“Steve Biko is dead.”
These words shook Desmond Tutu, then Anglican Bishop of Lesotho. Tutu and his friends grew numb in disbelief upon hearing the tragic news of Steve Biko’s untimely death. Tutu recounts this story in his book, The Rainbow People of God: The Making of A Peaceful Revolution. “No, it can’t be true,” Tutu thought. He believed deep down that it was only a nightmare from which he and others would soon awake. But no, the South African anti-apartheid activist was dead.
In anguish, they lamented the death of their friend. One question plagued their weary minds: “Oh, God, how long can we go on?”
The year was 1977. In the heat of their struggle against apartheid, Biko, president of the Black Student’s Convention (BPC), was taken into custody on August 18. A few days later, he was handed over to authorities to be interrogated. Interrogation had begun on September 7 at 6 a.m. By 7 a.m., Biko had been brutally beaten, left naked, suffering a brain injury from three blows to the head. Five days later, Biko would be dead, at least the 10th political prisoner to die in custody that year.
At Biko’s funeral, attended by some 15,000 people, Tutu was called upon to eulogize his friend. He lamented that “it all seems such a senseless waste of a wonderfully gifted person, struck down in the bloom of youth.” Weighing on his mind was the awareness that Biko’s death, reminiscent of Tutu’s understanding of the American Civil Rights struggle, revealed that there was something deeply wrong with the soul of South Africa. Biko’s presence that had brought light to people was now enveloped by the darkness of racist violence that sought to sabotage a movement of love and justice. Tutu could only wonder, “God, do you really love us?”
Although words could not do justice to the life of his friend, Tutu knew he needed to speak words of comfort and hope for the people. He issued a challenge for everyone listening, and indeed for us: “In our grief and through our tears, we recall.” He invited those listening to recall Jesus, who “had come preaching the good news of God’s love.” As his friend and fellow theologian Allan Boesak shared, “[T]ime and time, it seems we have to learn the lesson that while our hope has to shape our politics, the center of our hope never lies in politics or politics… If we are to challenge and change the world, we must keep ‘looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.’’
For Tutu, it was Jesus who was crucified unjustly. It was Jesus who came to identify with the oppressed and “the crucified of this world.” It was this Jesus who was no “neutral sitter on the fence” but the One who could get them through their struggle for love and justice.
Moved deeply by the truth of the victorious love of God-in-Christ, he concluded, “We weep with and pray for Mrs. Biko and all of Steve’s family. We weep for ourselves.”
But that couldn’t be the end of the story. In spite of all that pointed to the contrary, God cares; He cares about oppression and injustice.
The powers of injustice, of oppression, of exploitation seemed to have done their worst but they have lost. They have lost, Tutu declared, because “they are immoral and wrong and our God, the God of the Exodus, the liberator God, is a God of justice, liberation, and goodness.” The bishop knew that freedom is coming. If God is on our side, Tutu proclaimed, “Who can be against us? What can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction and hardship?” In spite of it all, “overwhelming victory is ours through [H]im who loves us.”
Steve Biko was dead but Tutu knew Jesus Christ was alive. And because he lives, so does hope and love.