Friday, December 6, 2013

Can Christians eat crow?: The unintended legacy of Nelson Mandela

Yesterday Nelson Mandela, once the world's most famed political prisoner who later became president of South Africa, went to his reward. Because of his persona as one who faced what some might consider an impossible task of uniting a divided country, he was held up as larger than life.

It wasn't so long ago, however, that Mandela was considered a dangerous man. (Understandably so, but not in the ways you might think.)

Back in the 1980s, when the anti-apartheid movement was in full swing and he had been in prison for 20 years, many evangelical Christians spoke out against him without understanding the context under which he operated. Because these people were swayed almost exclusively by Cold War politics, he was regarded as a terrorist and a Marxist.

I wonder, however, how they would have reacted were they in his shoes -- a black man in a place where whites had all the political power and most of the economic power. Somehow they never got that apartheid was a unjust system that certainly did need to be overthrown.

You might ask: Why didn't he, and the African National Congress for which he served as deputy president, go the nonviolent route? Well, at first they did. That changed as the result of a massacre in Sharpeville in 1960, the government's response to a demonstration against the hated "pass laws." But rather than dealing with the issue, the government simply banned the ANC. (The South African Communist Party was also officially underground as of 10 years earlier and thus made a natural ally.)

Mandela was convicted of sabotage and given a life sentence in 1964, and perhaps the powers that be thought that they would be done with him and the government continued to regard him as, perhaps, Public Enemy No. 1. Instead, however, his stature grew -- especially around the world.

With a change in the presidency -- F.W. de Klerk replacing the hardline P.W. Botha -- and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, he was finally released, de Klerk perhaps believing that, without help from a defunct Soviet Union and East Germany, he could control the process. That didn't happen, of course, and the rest became history.

Disappointing to me, however, was the reaction back then of certain Christian media leaders to the plight of black South Africans. Jerry Falwell openly expressed support for the Botha government, The 700 Club in 1985 interviewed Ian Smith, the last white leader of what was Rhodesia expressing contempt for Mandela -- that was the last time I ever watched that show -- and evangelist Jimmy Swaggart going to South Africa and declaring that he "didn't see any problems."

So you can imagine folks' shock when not only did Mandela not only didn't take revenge on whites but even sought to include them in his administration upon succeeding de Klerk as president in 1994. I saw the movie "Invictus" when it came out four years ago, and in it he was depicted as telling people "Reconciliation starts here" and "Forgiveness starts here." He hired whites for security detail -- because they had the experience -- and stopped the Ministry of Sport from retiring the Springbok nickname for the national rugby team, considered a reminder of apartheid.

Are these not "Christian" values and virtues? These are the actions of a committed Marxist terrorist?

I think it's time for us Christians to admit that we were ultimately wrong him, but I don't think that we will -- we still have too much at stake defeating some "enemy." Shame on us.

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