Friday, December 6, 2013

Nelson Mandela and the Legacy of Forgiveness

The news of Nelson Mandela's passing yesterday is rightly the leading international news story of the hour.  Mr. Mandela was a leader in the fight against apartheid (the forced separation of races in South Africa with political, economic, and military power in the hands of a white minority government), a leader of the African National Congress, a prisoner of the former regime in South Africa for twenty seven years, and the first freely elected President of South Africa.  After serving his time in office, he retired, wrote, spoke, and became a father figure to his nation.

All that he accomplished is truly remarkable, but what is even more remarkable was the way in which he accomplished what he did.  Involved in a violent struggle before his capture, arrest, and imprisonment, when Mr. Mandela emerged from prison and in four years became President, he did not do so through violence and threat, and he did not govern with retribution and vengeance.  Instead, he taught and practiced forgiveness, and established tribunals to invite oppressed and oppressors to tell their stories.  These tribunals were a part of a national peace and reconciliation commission that was charged with promoted truth, justice, but also forgiveness.  Mr. Mandela rightly understood that South Africa's future could either be one where various tribes and ethnicities lived and worked together to change the imbalances and injustices that existed, or one of racial hatred and violence.  He famously said that the pursuit of retaliation was like drinking poison and hoping it would kill your enemies.  

It is a powerful testimony to Mr. Mandela's vision that the nation continues down this path--a bumpy road to be sure, with no guarantees of future success.  People of all ethnicities in South Africa honor his memory and mourn his passing.  So can, and should, all who believe that forgiveness and reconciliation in human affairs can point us toward God's greatest gift.

What humbles me most as I think about this man and his legacy is how few white Americans, even after our own legacy of slavery and civil war, were truly moved by the struggle against apartheid.  Growing up in conservative circles, the white government in South Africa with its strong anti-Communist stance was talked about as an ally that needed to be protected, rather than a state that perpetuated oppression on its own people just like the Communists did.  I'm old enough to remember well the "Free Mandela" movement, but I wasn't wise enough then to see its importance.  I saw it as a hopeless cause--it couldn't happen, I thought, and even if it did, what difference would it make?  I don't think I could have been more wrong in so many ways as I was on this matter.

Mr. Mandela changed his nation through a leadership that manifested the fundamental Christian principles of forgiveness and reconciliation.  Did he have true faith in Christ?  I don't know.  I hope that he did.  I know he was exposed to that truth through others in his nation.  I watched on television as he was sworn in as President, I heard the South African anthem--"God Bless Africa"--and for some reason I was powerfully moved.  I thought, "He has blessed Africa by bringing this change in government and freedom."  Little did I know then how much more God had blessed South Africa through the leadership of Nelson Mandela.