New Year's Eve Address by Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Delivered December 31, 1999, at the Washington National Cathedral

By the kind permission of John Allen, from the Office of Archbishop Tutu at Emory University

I was told to be reasonably brief, so I hope you will not be like the little boy who went to church with his mommy. There was a red lamp over the altar in the sanctuary, and the sermon went on for a very long time. And the little boy turned to his mommy and said, "Mommy, when it turns green, can we go home?"

How wonderful to be here, for we want to be connected to the transcendent spirit, the spirit that is love, goodness, truth and beauty. And we come to say, "Thank you, God, for having brought us to this point in our history, in the history of the world, in the history of the universe."

Isn't it just fantastic? This is not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill New Year's Eve, you know. It marks the end of a century. So it will not happen like this for another hundred years. No, it's not your normal New Year's Eve. It marks the end of a millennium. It won't happen again like this for another thousand years. It marks the end of the old and the advent of the new. In front of us stretches the unending vista of pristine days, unspoiled--not [soiled], tired and old. No. Brand new! Out of the box, as God created them.

Someone has said: "Yesterday is history; tomorrow is mystery. Only today is a gift, and that is why it is called the present."

Yet we ourselves are not entirely new. We have been formed by all our yesterdays, which we bring with us into our new todays and tomorrows. How sadly true, but a great deal of those yesterdays are filled with the wreckages and debris which pockmark our historical landscape.

We have refined, haven't we, oh so many different ways of being mean and cruel to one another? We have at one time not minded owning fellow human beings, as if they were so many animals, in the system called slavery, when they were bought and sold, separated from their loved ones, branded, prodded, exhibited and treated as so much merchandise.

This millennium, just this past century, has seen two so-called World Wars, witnessed instances of genocide almost without number. The Holocaust, the near triumph of evil systems such as Nazism, Fascism, Communism and racist apartheid.

Human beings created in the image of God have had their God-given dignity trodden carelessly under foot and their noses rubbed in the dust, heartlessly, by those who claimed to be superior beings by virtue of their skin color, their ethnicity.

The Earth is soaked in the blood of millions who have been killed in countless wars across national borders and in far too many civil wars. We have dropped atom bombs on our sisters and brothers in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We have napalm-bombed villages in Vietnam, making kids run away naked and screaming and set alight.

Countless refugees have escaped from the dictatorships and regimes that have violated their fundamental human rights with impunity. Many have just disappeared. Others have been abused and tortured, mercilessly, to satisfy the greed of a few for power and wealth.

Children have died from preventable disease. Children have gone to bed hungry whilst other people elsewhere have thrown food away because they suffered from a surfeit of good things. Children have been taught to maim and kill as child soldiers at a time when they should still have been playing.

And others have labored almost as slaves to help their families out of debt and have been abused as child prostitutes. And recently, kids have engaged in what seemed to be mindless acts of violence as in Columbine.

Religion, the different faiths, have often fueled and exacerbated sectarian strife and spawned extremisms and exclusive positions that have given religion a bad name. We have abused and exploited the environment and been wantonly wasteful of irreplaceable fossil fuels. We have devastated the rain forests.

A catalogue of woes is devastating and would be overwhelming had it been the whole story. Mercifully, wonderfully, exhilaratingly, it isn't the whole story.

We have ended slavery, haven't we? Freedom and democracy have risen from the ashes and been established in many countries in Europe, in Asia, in Africa, in the Americas, here in the United States and Canada, in Latin America.

It has all happened during this millennium that is passing. Also in this past century, we have defeated Nazism, Communism, Fascism. The Berlin Wall has fallen, and freedom has broken out all over the place.

Of course, for me, the glorious wonder has been the defeat of apartheid, showing it is possible, through forgiveness, for reconciliation to happen. The world has marveled that someone could be in prison for 27 years and emerged unscathed by bitterness, to become an icon of magnanimity, forgiveness and reconciliation, as a Nelson Mandela has.

And so we're about to witness miracles where we had come to think the problems intractable. For peace is now a real possibility in Northern Ireland, and in the Middle East, as we stand on the threshold of a new century, of a new millennium.

We have thrilled, haven't we, at the musical genius of such as Beethoven, and many, many others. We have marveled at the sporting exploits of such as a Jesse Owens, a Babe Ruth, a Muhammad Ali and countless, countless others.

Science has enabled us to walk on the moon and to place extraordinary resources at our disposal. Over the last few hours, we have watched on television different parts of God's globe celebrate the coming of the millennium, and somehow we have been connected with those as they have celebrated in Kiribati, in Bethlehem, and wherever.

We have indeed devastated the resources of our Earth planet by our wanton consumerism. But we have also tried to realize what it means to be responsible stewards of the good Earth in the environmental, ecological movement.

Medical science has made magnificent strides in combating disease, and we must surely, we will surely, find a cheap cure for HIV-AIDS and for cancer.

Sometimes there are those who have tended to write young people off. But you know, they're not all on drugs. They're not all violent. In fact, most are wonderful, idealistic and caring, many involved in voluntary work with Peace Corps, Habitat for Humanity and other projects in different kinds of ways.

And young people, we want to salute them. For they dream of a different kind of world--not so obsessed with competitiveness, but thinking of how we might be able to cooperate, to collaborate together. Not so obsessed with consumerism and materialism, but really caring, wanting to share, seeking to be compassionate. They care that we spend obscene amounts on what we call defense budgets. They hope, many of them, for the time to come when war will be no more, when we will beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. They dream of the time when the lion will lie again with the lamb.

Yes, religious faiths have sometimes, too frequently, done the awful things that we referred to. But most frequently these days, they seek to work together, to work together for peace, work together for a different ordering of society.

We ourselves, in this cathedral, in this beautiful Concert of Hope, are part of the United Religions Initiative that has sought to set aside, around the globe, 72 hours when people in different kinds of ways will witness for peace, for an end to conflict. . . .

God has brought us to this place and this time, an end of one period and the beginning of another. You know, God has brought us to this point because God believes in us. It's fantastic! I mean, God believes in us. God gives up on none of us.

You heard the story of the Russian priest who was not very sophisticated and was accosted by a brash, young physicist who trotted out arguments for atheism and said very boldly, "And therefore I don't believe in God." And the little priest said, "Oh, it doesn't matter. God believes in you. God believes in you."

God believes that whilst, yes, we do indeed have an incredible capacity for evil--and let's not pretend that is not true--each one of us here could be a torturer.

But you see, torturers don't have horns growing on their heads. They don't have tails. They look like you, like me. They are husbands and fathers. They laugh. When you see them, they look normal, until you hear them say: "We abducted him. We gave him drugged coffee. We shot him in the head. Then we burnt his body. Because it takes seven, eight hours for a human body to burn, we had a barbecue on the side. We were drinking beer and really burning two kinds of flesh: human flesh, cow flesh."

But when you meet that guy in the street, he's normal. He comes to church.

We have--all of us--an extraordinary capacity for evil. And each one of us ought to keep saying: "There but for the grace of God go I. Thank you, God, that your grace has made me to be who I am now."

Yes, we have an extraordinary capacity for evil. But that's not the whole truth about us. Nor is it the most important truth about us. The most important truth, the one that God holds onto, is that we have an extraordinary capacity for good. Fundamentally, we are good! God lays his bet on us.

And so God brings us to the beginning of a new year, of a new century, of a new millennium. Clean, clean, unspoiled time!

God says, "Get up." He dusts us off and says, "Try again." For God is giving us the opportunity of a new beginning, that we should start again. For God says: "You know, I created you for goodness. I created you for love, for peace, for laughter, for caring, for sharing, for compassion, for family."

And God has a dream--a dream that we will realize that we are members of one family. That's the one lesson God is hoping we will learn, and if it takes millennia for us to learn, God will give us those millennia.

But that's the one lesson God wants us to learn: You are family. Not as a figure of speech, but as the most real thing about us. That we're members one with another. In this family there are no outsiders. All are insiders. There are no aliens.

All, all, all belong: black, white, yellow, gray, rich, poor, educated, not educated, beautiful, not-so-beautiful, lesbian, gay, straight. "Hey," God says, "all, all." Even those we call extremists, they belong, they belong. That's why it's so radical. That's why if we were able to accept this truth, then we wouldn't--we couldn't--spend those amounts on budgets of death and destruction, when we know just a small, small fraction of that would enable God's children everywhere to have clean water, enough to eat, adequate education, accessible health care, safe home environment.

If we believed we are family, we would not be discussing what we do with budget surpluses. We'd say: "The ethic of family applies. From each according to their ability, to each according to their need." And so we'd say, "Where are they hungry?" For you see, we are God's stewards. All of this belongs to God. And God says, "I have faith in you. Heaven, let go."

In the new millennium, [let us] discover that we are family. We are exhilarated by the hope that we are good, we are good. Let us realize our potential. And God has no one except you and you and you and you and me to have God realize God's dream.

We ring out the old and ring in the new on a high note of hope, because God believes in us. This God who is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. This God who is always there.

God, Emmanuel. God for us. And if God be for us, who can be against us?





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