Monday, December 9, 2013

succeeding Mandela

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.


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