Nelson Mandela: Reflections on His Legacy and Our Mission
Mansfield “Kasey” Kaseman, Interfaith Community Liaison
I have been touched every time I have seen a flag at half-mast and I appreciate the documentaries, editorials and memorial services offered in tribute to “a man of the ages.” Occasionally I have been moved to tears whose source is the history of my engagement in his cause. I am also mourning a unique freedom fighter whose attainment and exercise of moral authority has much to teach us.
I want to stimulate prayerful reflection by sharing several marker events in my life followed by reflections on the implications of Madiba’s legacy for our Faith Community Advisory Council mission. I sense an opportunity to gain valuable insight through sharing our perspectives on what his legacy means for us.
In 1964 I joined the Anti-Apartheid Movement as a graduate student in Boston. I was among a minority within a minority seeking the liberation of sisters and brothers at home and abroad. It was lonely, maddening and yet hopeful because of our moral conviction and awareness that “the arch of history bends toward justice.”
In 1970 I was serving the United Church on the Green in New Haven, Connecticut that was first to financially support liberation movements in Southern Africa including the African National Congress. This church had also supported the revolutionary troops going up to Concord in 1775 and provided Bibles with guns for the local Union soldiers fighting to free slaves in our Civil War.
In 1986 I was among the thousands arrested in front of the South African Embassy in order to win a two-thirds vote to overcome the veto of President Reagan and join the rest of the world in imposing sanctions leading to the release of Nelson Mandela and the liberation of South Africa.
In 1995 I had the privilege of staying with the architect of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Charles Villa Vicencio, who with Desmond Tutu had just delivered the recommendations of that commission to President Mandela. I also met diplomats and NGO’s whose courageous engagement for years was turning to the hard work of radical transition in South Africa.
I reference these events to make several points. First, there is nothing romantic or magical about the struggle throughout decades in which many gave their lives and others like Madiba were putting their lives on the line. Significant progress has been made in South Africa and America. Yet much more needs to be done in creating the society envisioned by Mandela, King and Gandhi. In the words of Ambassador Andrew Young “Madiba and Martin just got us started.” Formidable barriers remain in the forms of ethnic, racial and religious bigotry, and economic and educational inequity. In short, the moral insight, courage and willingness to sacrifice seen in Madiba needs to become our own.
Second, what sustained Nelson Mandela was not optimism but hope grounded in moral principal and according to him, “…the central tenets of Christianity, Judaism, African traditional religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and other faiths.” For him, “Religion is about mutual love and respect for one another and for life itself. It is about the dignity and equality of humankind made in the image of God. This is a God who requires us to be engaged in the actual fight against evil, poverty, disease, illiteracy, the lack of housing and other social ills.” Perhaps this is a good time for each of us to re-dig the wells of our faith to the point of being more firmly grounded in the love and hope that informs and inspires our action.
Third, what made it possible for President Mandela to avoid a bloodbath and begin to heal and unify his country was his ability to turn his righteous anger into reconciliation. After 27 years of imprisonment he is able to extend his hand to F.W. de Klerk who had earlier sought his execution and upon succeeding him as President he invites his jailers to his inauguration. At the Rugby World Cup he ware the uniform of a racist club to make “whites feel at home” further saying, “We have to surprise them with restraint and generosity.” After 9/11 he invited President Bush among other chiefs of state to learn about the benefits of restorative justice rather than punitive justice. Think of what might have happened if our President had accepted the offer and we had applied Mandela’s principal of restorative justice, freed ourselves from the emotion of revenge and invested the trillions of dollars spent on our wars in programs of reconciliation, humanitarian assistance and peacemaking.
Fourth, what helped President Mandela gain and maintain the trust of his people was more than his lifelong commitment to freedom and democracy. He was an extraordinary politician who remained humble and focused on the welfare of his country. Rather than demanding only the other side make concessions he challenged his own political base to sacrifice for the common good. As he spoke truth to power as a freedom fighter and prisoner he later spoke hard truth to his supporters and won the trust of the great majority.
I think a principal reason for his stature on the world stage is related to his truth telling that brought people from across the spectrum of ideology, race, religion and social-economic circumstance together. Apart from the implications for Capital Hill I think we religious leaders have lessons to learn in humility, speaking unpopular truth and working together for the benefit of the greater community. We can trump politicians by claiming divine superiority and renouncing rather than learning from and supporting one another. I suggest humility matched with speaking the truth in love would lead to a more welcoming, caring and secure Montgomery County. And trust with respect would grow for our leadership and the role of faith in life.
Madiba has proven that transformational change, achieving reconciliation among enemies and keeping hope alive in desperate situations is possible. So, what might this mean for us? I believe the County Executive’s Faith Community Advisory Council is uniquely capable of advancing his vision. Should we meet as the FCAC to consider the implications of his legacy or entrust it to our working groups and committees or deal with it by ourselves? I look forward to your response.