In all of our memories in the wake of the death of Nelson Mandela, I think it's important to remember that the outcome we know now--Mandela released to become the first freely elected president of South Africa and a nation transformed--that outcome was so impossible that few of us dared to hope for it. Somewhere in my photo albums, I have a fading picture of a friend wearing his "Free Mandela" t-shirt. Mandela had been in jail for our whole lives, and we expected he would die there, t-shirts or no t-shirts.
I think it's important to remember how strong the forces of evil seemed then--and it wasn't just South Africa. I spent many years in the 1980's meeting refugees from Central America. They had tales of horror that were hard to believe. And then to find out that our government supported El Salvador--and to watch Missing, and to discover that we weren't always a bright, shining light of freedom as a country. During those cold war days, it seemed a hopeless task to advocate for liberty.
But we built our shantytowns on the Lawn, we helped Central Americans get to Canadian safety, we demanded changes in U.S. policy which were ignored or dismissed. We bought our protest albums and went to concerts. Elders sneered and warned us about the dangers of not establishing anti-communist bulwarks, even if they were staffed by genocidal maniacs, as much of Latin America was in the 1980's.
For many of us, it was a spiritual fight too. I remember going to Jubilee Partners in Comer, Georgia. At that time, they were a group working to get Central American refugees to Canada. Later, I read a book, With Our Own Eyes, by Don Mosley, one of the founders. He remembers not only the 1000+ people that they helped/saved, but all of those who perished.
I went to many a candlelight vigil, many a prayer service, many a demonstration. I remember a multi-faith gathering that assembled to mark the 15th anniversary of the Soweto uprising. We prayed for the end to apartheid. I can't speak for the others, but I didn't expect it to happen. It's not the first time I've dismissed the power of nonviolent protest and prayer, and happily, it's not the only time I've been proven wrong. For more on the power of non-violence and the intersection of faith movements, see this great article by Jonathan Schell and Taylor Branch.
All the coverage, particularly of Mandela's speeches, all this coverage makes me think about my own life. What would I be willing to die for? Would I be willing to die for it even if it wasn't clear my sacrifice would make a difference?
I think about the value of a moral compass and all the ways we can ignore our moral compasses. I wonder about my own life and all the compromises I worry that I am making.
But I also think of vignettes from my past few weeks as an administrator and teacher. I work hard to stay a person of compassion, and I think it's vitally important to have people of compassion in positions of power, whether that power be nationwide or more local.
I may not be ending a brutal system like apartheid, but I can help students in their struggles to finish their educations before their money runs out, and I can fight for good working conditions for my faculty.
Some days, I believe that. Other days it seems like a gross rationalization to me, a way to let me stay in middle class comfort, enjoying the fruits of oppression.
I want to be Nelson Mandela, but I fear I'm an Afrikaner. I want to write missives that will inspire people to take the arc of history in their hands and bend it towards justice--but I fear I am missing my mark.
feeling the feelings…
6 months ago