Rev. Douglas Taylor
December 7, 2014
“Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up.” (Nelson Mandela) If there is any lesson from Nelson Mandela’s life that I would offer up – that I believe he would offer up – to anyone struggling for justice, fighting against oppression, striving for freedom, it would be this: “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” (Nelson Mandela)
Mandela’s life is a testimony to the complex alchemy of persistence, forgiveness, anger, resilience, and humility that forms the heart of humanity. As a young man he was a political activist and an angry agitator against the South African government. He spent 27 years in prison and emerged a leader for the nation becoming the country’s first black president. He sought reconciliation rather than revenge. When he rose to power and prominence, instead of exacting justice in the form of retribution, Mandela chose to seek justice in the form of reconciliation; notably through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established under his presidency. Apartheid had taken its toll on the nation; it was no simple thing to begin the work of dismantling. But that is exactly what he did.
Mandela was a truly remarkable individual. He became a symbol for the nation, but he was not just a figurehead or showpiece for the movement. He was the real deal: full of flaws and contradiction as well as conviction, compassion, perseverance, and vision.
There have been half-a-dozen movies about his life or his impact on South Africa. Mandela has been portrayed by Danny Glover, Morgan Freeman, Idris Elba, and Sidney Poitier. Through the 80’s there were numerous concerts and musical events lionizing Mandela and calling for his release. For a time, he was a world-famous prisoner. As a teenager I learned about Apartheid through activist musicians like Peter Gabriel and Bono. The album produced by Little Steven about artists refusing to play at Sun City, South Africa was my introduction to apartheid. That amazing song by The Specials (Free) Nelson Mandela and Johnny Clegg’s Asimbonanga were part of my regular listening in high school. Mandela became a symbol. When they sang “Free Nelson Mandela,” they were also saying “free South Africa and the black South African people.” But he was more than just a symbol, he became the movement.
He became powerfully useful to the anti-apartheid movement while in prison. When he came out of prison he was able to demonstrate that he was not just a symbol of the oppression and injustice, he could be the leader his country needed. And then when he refused to run for a second term in office he helped demonstrate that the people could be the people the country needed without him. He was an activist, prisoner, a president, and a retired statesman depending on what his people needed and circumstances demanded.
He often talked about the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley as being critically inspiring during the difficult years of his imprisonment.
Out of the night that covers me
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
The title, Invictus, is Latin for unconquerable. It was an acknowledgement of strength and of humility. Mandela shared in the gratitude expressed in the poem. Having spent as long as he did in prison, having struggled to achieve freedom for himself and his people before prison, Mandela knew something of the fell clutch of circumstance. The poem continues:
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
This poem helped him to stay strong and to persevere through his trials and difficulties. And it helped him to remain grounded when, later in his life, fame and celebrity and power threatened to distract him. There was an earlier time, however, before the fame and recognition. The South African government worked to have the African National Congress and all its leaders including Mandela erased from national memory. After they arrested and convicted Mandela and other ANC leaders in the early 60s, they banned the ANC organization and made it illegal. The history taught to the upcoming generation was devoid of this information.
Angry black South African activists in the 70’s were struggling against the oppressive system of apartheid strangling their communities. They fought back as best they could. They had heard some stories, whispered stories, of organizations that had tried in the past to win freedom yet had failed. When these young activists were arrested, tried, and sent to prison, something unexpected occurred. Many of the political prisoners were sent to Robbins Island – an Alcatraz-like island of rock of the cape. There they encountered Nelson Mandela.
Mandela would take these young activists and agitators under his wing. He would share with them Henley’s poem about the unconquerable soul. He would urge them toward models of protest that were grounded in non-violence and in the inclusion of white allies.
Mandela had not started as a proponent of non-violent protest. His incarceration was for being part of the “Spear of the Nation,” the armed wing of the ANC that attempted to sabotage the government. Mandela’s commitment to non-violence was a tactical decision – he saw how powerful it could be. In fact, several times throughout his imprisonment, he was offered release if he would only renounce violence – and every time he refused, he would not compromise. Margaret Thatcher called the ANC a typical terrorist organization. Our U.S. government kept its distance as well, due to the ANC’s communist connections. Indeed there is reference to the CIA having a role in Mandela’s arrest back in the 60’s.
But one of the marks of Mandela’s greatness was his ability to grow and change as the needs of the situation changed. He shifted to a strong advocacy of non-violence not because he found violence abhorrent or because it went against his conscience. No, he shifted his perspective because he saw that non-violence was a more effective tool for accomplishing his goal of freedom and healing for his country.
After being released in 1990, Mandela went on a campaign to strengthen the international pressure to end apartheid and establish elections. He encouraged every party to participate, even those who had been his enemies before and during his imprisonment. He wanted the freedom to apply to everyone. After winning the election, he launched the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Again, he insisted that there be no exemptions, so even his own party, the ANC, was investigated and called to account.
There has been a significant amount of study concerning the effectiveness of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work. Often compared against the Nuremberg trials after World War II, the two cases serve as the real-life examples in the debate between restorative justice and retributive justice in terms of human-rights violations. One of the signature pieces of the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa was the capacity for people to apply for amnesty. I find it interesting to note that there were just under 850 amnesties granted out of the more than seven thousand cases considered by the commission. That is a little under 12% according the historical records of the official Truth and Reconciliation website.
Which is the next distinctive mark I want to lift up about Nelson Mandela and his impact: it is complex. Peace and prosperity did not just flow in on Mandela’s election day. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission didn’t just thank war criminals for their testimony and let them walk free. Forgiveness is hard work. Freedom is a complicated path to walk. Mandela called South Africa a rainbow nation. He called the people to see themselves as one nation across the different ethnicities and parties. He called them to be something that did not yet exist.
The urge in us toward retribution and retaliation is a powerful drive, a very real part of our nature. Often the oppressed rise up in a fight for freedom, only to trade places to become the new oppressor. Mandela’s capacity to walk out of prison after 27 years without bitterness and a desire for revenge is remarkable. What would you do given similar circumstance? What have you done in your own circumstances? Mandela would not advocate a quick fix, a platitude for the gapping injustice; but neither would he suggest resignation or playing nice.
When I think about the injustice on my heart this week of the series of cases of police officers using deadly force against black individuals with impunity, I wonder what Nelson Mandela would suggest to me. How might he respond?
I recognize that there are a wide range of perspectives and opinions on the anti-racism movement sweeping through our country now. Some here are focused the racism, others seeking to analyses more deeply the particulars, a handful trying to acknowledge the justifiable fears and dangers of police work, a few trying to ferment revolution, and a smattering trying to quietly wait it all out – and of course a good number tangled in their own turmoil such that national issues don’t even break the surface.
If you have not been following – briefly the issue on my heart today stems from the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the police strangulation of Eric Garner in New York City. In both cases, the grand jury refused to indict the officer.
Here in Binghamton, as is the case in several cities around the country, there have been protests, rallies, and marches. Here in Binghamton, the Binghamton University students gathered last week to protest with a ‘die-in’ event that blocked traffic on the Vestal Parkway. Here in Binghamton, a small group of BU students and community members met to talk about what we could do together about the problems around us. Here in Binghamton, last night, over 50 people gathered in our congregation’s social hall for a community conversation about race and police brutality and next steps. About ten people from our congregation were present. We talked about our experiences and looked at next steps that might include legislative actions, teach-ins, and actions directed to address police brutality. It was a pretty good conversation. There will be another here next Sunday night at 6pm to determine which of these will be our actual next steps.
In thinking about the life of Nelson Mandela against the backdrop of the current news troubling my heart, I admit it is not overly fair to ask what lessons Mandela’s life offers. But I ask it anyway, just as countless people seek to apply the lessons of saints and sages, prophets and divinities through the ages. Mandela was a man of persistence and vision. He was strategic and adaptable. I think he would caution us to stay true for the long haul. In considering our country’s history of racism and violence he might caution us against demonizing the oppressor or the oppressed.
Are there ways we can bring everyone back to the table for the work of healing and reconciliation? He might ask, are there ways to help the police be better at their job of serving and protecting? It is harder work to insist that all of us need to be part of the solution. It takes persistence, forgiveness, and humility to walk that long road to freedom.
In his autobiography, Mandela writes, “I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.” (from Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela’s autobiography)
May we have the strength of spirit to walk the long road. May we each find within ourselves and in the support of those around us, the wherewithal to persevere in the face of difficulties and trials and injustices. And may we, most of all, have the vision to see a way forward that includes all of us with no one, not even our adversaries, left behind.
In a world without end, may it be so.