Mandela's Legacy for the RCA's Multicultural Future Freed from Racism

by Earl James, RCA coordinator of multiracial initiatives and social justice

The 15th-century allegory "Everyman" asks readers to consider what measures God will use to assess our lives after we die. In the unique way of allegories, "Everyman" personifies many of the things society considers important on earth--possessions, wealth, beauty, discretion, pride, knowledge. As Everyman approaches death, each of these "personalities" promises to stay with him to the end. Instead, one by one, they abandon him as he nears his grave. Good Deeds is the only one that follows him into death. Together they ascend to heaven, where an angel welcomes them.

"Everyman" is simply a play. But, like the parables of Jesus, it captures a truth about how we should approach life in the face of the struggle of good versus evil, a struggle, it seems, we can see everywhere we turn.

On Thursday, December 5, 2013, Nelson Mandela died. In the midst of grieving and gratitude and feeling the loss of a great person, an elder of the world, a strange awareness struck me as I watched the news reports and followed the many social media posts about his life and passing.

It seemed to me that the entire world drew breath through a shared lung. What was it about Nelson Mandela that gathered our collective "togetherness" like that? What "Good Deeds" accompanied him to his grave?

The truth is that the list of memorable and noble things that Nelson Mandela has done is too long to detail fully, and the effects of those deeds reached far beyond his presidency and country.

  • He won the presidency in South Africa's first elections by universal suffrage.
  • Against nearly all expectations, he established and led an even-handed, multi-ethnic government.
  • He authorized the state-run Truth and Reconciliation Commission, led by a spiritual leader, to investigate human rights violations under apartheid--not to punish the offenders, but to reconcile the nation.
  • He enacted a new, democratic constitution using a highly participatory process.
  • He reversed suppression of information, diffused tensions between groups, and eased suspicions.
  • He developed gracious relationships with his enemies and oppressors.
  • He restored South Africa's economic base.
  • He empowered disenfranchised minorities.
  • He began an AmeriCorps-type national service that empowered young people to improve the academic achievements of other young people.
  • He chose not to cling to power by seeking a second term, stepping down instead to set a standard against the abuse of power.
  • He unified South Africa.

So much flowed from Mandela's good deeds. His actions were highly focused, intended to achieve a huge prize--the end of apartheid in government and culture in South Africa and, by extension, the world.

As many have written, forgiveness was crucial to Mandela's own change and ability to lead. Perhaps reconciliation was even more important. Regardless of history, personal hurt, and the punishment that the offenders surely deserved, Mandela chose to pursue reconciliation because it was the only way to unify and begin the work of healing in South Africa.

If it could occur in South African society--so fractured and divided by apartheid, with such a deep-rooted, systemic oppression--it is possible everywhere. Mandela's life showed us that it is possible.

What does the legacy of Mandela's life hold for us in the RCA that can inform and empower our transforming? Here are a few implications.

  1. John the Revelator's vision in Revelation 5:1-14 (God has redeemed people from every tribe, language, people, and nation) is our rudder. Jesus' death is the tie that binds us all together and makes us one before God and each other.
  2. While the full meaning of John's vision will not be made clear until God brings history to a close, much of it is clear now. Using the cross of Christ as our lens, we are called to live, work, and worship together in multicultural and racism-free ways.
  3. This kind of transformation will challenge our systems and how we make decisions. It will also challenge what we think it means to love and respect each other. It will make us aware that our love is shaped and constrained by our racial histories and our respective ethnocentrisms.
  4. We must constantly call our attention and focus to the kind of reconciliation Mandela espoused, whether we are cultivating transformation in Christ, equipping emerging leaders of today and tomorrow, or engaging in Christ's kingdom mission at home or around the world.

Good deeds with the power to change the world flow from hearts and minds that are set on reconciliation. When we are set on reconciliation, it points to something special about our God-given human spirits. God can free us from bitterness and race-based suspicious and expressions of superiority and inferiority. If we commit to freeing ourselves, we can become bigger, better people. We will become more like Jesus in this lost and broken world so loved by God.

Posted 12/12/13

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