Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Mandela : the Authority of the Activist Victim

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.  Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need  [Hebrews 4:14-16].

It was a fairly safe prediction that it would not be long before Nelson Mandela would die.  He had been ill for some time.  It's amazing that someone who underwent 27 years of punishment — 18 of those years in a single cell smaller than the kennels of the guard dogs — should live to 95.

What is a surprising coincidence is that he should die shortly before the Sunday in Advent in the year when all the set readings for the day (in churches of all denominations across the whole world) were about hopes for and prophecies of a good and just king who would defend the cause of the poor and bring about seemingly impossible reconciliation.  Not black and white, as in the apartheid struggle, but (in Isaiah) lions and lambs, little children and snakes; or in Paul — and just as unlikely — Gentiles and Jews.

There is a very important Christian message for us in the life of Nelson Mandela, but before I share it with you it's important that we remember something else — something darker.

Lawrence Moore was last year one of our two Moderators of General Assembly.  He grew up in Zimbabwe — what was then Rhodesia — and was a member of the Rhodesian police force; he was personally involved in the repression of black political activists.  He was also at the time a Christian youth leader.  He has written :
It wasn't Mandela's faith that drove and sustained him to do the things he did and to stand so unflinchingly, gloriously, humanly tall against Apartheid and the attempts to crush his humanity. The man who was the architect of forgiveness and reconciliation was not the church leader and man of faith.  Instead, it was the Church and the so-called 'men of faith' who were the architects of Apartheid and who saw Robben Island as an important expression of the will of God for South Africa. 
My church was one of the churches that thought Christians ought to stay out of politics and concentrate on 'making disciples'. If people were 'born again', the argument went, all the evils of South Africa (or do I mean 'regrettable necessities'?) would disappear.
There was just one rather obvious and fatal flaw to this argument that managed to go unnoticed: 98% of the white population of South Africa were card-carrying, twice-a-Sunday church-attending Christians! So how many Christian converts does it take to change the light bulb of Apartheid? More than 98% of the population, obviously …
And here's the killer question for me: how come it was possible for people like me to go on believing there were no substantial changes that I needed to make? How could I live with a clear conscience while Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island and Steve Biko was being murdered in police detention? Why did no-one tell me? My parents didn't. My teachers didn't. My pastors didn't.
But neither did God! I prayed and read my Bible daily. I was a youth leader (I've been preaching since I was 16) and, in all that time, God spoke to me about sex, smoking, bad language, being polite, helping old ladies across the road, not cheating in exams …  but was strangely silent on Apartheid! 
Lawrence Moore, posting on Facebook 6th Dec 2013

If there is a Christian message in the story of Nelson Mandela it includes a word of fiery judgement against a Church that failed to understand its own gospel.  Not just the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa, either.  I will not easily forget the Elders Meeting in one of my first churches where I raised the question of moving our bank account from Barclays Bank — the bank which, of all banks at the time, propped up the apartheid rĂ©gime and gave it the sanctions-busting lifeblood that helped it to stagger on for an extra fifteen destructive years.  I wish I had the confidence that, had our churches and their members been in South Africa, we would have been much different.

Looking to our Bible readings : John the Baptist might have had a fiery judgement to pronounce against the whites of apartheid South Africa : "Who warned you to flee from the judgment to come?"

But maybe the fear of a possible fiery judgement is precisely why South Africa's white Afrikaner leaders could not tolerate the sort of opposition Mandela represented.  John the Baptist's message is of judgment, and the power of revenge.  The one who comes after him is going to be a terrible figure, destroying the unjust in the fire, meting out the revenge of God.

And it's true that the world has seen many leaders who, having won their authority by heroic service in resistance movements, then ruled by revenge — the Ceaucescus of Romania, Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Lenin and Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, Saddam Hussein — rulers who have been tested in the fires of resistance and then, having overthrown the oppressor, in turn reigned by terror, setting themselves up as Messiahs — saviours and guardians of their nations, with their portraits on every wall, by decree.

That, surely, was the prospect facing white South Africa.  That was why people like Mandela, Sisulu, Thambo were considered so dangerous.  Fear of the fiery possibility of the kind that John the Baptist predicted is what made apartheid hang on.  "There's everything to lose — therefore we must strangle the prophets!"

But according to the gospel story John the Baptist misread God's mind.  The 'one who was to come' was not, it turned out, going to be a warrior of revenge and a self-serving Messiah.

Neither the Apartheid Government nor the Church understood the kind of man who was being imprisoned on Robben Island.  Very few knew anything about Mandela at the time.  No one was allowed to : pictures of him were banned; to photocopy and circulate the speeches he had given was illegal.  He was just 'one of those terrorists'.  They imagined him as a John the Baptist figure, and we know what happened to John the Baptist.  They never imagined that Mandela was more in the mould of the prophet Jesus.

I suppose you could say that one way of understanding the Christian Gospel is that "in God's kingdom, it is the victim that has the authority and the power".

The authority of Jesus as Saviour comes by virtue of the sacrifice he made.  He became for us not only the one true High Priest, but he confirmed that by also becoming the sacrifice that the High Priest offers.  That execution for us — in God's name, remember — is what makes Jesus alone worthy and gives him supreme authority in our lives.

Who, in South Africa of 1989, had the authority to transform the situation?  Who could command respect from the majority black population?  Who but someone who had declared his willingness to die if that's what it would take to overthrow apartheid, and who said this fully expecting to be hanged; who then suffered most grievously at the hands of the Apartheid establishment.  Somehow, unlike many of his compatriots, he survived with his life. That's where his authority and respect amongst the black population came from — that, and his complete inflexibility, determination in the cause of justice.  This was a man who would never sell out, accept the thirty pieces of silver from the white oppressor.

No other black leader — who had survived, that is — had the status of victim that Nelson Mandela had.  Therefore only he had the authority to forgive the oppressors.  A politician can't forgive people who have killed and oppressed others.  How could they?  Only a politician who has himself been a prime victim has such authority.

But how, on the other hand, did Mandela come to win the confidence of F.W.de Klerk, the State President?  The story reads like something straight out of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles.  Mandela's relationship with his jailers and prison governors — his principled position which never crossed into personal hatred, and led him to have concern for his jailers, ask after their families and so on — must have gradually permeated up the chain and into the highest places : "This may be a man we can do business with.  This may be a man who might have what it takes to take South Africa" — which was by then crumbling economically and descending into chaos — "into a different future".  And so he was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison where secret talks could take place.

To lead a nation in such a way that the oppressors not only have a place in it but actually have pride and hope in their radically changed nation is remarkable and inspirational.  In Mandela we see a combination of

  • authority that comes through personal suffering
  • refusal to compromise with injustice
  • determination that the truth will not be covered up but told in all its horror, in order that reconciliation may not be 'pouring oil on troubled waters' only for it to blow up again.  Reconciliation must be based on the truth, and founded on repentance and forgiveness, not revenge.
  • recognition that 'we are not struggling against human beings but against the principalities and powers' (and therefore I can be gracious towards my captors — 'forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do')

. . . these are all things that are absolutely fundamental to the Christian understanding of how God brings salvation to a broken world.  If only the present leaders of the State of Israel would take heed.  Their predecessors had the authority, but squandered it.

Nelson Mandela would have been the first to say he was not God's chosen Messiah, but his life reflected that of Jesus and vindicates Jesus's way as the true way of salvation.  He is rightly something of a messiah figure to South Africans.

Now that he is gone there is a renewed anxiety in the air.  While he was alive it would have been difficult to adopt policies that he would have hated.  Is there anyone else of his stature to remain as a witness that the way of truth, justice, reconciliation and forgiveness is the most powerful way?  Will whites be sleeping soundly in their beds?  Or will the voice of the Baptist be heard once more out in the desert, warning of fiery vengeance?  Do any future leaders have the authority that comes from being victims, and thus have the authority to forgive?  I don't know.

Maybe now the task of witnessing to the 'Jesus Way' will go back to where it should have been in the first place — the Church in South Africa.  We must pray for the Church and Nation of South Africa that the period of mourning for Nelson Mandela may not be a lament for an era that is now gone — an era of truth and reconciliation — but that it will be a real affirmation of the way forward too.