Friday, December 06, 2013


Nelson Mandela died last night. He was well into his 90's and had lived more life than just about any human being who's ever lived. There is no tragedy in his death; only celebration. From various Facebook postings, I came to realize that we have a large segment of young people with no real understanding of who this great man was.

A lot of good things have been written - I found this eulogy particularly moving - so I'll not recap the history here.

Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa in 1994, about the time I was really becoming conscious of the world around me. I missed Apartheid. I have no memories of the boycotts or the stories; it still seems unfathomable to me that such official, systematic, overt racial oppression could be taking place during my lifetime. It's surreal.

I remember Nelson Mandela more for the novelty - a man who was imprisoned for nearly thirty years is freed and then elected President. In my youthful naivete I couldn't imagine good people being in prison or former prisoners being elected to anything. Those ideas didn't compute.

As I learned more of the story, the transformation of South Africa was mind-blowing. White oppressors turning over the government to those they'd oppressed - and even black and white Presidents serving together. I don't recall the fear of reprisal even entering my mind - just the sheer uniqueness of the situation itself wowed me.

I continued to learn more and the powerful example of the Truth and Reconciliation process boggled my mind. That people, that a people, a nation, could be so forgiving did not compute. I was a fourteen year old kid whose slights in life were beyond minor, but I knew forgiveness was hard. This kind of story seemed too good to be true.

Then, I came upon more details of Nelson Mandela's life and I learned, perhaps my most valuable lesson. He was human.

I was raised in a very conservative, evangelical, religious environment. I certainly had the impression that good things were done by good people - and good was often defined by adherence to a strict moral code of lifestyle and belief. What's more, amazing things, miraculous things, could only be done by Christian people, because without God's help, great things didn't happen. At some point I discovered that Nelson Mandela had been married three times. He wasn't always the best husband or father. He'd violated some of the bedrock moral principles I'd been raised to use as judgments of good and bad.*

Obviously I'm a bit older now. I've faced the world in many different ways and I'm much more comfortable with both ambiguity and diversity. I'm still an evangelical and my life is pretty religious, but my idealism has also been tempered with realism and with grace. I continue to be blown away with the out-sized representation of the Gospel that South Africa represents. It's certainly not perfect - Mandela didn't create a utopia - but it's history is testament to a profound love of enemy. Mandela led the nation in valuing all people for their humanity, even if they chose actions which dehumanized themselves and their neighbors. There is no getting around the outrageous, miraculous nature of this reality.

Now, what makes it more impressive to me, is not that great things were done through the leadership of a great man, but that great things were done through the leadership of a man.

Yes, it takes more perseverance than most to endure backbreaking labor for three decades. It takes an unusual resolve to move, during that torture, from a position of violent anger to one of peaceful forgiveness. It takes wisdom beyond measure to lead a nation from the pits of ugliness without bloodshed. But at the end of the day, that perseverance, resolve, and wisdom were cultivated and accepted by and in one human being, no different from you and me. What's more, millions of ordinary human beings saw the value in his words and example, and followed him in extraordinary reconciliation.

I suspect the true gospel lesson of Nelson Mandela is not the profound power of love and forgiveness, but that this power resides within each of us and it's expression is not only possible, but realistic, for each and every one of us.

Great things come not from great people, but from ordinary (read: flawed) people willing to open themselves to great love.

*I always need to make a note here that my parents are not entirely to blame. I don't recall much overt teaching in this direction - and that which I do recall didn't come from them. My understanding and perceptions had much more to do with my environment generally than my parents specifically - and also with my own immature assumptions in attempting to make sense of a world I wasn't quite capable of understanding.

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