The word “hero” has become almost meaningless in our celebrity culture; but the term is truly appropriate for Nelson Mandela. In the face of the brutal racism of apartheid, his unwavering convictions and steely determination turned his prison into a platform that helped rally world opinion against the evil of his jailers. When the back of oppression was broken and Mandela came to power, his grace toward former enemies made a new South Africa possible, teaching the world a lesson in forgiveness and healing. Along with Bishop Desmond Tutu, he sought to forge a nation of peace based on truth, justice and forgiveness. In our time, when many want to demonize people who disagree with them, we need Mandela’s example of how to live with one another in peace, brotherhood, and justice for all under God’s grace and righteousness.
It is much easier to praise a great life of sacrifice and love than emulate one. The greatest disservice we can provide Nelson Mandela is memorializing him without becoming more like him. His greatness cannot be isolated to his great words, but his great actions. He didn’t simply speak of forgiveness, he extended it. He didn’t merely give speeches on loving your enemy, he loved his enemy. He didn’t isolate his engagement in social justice to writing, he lived justly.
NPR interviewed a friend of Mr. Mandela’s who referred to him as Christlike. To the extent he was, it was because he embodied truth and grace. In this light, the best tribute to Mandela seems to, “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.”
Hip hop first introduced me to Nelson Mandela and his struggle for human rights. Groups like Stesasonic with their Free South Africa introduced me and a lot of hip hop inspired activists to learn more about this struggle and get involved in the struggle. I would later began follow the disinvestment campaigns that were going on around the country and started to speak up and speak out against the system of apartheid.
What made Mandela special however was his belief and practice of non-violence, forgiveness and his radical approach to reconciliation. That for me, merged with my hip hop sensibilities and my understanding of the Gospel, has given shape to my overall ministry. It is something that I aim not only to preach and teach, but also to practice daily in my life. I see Mandela as the epitome of grace and mercy.
Mandela’s life also gives me reason to hope—because if Mandela could languish in a prison in inhumane conditions for 27 years—if Mandela could upon release go and teach and preach love and forgiveness—if Mandela, could then serve as president of the country that hurt him and his loved ones so much—if Mandela could work with former enemies and treat them as friends—if Mandela could do that, then there is a God and there is always a reason for hope.
God’s timing is amazing! Many significant liturgical and secular seasons are emphasizing and celebrating the power and gift of light as a time for introspection, encouragement, enlightenment, engagement and excitement. God and Nelson Mandela chose the Seasons of Light for his long anticipated exit from the human stage. Mr. Mandela’s life is a global beacon of light for generations now and later. The pinpoints of his life illuminate paths to perseverance, steadfastness, determination, integrity, reconciliation, and peace for our private or public lives. Thanks be to God for his calling and his response.
On February 11, 2000, more than 900 persons–half of them African-Americans, half Caucasians–packed into Golden Leaf Baptist Church in North Memphis. It was an ecumenical meeting of a community- organizing group. I can remember how word spread quickly that Nelson Mandela had been just released from prison after 27 years. The excitement was palpable, especially among African-American clergy. In the subsequent years President Mandela especially showed his greatness and character. He could have understandably given into bitterness and revenge. Instead he led by reconciliation of the races while still giving focus to the poor. Churches preach reconciliation and forgiveness and justice. Nelson Mandela clearly lived it on the world stage.
What is necessary for a nation to face its past and begin to heal and move forward? Nelson Mandela responded to this question by establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995 with the purpose of putting a human face on the victims of apartheid.
Over a two-year period the TRC collected over 22,000 statements from victims and perpetrators and over 2,000 women, children and men told their stories in public hearings. Mandela cherished democracy and provided many forums for people’s voices to be heard.
He wrote in is autobiography: “Democracy meant all men were to be heard, and a decision was taken together as a people. A minority was not to be crushed by the majoritOuy”.
Mandela truly believed in the concept of “ubuntu”- a sense that “my humanity in bound up in your humanity”. Mandela in his humility and his actions leaves us a legacy to be cherished.
President Mandela was a hero who championed social justice that caused a global ripple affect. He personified the fight of Peter and the grace of Jesus Christ. He gave 27 years of his life in prison for the liberation of his people and for true democracy for his people. We can only pray that one day true democracy and equality will reach every corner of the world but it must be something we are all willing to give our lives for.
Nelson Mandela was truly a man for all seasons. He was aristocratic but lived the impoverished life of a struggling revolutionary. He embraced the need of people and country beyond his personal self interest. Through it all Mandela was a kind and decent man and his efforts human equality are an example for his nation and world.
Rabbi Chana Leslie and I were saddened to hear of the death of Nelson Mandela yesterday. Like many of you, we have been touched by his wisdom, his legacy, and the example he set for each of us. He challenged us to live according to our highest ideals and values, to realize that each of us is capable of moving past the hurts of our lives and into a life of healing and love.
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. 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.” No matter what we’ve been taught or where or how we’ve been wounded, we can find ways to open our hearts, to find forgiveness (of ourselves and others), and to move past the wounds into a new paradigm of community and connection.
This weekend is our installation as Rabbis of Beth Sholom Synagogue. This morning we were blessed to receive blessings and insights from other Memphis clergy and we look forward to serving this community in partnership with our local clergy community. There is much work for us to do, to learn, to grow, to help, and to heal. The challenges are many, but as Nelson Mandela said – “it always seems impossible until it’s done.” Together, we can move mountains, inspiring ourselves, our families, and our community to live lives of service, healing, community, and connection.
Yehi zichro baruch – may Nelson Mandela’s memory always be for a blessing, and may we carry his light and his message ever forward.