Christmas and the Gift of Forgiveness
If we believe in the incarnation; Emmanuel, God with us, it is essential that we examine, engage and interact with the events in the middle of our collective experience. Nelson Mandela’s death is one of these things that prompt us to engage in with our faith. It is not always clear, definitive nor accurate but it is a discussion that needs to take place more often.
The central theme in the coming of Jesus Christ at Christmas is that his birth, life, passion, death and resurrection make possible the forgiveness of God through the Christ. Forgiveness is often seen as an Easter gift but for more than obvious reasons, that gift begins at Christmas. This reconciliation to Christ through the Easter resurrection and my claiming ‘what is on offer’ becomes the central narrative of human history and my own life. I’m going to look at the life of Nelson Mandela in the context of this Christian understanding.
There is little to be said about Nelson Mandela that has not been said already. There are some interesting sidebars, however, that might be of interest. To be blunt, his primary contribution is his expression and modelling of forgiveness in his later years… much of the rest of his life is far too complicated to comment on… there are exceptions, but complicated is probably the rule. His autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, has some interesting perspectives. He followed his mother’s Methodist faith and was baptized even though he lived in a patriarchal culture where his father rejected the faith. He saw, and I quote, “The church was as concerned with this world as the next; I saw that virtually all of the achievements of Africans seem to have come about through the missionary work of the church” (pg. 19). His chief spiritual friend and mentor, Rev. Matyolo, was “of the fire and brimstone variety, seasoned with a bit of African animism. The Lord was wise and omnipotent but he was also a vengeful God who let no bad deed go unpunished”(pg. 19). There is no autobiographical comment by Mandela that his early experience of faith was a central theme in the rest of his life. In fact, he considered the conversion of his first wife, Evelyn, to being a Jehovah’s Witnesses as the cause of the break up of their marriage. Not because she was a JW, but in part because she “attempted to persuade me of the value of religious faith” (pg. 206) (over the value of political activism). Mandela seemed to see this an as either “or” choice. His mentors and heroes were those whose pictures hung on the wall of his home: Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin and Ghandi. It is to Mandelas credit that in his autobiography, he doesn’t seek to conceal his embrace of Stalin.
I do not know whether I would have had the courage to seek non-violent protest. Nor do I know whether many of us in the face of violence would have not sought to take up violence ourselves. Amnesty International shed Mandela as one of their ‘prisoners of conscience’, when he signed up for the cause of violence. It was a huge rupture at the World Council of Churches when, despite the ANC’s engagement in violent struggle, the World Council supported them. There are a lot of complicated issues here. I simply describe them and leave you to interpret. I was moved by one South African BBC news reporter who summed up Mandela after his death by saying, and I paraphrase, “He was no saint but he was instrumental in the process of reconciliation”.
Mandela made up his mind for whatever reason that forgiveness would be his creed after he left prison. He proceeded to very publically and resolutely meet, socialize with, and be publically and privately reconciled to those who had harmed him…a prison guard who was invited to his inauguration; the growing and deepening friendship with de Klerk, the last Afrikaanner and white South African President; the visits with the prosecutor who had sent him to jail or lunch with the widows of the South African presidents who had initiated apartheid. All these were utterly important for peace in South Africa, and showed that Mandela had learned through his own suffering and the suffering he had sometimes caused others, that real courage lies in forgiveness. Desmond Tutu commented on the day of Mandela’s funeral that it was a travesty that the Dutch Reformed Church and others who identified with white South Africa were not part of his memorial funeral. Mandela had learned to be forgiving and a reconciler. The ANC has clearly not learned that lesson.
When the now deceased CBC personality Barbara Frum interviewed Mandela during the week of his release from prison, she asked him whether during his incarceration he felt like a Job or a Moses (quite insightful given Frum’s general attitude towards religion). Mandela replied that that was for other people to decide. He defied the role of prophet and embraced the role of servant, which is instructive.
If the central theme of my life is the forgiveness of God and my reconciliation and relationship with Christ then what am I to do with Mandela and a very public death which is imbedded in the Christmas season? In all the media commentary and at the state memorial and funeral it is in the main, a generic god that is being spoken of. Jesus rarely gets a mention. We are asked to follow Mandela’s example, not our Lord’s (although former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda’s challenge to be a Christian was wonderful). No one even dares suggest that we are to imitate Mandela because he was imitating Jesus… no one suggests it because it’s not necessarily true. Nevertheless, I am moved by the man, respect and honour his suffering and find that he is in the handful of courageous folk in the 20th century who learned the lessons of forgiveness; and I believe that the roots of that come only from the Holy Spirit… the source Mandela drew from.
Enough of Mandela. This letter has gone on long enough but I need to say one more thing. I experienced two dramatic times this year when the Lord shook me out like a dirty, dusty rag and awakened my own need to forgive and seek the forgiveness of others. It was and continues to be an amazing journey that I only regret I did not start sooner. I regret that I do not do it more often.
PS: I once referred to a Marianne Williamson poem which is associated with Mandela… it is thematically appropriate to attach it to him and I share it with you again.
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness
That most frightens us.
We ask ourselves
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small
Does not serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking
So that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine,
As children do.
We were born to make manifest
The glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us;
It’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we’re liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.
May the gift of forgiveness that comes to us through the Christ child this Christmas dwell in each of us richly. As we have sought from the Lord His forgiveness, might we receive it and grant it to others this day and forever more. Amen.
Jeremy Bell, CBWC Executive Minister