Mandela’s Footprint

6 Dec

The death of Nelson Mandela was a surprise to few and a shock to many.

It was a shock because we can never really grasp that our heroes succumb to the same limitations of life that the rest of us do.

But succumb he has, and now it is up to the rest of us to figure out what that means, how to incorporate a legacy for the ages into an ongoing, daily strategy for justice and fairness.   There was once a child (I cannot find the exact citation) who allegedly responded to a teacher’s question with the following:  “A hero is a celebrity who does something real.”  In an age with many alleged celebrities and few recognizable heroes, this is a helpful, powerful distinction.

But beyond this, a hero is someone who performs at levels beyond what their social contexts and circumstances would otherwise suggest.   In the parish where I used to work, such courage abounded.  The grandparents who had to raise their grandchildren and sent every one of them to college.  The couples who had long ago stopped “loving” each other but continued to care for one another, often through gruesome illnesses.  The formerly incarcerated who battled demons of addiction and despair each day and thereby kept themselves from a return trip to prison.   The parents who buried a child killed by gun violence and continued to build a hopeful life for the children who remained.

We love our heroes and secretly even wish for more of those “celebrities who do something real.”   But make no mistake:  heroes can inspire us to action but they can also provide a substitute for action.   It is so much easier to cheer the greatness of a Mandela than to embrace our own heroism.  It is so much easier to listen to voices of unusual courage than to allow those voices to penetrate through all of the emotional filters that keep such messages hopeful but not actively compelling.

For those of us who believe that, somehow, we are entitled to make policy when we have never stared hatred, or gratuitous violence, or poverty, or discrimination squarely in the eye, Mandela should be a lesson.   Greatness is not a function of our academic degrees or our genetic pedigree.  It is a function of our character, which in turn is forged from a willingness to stand squarely against our tormentors, insisting that they cease their torment but knowing that one day they will become something else to us – a friend perhaps, but certainly no longer an impediment to the world we say we want.

One of the loveliest tributes to Mandela that I have heard so far has come from FW de Klerk, an old adversary who alleged to learn so much from Mandela’s “lack of bitterness.”   The ones with whom we lock horns often understand and appreciate such strengths, more so than our supporters.    Moreover, we learn things from engaging with our adversaries as well, including the uncomfortable truth that, as the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr used to make clear, “the evils against which we contend are the fruits of illusions similar to our own.”  Locked away in our bureaucracies or blinded by self-delusion, we can get away with believing that we really are the ‘good ones.’   But the great ones know how elusive the ‘good’ truly is.   Our task is not to look away from the worst of which we as a species are capable, but literally to stare it down.

Mandela had three long decades in a horrible prison to test his capacity to stare down his tormentors rather than give in to them.   He wouldn’t read the statements that they held out for him to read.  He refused to be released from prison with ‘conditions.’ His moral and political ‘footprint’ was unmistakable, with both clarity of purpose and an absence of malice.  He kept his covenant with others similarly tormented.   His death challenges us to keep our own.

 Dr. Robert Zuber

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