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WORLDVIEW: Mandela & the power of forgiveness

EDITOR’S NOTE: Visit WorldView Conversation, the blog related to this column.

RICHMOND, Va. (BP) — Revenge. Retribution. Rivers of blood.

That nightmare scenario was feared by many South Africans as the 1994 national elections unfolded. Generations of harsh white control were finally ending, decades of violent racial apartheid had been overturned and multiracial, democratic rule had arrived. But would the long-oppressed black majority demand a terrible day of reckoning? 

“I was in South Africa in the days leading up to the election,” a Southern Baptist missionary recalled. “There was near-certainty that the country would explode in violence and descend into civil war. Those horrors were averted because one man who was intimate with injustice had the wisdom to realize that retribution was fatally poisonous and redemption a healing balm.”

That man was Nelson Mandela.

The former political prisoner, elected president that fateful year, prevented a descent into violence by the moral force of his call for reconciliation. His words could not be ignored, because Mandela had lived them during 27 years of isolation and hard labor as an inmate in the windswept prison at Robben Island. Years before he was released, he had begun negotiating a gradual end to apartheid with the South African regime.

His 1990 release sparked national euphoria and worldwide celebration, but peace in South Africa was anything but assured.

“Great anxiety existed in the sub-Saharan African region as the first multiracial elections were approaching in South Africa,” said Gordon Fort, a veteran missionary to Africa who now serves as IMB’s senior vice president for prayer mobilization and training. “President F.W. de Klerk, in conjunction with Nelson Mandela, had led in a courageous movement to abolish apartheid. [But] great fear existed that after the elections, a bloodbath of revenge would ensue. When it became clear that Nelson Mandela and the ANC [African National Congress] party had won the election, in the midst of the celebrations the clear, calm voice of the new president set a new tone calling for forgiveness and reconciliation. 

“While tackling the daunting task of dismantling institutionalized racism, poverty and inequality, [Mandela] gave a clarion call to national unity and religious freedom,” Fort recounted. “This atmosphere led to a season of opportunity for the church and its missionary representatives to advance the Gospel, engage new people groups and play a part in the healing of the deep rifts within the nation. President Mandela was among the first to invite and welcome the role of the church in the new nation he was seeking to build. After retirement from the presidency, he continued to provide leadership and an example of statesmanship that allowed the church to flourish.”

What happened to the young firebrand who, decades before, had embraced armed struggle to change South Africa when civil disobedience failed?

He never renounced the use of violence to overthrow apartheid, but he sought to avoid it. Suffering, solitude and study tempered and deepened Mandela during his long years in prison. Meanwhile, international pressure — and the tide of history — eventually forced the white regime to negotiate. When the moment came, Mandela the savvy politician was ready. He knew times were turning in favor of his cause, but he also knew the nation had to put anger behind, as he had worked to do in his own life behind bars.

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison,” he said upon his release in 1990.

And after serving one historic term as president, he voluntarily stepped down in 1999 — a rarity in a continent of strongmen — and spent his remaining years fighting against AIDS and advocating for freedom and international reconciliation.

“He led a country in transition with grace, forgiveness, humility and dignity,” said Kim Davis, a Southern Baptist author and former Africa missionary who witnessed those historic days close up. “I feel privileged and grateful to have lived there, and President Mandela was an inspiration to our family.”

The influence of faith on Mandela’s post-prison philosophy of reconciliation is open to debate. His mother was a strong Christian believer. He was baptized as a Methodist in his teens. Like many African political leaders of the post-colonial era, his early life and education were strongly influenced by the impact of missionary work. “The Church was as concerned with this world as the next: I saw that virtually all of the achievements of Africans seemed to have come about through the missionary work of the Church,” he wrote in his memoir, “Long Walk to Freedom.”

There’s no need to idealize Mandela, as many have done, to appreciate his greatness. The smiling grandfather of later years was once the angry young revolutionary. He helped found the ANC’s military wing, which carried out many bombing attacks against the regime. He once was regarded as a dangerous enemy of the United States. The South African struggle, like many national conflicts, became a proxy in the larger Cold War struggle between East and West. The Soviet Union supported Mandela’s ANC. Like other world leaders, he sometimes made questionable decisions. He unapologetically supported several notorious international tyrants. He failed to solve some of South Africa’s deepest problems, including violence and widespread poverty, which continue to afflict the nation.

Mandela himself was keenly aware of his own humanity. He resisted the secular sainthood many tried to impose upon him.

“We are told that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying to be clean,” he wrote. “One may be a villain for three-quarters of his life and be canonized because he lived a holy life for the remaining quarter of that life. In real life we deal, not with gods, but with ordinary humans like ourselves: men and women who are full of contradictions, who are stable and fickle, strong and weak, famous and infamous, people in whose bloodstream the muckworm battles daily with potent pesticides.”

He was human, but he changed the world through perseverance, forgiveness and a resolute refusal to harbor hatred in his heart. 

“People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite,” he said.

That is a truth the world desperately needs. The church needs it, too, especially in Africa and other places where the fires of persecution are burning.

“The death of Mandela may be the axis for predicting the racial futures for many African countries, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, [which] is a deeply defined racial and tribal-based region,” said Nik Ripken, a longtime missionary in Africa who has interviewed persecuted Christians in many countries.

“Many churches are asking, in relation to [attacks on Christians by Islamic militants in] Nigeria and the Somali fundamentalist bombing of the mall in Kenya, if they will continue to ‘turn the other cheek,'” Ripken said. “Pastors and religious leaders have said to me that perhaps it is time to only turn one’s cheek ‘seven times.’ After that it is time that if one bombs a church then a mosque goes, if one kills a Christian then a Muslim life is taken.

“Will African believers follow Jesus, and the example of Mandela, and turn the other cheek ’77 times,’ or align themselves racially? Will they slaughter pigs and toss them into mosques, or be willing to love their enemies as commanded by Jesus? Mandela chose the high road of forgiving one’s enemies. May his example not be forgotten in all the noise.”
Erich Bridges is IMB global correspondent. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Erich Bridges