SAFM, one of the world's great radio stations, has been particularly fascinating since Tata Mandela's passing last friday. Every show has been dedicated to the discussion of his life and legacy. One strand that has run through it all has been the constant tension between deification of Mandela and "he was a human who himself admitted that he made mistakes."
What has been clear is that he enacted for us, in our own time and place, exactly what Jesus meant by "love your enemies." The events of the past weeks coming during advent have given reality to why God HAD to come in human form. The law was good--Jesus called its greatest commandment "you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. And you shall love your neighbour as yourself" (Matthew 22:37-40). But without seeing it acted out, most of us are unable to imagine how it could apply in our lives. Jesus showed us. And so have many others in their humanness. Mandela had the opportunity to do so in such a large way. When we see it we are utterly captivated. Enthralled.
And yet we will not be able to deify him, we cannot make him into God. That can only happen for one who really is God--for Jesus who does not lie in a grave.
The question that everyone on SAFM is asked is how they will carry on Mandela's legacy in their own life. And my answer is that I will do so by, like him, hoping to live the Jesus way of love in every small action so that if I am put in a situation where larger sacrificial choices are required I will be prepared to do so.
Monday, December 9, 2013
One metaphor for Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela has repeatedly emerged for me in the wake of his passing last Thursday. Sunday's City Press paid tribute to Africa's "towering baobab", lauding Mandela as the indisputably sturdiest tree in a forest of African leaders. My reading of that comparison came on the heels of Sunday worship in which the service's leader employed an image from his native Ghana to describe the great South African--Mandela the man with a "heart of oak." Interestingly enough, on Friday another friend had related to us a story from the Ghanaian context.
Our friend, Professor Tony Balcomb, was a friend to the great Ghanaian theologian, the late Kwame Bediako. Bediako, mentor to many, died of cancer when still at the height of his academic powers. On a visit to the institution that Bediako had founded, Balcomb received a vision of a tree that reached to the sky, forming a great canopy. The tree was felled, but a forest of trees had sprung up in the absence of its great shade. The vision was a window on reality: Bediako had been an inspiring teacher, and in his absence his institution was flourishing with a new generation of scholars.
Mandela's death signals the end of an era. There are many reasons why Mandela is beloved, but foremost in the eyes of the world was his example of forgiveness. The point was brought home strongly again by another acquaintance. "We hated those guys," he said, referring to those whites who oppressed him and his comrades. His point was that they were ready to seek vengeance at their leader's command, but that Mandela had come out of prison speaking peace. There is a very real sense in which Mandela changed the course of history. Without Mandela, South Africa would not be in the position that it is in today.
Even so, it is only without Mandela that South Africa can enter a new era of freedom. The defining mark of greatness is the humility to see oneself in the company of others, to perceive that the purpose of life is to give life to others. It seems to be true that, at the appointed time, only the termination of a present state can bring about a desired maturity. In the departure is struggle, and also opportunity, learning, and the freedom to do "greater things" (Jn 14:12) than those who have gone before.
Inspired by Mandela's start, it remains for South Africa-- and the world--to pursue with greater urgency the justice and peace which are ever before us.