“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
As I sojourned through elementary and high school, history was the preferred class for my peers to hate. I never got that. I drank history up. I read biographies as fast as I could get my hands on them.
I have stood raptured at the Lincoln Memorial. “I Have a Dream” never fails to provide a lump in my throat. I have pored over the autobiography of Mohandas Gandhi.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters From Prison” is, for me, holy writ.
But except for Martin Luther King Jr., all of these people “rolled” before I was born. And King left his stamp on the world before I was old enough to comprehend much of anything about injustice beyond being forced to wear a crew cut hairstyle and having to shovel dog droppings in our backyard.
I feel lucky, then, that I’ll be able to talk to my grandchildren about Rolihlahla Mandela, known better to the world by his “Christian name” of Nelson Mandela.
Lucky? More hushed, reverent. I notice not feeling sad the way I would normally feel sad about someone’s death. Because Mandela lives on. He’s not gone. He’s right here. His life measures us, sifts us, inspires and guides us. When you live a life like Nelson Mandela’s, death doesn’t have much relevance.
The most perfect of perfect storms is when ignorance marries arrogance and then stumbles onto power. Inevitably, then, people suffer. That is, people without power suffer injustice.
They tend to be degraded, imprisoned, starve, bleed and die.
Ironic, then, that the only way to rebuke and overcome this storm is to be willing to suffer for the cause of justice. Justice is costly. Peace is never free. Peacemaking requires a rare form of courage: vulnerability. It’s more about absorbing and therefore extinguishing malice than it is about overpowering. More lying on a grenade than throwing one back.
See, rarely can you educate the unjust out of injustice. Virtually never do racists say, “You know, it occurs to me that it is illogical, irrational, not to mention evil to continue believing that my (tribe, religion, height, weight, skin pigment, shoe size) is morally entitled and your (tribe, etc.) is not.” Just like smokers never stop smoking because they read the Surgeon General’s warning.
The unjust don’t need an education; they need a conversion experience. Conversion experiences, too, require suffering. We must suffer painful truth (confession). A necessary shame, humiliating and humbling (contrition). Now comes liberation. Finally, reconciliation.
My most treasured heroes are the ones who can do this. They rise up to lead us into our necessary, redemptive and transforming suffering, whether we are the oppressed or the oppressor. The willingness to suffer for justice is ultimately stronger than the will of those advancing injustice.
“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
An apt snapshot of Mandela’s own conversion is beheld when you place his 1961 co-founding of the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe alongside of the 1996 Truth &Reconciliation Commission, wherein victims of gross civil rights violations were joined in dialogue with perpetrators of those violations. Likewise were victims of retaliatory violence (at the hands of those first victimized!) given the chance to confront their tormentors.
But of course! Without truth, forgiveness and reconciliation are mere cardboard facades. Pathetic pretense. A dodge.
“For to be free is not merely to cast off ones chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
The last paragraph of Mandela’s biography (nelsonmandela.org) is perfect: “Nelson Mandela never wavered in his devotion to democracy, equality and learning. Despite terrible provocation, he never answered racism with racism. His life has been an inspiration to all who are oppressed and deprived, to all who are opposed to oppression and deprivation.”
May our dear brother rest in peace.
“No ax is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying, one armed with the hope that he will rise even in the end.”