2021), coming from a humble background, was a legendary South African anti-apartheid fighter, human rights activist, and leader of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission when apartheid-segregation had finally been brought to end through negotiations and decisions during 1990-1993, making it possible for Nelson Mandela to become the first black president and head of state from 1994-1998. Frederik Willem de Klerk was the last white president in the majority black land, who took initiative to free Nelson Mandela from his 27 year-long prison term on Robin Island in1990. De Klerk and Mandela received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for having made the sad and cruel system end peacefully. It had been a burden especially to the oppressed since it was introduced in 1948, although many policies had started early in the century. The system was also a burden to the oppressor.
This we all know, you may say. Good, but let us repeat it and recall it from time to time, especially now when the world has fewer international leaders of such unique standing, fighting for peace and justice, and criticising whoever it is that had faltered, as we all do, not only praising those who have done the right. The Commission that Tutu chaired did exactly that. In his work that followed, Tutu kept up his tireless efforts focusing on a range of human rights, social, political, and theological issues, including same-sex relations, leaders misuse of power, the Iraq War, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, terming it apartheid, and many other difficult issues. He spoke about ‘African theology’, but did not use the term ‘black theology’, as there should be no racial borders. Desmond Tutu belonged to the Anglican Church, which in today’s Pakistan is called the Church of Pakistan, a united Protestant Church, and it is the main Christian denomination in the UK.
Desmond Tutu said many wise and soul-searching things about peace, justice, fairness, and more. For my article today, I shall draw attention to one single sentence, which has wide implications and is useful for our further thinking and actions: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Bible and the Quran
The Bible and the Quran stress the importance of peace and justice; the Bible gives perhaps more emphasis to peace and equality, while the Quran focuses more on justice and fairness. My friend Dr. Barbara Ayisha Mustafa, who passed away four years ago at the age of 77, was American born but a resident in Pakistan for much of her life; she had converted from a culturally Christian upbringing to Islam, and she often mentioned that she found the commonly used idea about ‘equality’ difficult to understand, and she emphasized instead ‘justice and fairness’, making it more directly tailored to measure for different groups and individuals. At the same time, there are also areas where standards and absolutes should be applied. For example, rules and regulations in the working life are needed and they should be the same for all.
It remains an advice in the holy books that those who can afford it, should help the needy. Now as Eid-ul-Adha is coming up, we know the advice about sharing f the meat: that one-third should be given to the poor, one-third to neighbours and friends, and one-third to the household itself. It is also an advice to give zakat, and both Christianity and Islam advice that a portion of the income should be given to the needy, and one-tenth is recommended. Among Christian groups and sects, I believe few still practice this in a more strict sense, except for the Mormons Church who follow this and also other ‘old-fashioned’ ways.
In today’s modern world, we expect the government to handle tax collection and redistribution to resources and welfare. Civil society and religious organizations also carry out important tasks. But to develop broad-based systems we rely on the state, political parties, labour unions, various interest organizations, and so on – and that work never ends. It is a fact that in all countries, those lowest on the social and economic ladder receive too little assistance and too few opportunities; there is not really justice and fairness for all, but it varies from country to country. In the world’s richest country, USA, it is a sad fact that even there the daily needs of poor people are not met, and many are African-Americans. In the current situation with high inflation and price increases, many people experience more challenges, in the West and worldwide.
In all countries there are people who work for improving the situation of the poor. Let me honour a unique Norwegian labour union leader, Yngve Hågensen, who just passed away at the age of 84. He was the country’s chair of the central Labour Union Organization for 12 years. In 1945, at the beginning of WWII, he and his brother were sent from the remote north of the country to the south, where they grew up in orphanages, separated from each other and shifted around to several homes, some of them were not very good, he said in his memoir book, ‘Gjør din plikt, krev din rett’ (in English, ‘Do Your Duty, Claim Your Right’).
Norway and Pakistan
He thrived at his last orphanage, which was at a farm at the town of Hønefoss, an hour’s travel from Oslo. He only had the opportunity of complete the seven-year compulsory primary school, but later he attended labour union courses, as was common in those days. He worked at a paper mill for two decades and was active in the union. When he was about thirty he met Astrid, who became his wife and life-long companion, making the home he never had with their two daughters in a red house with a garden and a dog. His life story contains more than enough material for novels and films, including social and development history, interesting to us all, in Norway, Pakistan and beyond.
Yngve Hågensen was known for his direct language, rather flavoured with fresh working-class expressions used on the factory floor rather than in conference rooms. He was not in favour of people with long education and degrees almost automatically being entitled to better pay. In his books, he said that it is how you use what you have put into your head – notably first of all working for ordinary working class people.
In our time there seem to be fewer genuine, colourful leaders and fighters for the poor, the downtrodden and needy. But they are there, men and women, in labour unions, political parties, churches, mosques, civil society organizations, and so on. We need them, and we as ordinary people should support individuals, groups and organizations that work for justice and fairness for all, even those higher up on the ladder.
In the Bible’s NT, in Matt 25:31-46, Isa/Jesus says that we should “feed the hungry, cloth the naked, lodge the stranger”. He adds that many people were evasive to admitting they had not done what they could. In Mark 12:30-31, he says: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” Let us reflect on the secular stories, and the work of the people I have drawn attention to above, and indeed the advices from the holy books, especially now as Eid-ulAdha approaches and will soon be celebrated. Dear reader, may I wish you Eid Mubarak.
The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from university, diplomacy and development aid. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org