A faithful, meditative, strong voice for peace

Rabble-Rouser for Peace: The authorized biography of Desmond Tutu
By John Allen
New York: Free Press, 2006.

Reviewed by Joe Gunn

Is Desmond Tutu a noisy gong, a clanging cymbal, or, as this authorized biography attests, “a rabble-rouser for peace?”

Two dozen years after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, South Africa’s first black Anglican Archbishop, now in his 77th year, has recently made forceful demands on world leaders to boycott the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. In March, while seated beside the only two South Africans who rival him in esteem, Nelson Mandela and Albertina “Ma” Sisulu, Tutu issued a frontal attack on the corruption and arrogance of the ruling leaders of the African National Congress (ANC).

Author John Allen, a white South African journalist, worked as Tutu’s press secretary, and later as director of media liaison when Tutu chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Allen’s third book about Tutu limits criticism to the diminutive cleric’s “folly” of insisting that a poorly-designed fountain be built at the Archbishop’s residence. (Tutu also had playground equipment installed on unused land and opened the swimming pool to the diocese for picnics.)

Allen does allow us some privileged access to understanding what has made the great man tick. Tutu’s immense commitment to a disciplined prayer life is described in one of the book’s most moving passages. “Tutu the ebullient extrovert” and “Tutu the meditative priest who needed six or seven hours a day in silence” are shown to be two sides of the same coin. A telling anecdote recalls how Tutu agreed to meet Oliver Tambo and Thabo Mbeki, two of the ANCs most senior leaders in exile, early one morning. The archbishop had the two attend Mass before getting breakfast!

Former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore, who worked with Tutu at Harvard, has likened Tutu’s moral authority to Gandhi’s “truth-force.” Christians interested in social change will benefit from reflection on Tutu’s “African model for expressing the nature of human community” in the crucible of one of history’s greatest liberation struggles.


  • Joe Gunn

    Joe served as Executive Director at CPJ from 2008 to 2019.

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