I heard the news of Nelson Mandela’s death yesterday while driving home from a chaotic day. When the voice on the radio announced his death, the chaos disappeared and grief filled my heart. I know so many others felt a similar kind of sadness. Mandela was a leader passionate for freedom for himself and for his people. He showed a courage most of us cannot even fathom. His entire life was dedicated to not only believing in a better way, but making one. We will grieve, as we should, the loss of such a life. However, the overwhelming majority of us have absolutely no idea about the struggles of apartheid, no idea what it took to be Mandela or the people he was fighting with and for. We are far too privileged to know what that is like. To properly grieve the loss of his life, is to remember that as far as his work in apartheid went, we were more the enemy than the friend.
As American Christians, it is easy for us to look back at the general narrative of Mandela’s life and say without question that THAT is a life of faith. He tirelessly worked for more love, more justice, more peace. What a witness. And that is what so many of us will remember about him – that he helped to put an end to apartheid and there is no question for us that such work is of God – there is no question, anymore. But, I can’t help but wonder as we share photos, inspirational quotes, and the grief our spirits feel, how many of us would have actually applauded him during his work. I wonder how many of us, exactly because of our faith and our far too often “nice” Christianity, would have said that Mandela was too angry, too radical, too drastic or needed to be more patient. I wonder how many of us today would have been amongst former President Reagan, Congressman Chaney, and all the American citizens who called him terrorist instead of hero.
As privileged Christians, we love narratives of change that are built solely upon face to face conversation, relationship, and the patient suffering of the oppressed. With something like apartheid, something that is so distant from our own privileged lives – in social context, lifespan, and geography – it is dangerously easy to pretend the work of ending apartheid was just that. But it wasn’t. It took radical efforts, it took actions that were what many white American Christians would deem “morally questionable.” Mandela was named a terrorist because sometimes the effort to create peace and to end suffering required serious, harsh, impatient, loud, uncomfortable, angry and even violent actions. He chose freedom from oppression, an end to suffering, and future reconciliation over everything else. It was worth it. If we are to recognize the sainthood of Mandela, his place among the cloud of witnesses, we completely disrespect his life work when we pretend he did more foot washing than turning over tables in the temple. If we hope to honor his life, we have to ask ourselves if we are honoring the whole story, or just the parts we want to hear. We have to ask ourselves if his story took place today, if we would call him friend or enemy. We tend to be far more comfortable with the results of justice-seekers decades past their hardest work than we are when they are in the midst of fighting oppression. If we are to pay any true respect to Mandela and his life work, we must ask ourselves why that is.
Mandela fought for change. He did not believe in patiently awaiting a deliverance that would come from the next generation. He did not believe in talking his way to freedom. He sacrificed in ways most of us cannot comprehend. He walked a path that was far from the “nice” Christianity most of us are comfortable with, yet who would not wish to live such a faithful life? May the sadness our hearts feel compel us to learn more about who he was, the struggle he endured, and the tactics he used to achieve the legacy we all now recognize as virtuous. And may we not only ask if we would call him enemy or friend, but more importantly, may we ask ourselves what he would call us. And then, we will be able to answer for ourselves if we are willing to live a life that brings about justice, reconciliation, and true peace through not only our words but also our own actions.
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