Even the giants among us are mortal. Nelson Mandela, who changed South Africa and the world has died at the age of 95. Mandela spent 27 years in prison for leading the opposition to apartheid, the name for legally enforced racial segregation in South Africa. Though he lost so many years of his freedom in prison, he remained the face of the institutional racism of the country during his incarceration. In 1994, he was elected as the first black President of South Africa. He served one five year term. In 2004, he officially retired from public life, but hardly spent his days lounging by the pool. He said that the one thing that would kill him would be to wake up in the morning not knowing what to do.
I suppose if anyone had a right to be bitter and angry, one could argue that it was Mandela; and yet he modeled not only forgiveness, but reconciliation in his life. Mandela understood the power of the symbolic (which few leaders unfortunately do). When the country was on the verge of civil war during his presidency, the South African Springboks rugby team, whose roster consisted of all white players, hated by the blacks of South Africa while loved by the whites, won the World Cup. Mandela presented the World Cup trophy to the champion Springboks wearing the team's green jersey.
Perhaps, one of the most telling stories was related in a TV interview by the Rev. Otis Moss Jr., pastor emeritus of the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio. After being released from prison, Mandela was asked if he wanted to get even with those who oppressed him. He responded that if he desired to do so that too would a prison. On the day of inauguration as president, many who guarded him in prison were invited to and attended the ceremony, sitting in the front row.
Forgiveness is not always easy, but reconciliation is even harder. We may be willing to forgive and be happy to leave it at that. But the gospel is not simply about forgiveness. Contrary to what some mistakenly believe, forgiveness is not the end of the gospel; it is the means to reconciliation. St. Paul says that in the cross of Christ, God has broken down the dividing wall of hostility (Ephesians 2:14-18); God has in mind nothing less than the reconciliation of humanity-- vertical reconciliation to God, and reconciliation horizontally between human beings whose differences for too long have divided them.
Reconciliation is not easy. In God's work of reconciliation nothing less than cross and resurrection would be sufficient. That's why stories like Mandela's must be told. We need to be reminded that as difficult as it is, such reconciliation can and does happen in our world. It cannot happen without the help of God, but if we are willing to be so used, we too can practice reconciliation in our lives.
Tracy Conner, "He Is Now at Peace," was a source consulted in the writing of this post.
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)