Retiring from Public Life, Desmond Tutu Reflects on Good and Evil

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Miguel Gomez / AP

Nobel peace prize laureate South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Even when it comes to religion, Archbishop Desmond Tutu can't resist a joke. He begins his interview with a prayer then, asking an assistant for a milky cup of Milo, says: "If you put any water, you are not going to heaven." A day after announcing he will retire from public life on Oct. 7 — his 79th birthday — Tutu spoke to TIME's Africa bureau chief Alex Perry at St. George's Cathedral in Cape Town.

Looking back over your career, what have you learned?
As human beings we have the most extraordinary capacity for evil. We can perpetrate some of the most horrendous atrocities. That would be awful if that was the end of the story. But, exhilaratingly, people also have an incredible capacity for good. People who should have been consumed by anger and bitterness and lust for revenge have shown in so many instances a remarkable magnanimity, a nobility of spirit. That's the chief lesson I have learned. That in spite of all the horror of injustice and oppression, and the sense that those who perpetrate evil tend to appear invincible, the texture of our universe is one where there is no question at all but that good and laughter and justice will prevail. In the end, the perpetrators of injustice or oppression, the ones who strut the stage of the world often seemingly unbeatable — there is no doubt at all that they will bite the dust. (Laughs) Wonderful! Wonderful! Wonderful!"

Where does your certainty come from?
I come from a tradition that knows of a biased God. People often speak of God being even-handed. God is not even-handed. God is biased, in favor of the weak, of the despised. In the Bible, we first encounter God when he sides with a bunch of slaves against a powerful Pharaoh, an act of grace freely given. The pattern continues until Jesus Christ comes and you see God must have very low standards, when you look at the company Jesus kept: prostitutes, all of the riff-raff of society. Some people say: "You should have been preaching the Gospel." But [what I preach]is the Gospel. A God who is on the side of those who do not deserve it.

In parts of the world, religion struggles for relevance. But you've been at the forefront of political struggle for decades.
It's not just a political struggle. We've had controversies about the ordination of women. You have to ask: "What is God's vision on this one?" And almost always you can bet your bottom dollar that God is going to be on the side of the one who is being clobbered. We need women. Then there's the whole question of sexual orientation. I would not be able to worship a God who was homophobic. I wouldn't understand how in this one instance, Jesus would be found supporting those who were oppressing others.

Do you worry about leaving a vacuum?
(Laughs). It would be so arrogant to think: "Oh, I am really indispensable. I am the cat's whiskers. You are never going to ever have another like me!" Oh gee! That's awful! Some people get the opportunity of the limelight, but when you think of something like Darfur, the people who really do the rough work and get into the trenches, those are the real stars. You stand out in the crowd only because you have these many, many carrying you on their shoulders.

How do you see the future?
Anyone who was not thrilled by the World Cup needs to go see their psychiatrist. The pride. The amount of people flying the flag. It was just crazy! We have shown the world. We have shown ourselves. We can meet deadlines. We build state of the art stadiums. We can actually control crime. We have got the ability. We [can] make every South African proud [and] feel they matter. One has a great, great exhilaration about the possibilities. [Then there are] the young people in our country. They take your breath away. Man! They really can make this country hum. The sky is the limit now. So I am excited about that. My sense is that we are a scintillating success waiting to happen.

Are you really retiring?
If I am going to keep married. (Laughs). It's going to be fun. I might get a little frustrated sometimes ... but I am going to resist that, bite my tongue, and enjoy just being an old man, looking on as the young come into their own. I have had a good run. Other people must be given opportunity, [people] who maybe have been restrained because there were creatures like Tutu. "When will Tutu shut up, for goodness' sake?" (Laughs).