I’m sitting at the airport in Bahrain, about to catch a flight to Jakarta. The television screens are full of coverage for a man of courage, conviction, and influence. Every now and then his picture with his winsome smile is shown with the words under it: Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013.
Looking at the dates, I thought first of my mother. She was born just two years before him but passed away nearly four decades before he did. Yes, she had a short life span. She did not make a world impact but it was because of her that I am a free man today. Her life and example were for me, life-defining. Nelson Mandela, by contrast, changed history for millions, if not for the world. A different role, a different call. So it is that each one of us has a part to play, whether of great influence or of small influence, but equally important.
Yet, as I look at his picture and consider his legacy, I mourn the loss of not just a person, but an example for all politicians. While his early years were more aggressive, his veteran years spoke of wisdom gained through steps and missteps. Where are the leaders like him today? Many of those who are eulogizing him have evidently not learned from him. For one, he bore no hatred towards his oppressors. Even his period of violence was short-lived and tempered. When he acquired freedom he did not ask the oppressed to “go and vote for revenge.” After his time in prison, he did not use the microphone to whip up hostility, division, and frenzy or go on diatribes blaming his predecessors for doing everything wrong. He did not use language that some in the media do, some verbiage that is too vulgar to even repeat. He wanted to correct society, not change, penalize, or pollute it. He won supporters to his side with grace and dignity, not by bullying.
On one occasion I nearly met the man. It was my loss when it didn’t come about. I was in Cape Town after having spoken to the framers of the Peace Accord in Johannesburg when I received a call from his office where his staff was trying its best to bring about a meeting between us. But a strong bout of pneumonia, which he had contracted in prison, hit him hard at that time and actually plagued him for the rest of his life. Not meeting him was a loss I felt. I would have loved to have asked him a few questions. One I would like to have asked is, “Deep inside, did you ever feel like giving up?” I suspect I know the answer, but just to be inspired, I would have liked to hear this one-time boxer turned freedom-fighter in his soft voice express his determination to never give up.
The world has become a dangerous place. We need the Mandelas who know when to lead, how to treat their opponents, and when to step down. There is so much hatred in speeches today, such inflammatory rhetoric. There is such an unyielding quest and clinging to power that we shudder at the seduction so evident. What we win the masses with is what we win them to and we are subjecting a generation to ignoble speech and lacerating rhetoric: How will this win them to noble ends?
Two remarkable decisions among many show how Mandela bore no contempt for his adversaries. Journalists have pointed this out. You’d think they themselves would be instructed by it. When he received the Nobel Prize he chose to share it with his predecessor, President F.W. de Klerk. This was an incredible move, truly walking the second mile. He never wanted to play the hero. He knew the fight wasn’t about him. Also, at his inauguration he invited the white jail warden to be present as his personal guest. Mandela cautioned leaders that hatred beguiled the mind and was an emotion leaders could not afford without reaping the whirlwind. He would give no place to mockery that masqueraded as statesmanship.
Our own leaders today would do well to learn from Nelson Mandela rather than just giving grandiose speeches about him. What he began still has a long way to go. I am a Christian and I admire the courage and sacrifice of people such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. Even if we are not all on the same page theologically, we are on the same page for the protection of people who are exploited or abused. It is a noble end. But the way our media and political leaders frame the problem actually digs a hole deeper than the one they are trying to fill. They poison the soul but expect healing. When language comes easily for those who have the microphone, it can become fatally fluent.
I spoke once at the Islamic University in Malaysia, one of the oldest such universities of the world. I was asked to present a defense of Christianity to a primarily Muslim audience. It was a nerve-wracking hour, with sophisticated scholars in the audience. I would not compromise my convictions. I needed to build a bridge without surrendering ground. “How does one handle this?” I thought. I did my best and the response was truly gratifying. Even the head of the Islamic Studies department, the professor who was my host, said some of the kindest words afterward in her office.
That evening I was taken out for dinner by a professor who specifically asked if we could have an hour. His name was Professor Living Lee, a geologist by specialty. He told me this story. Some years ago the late vitriolic Muslim apologist Ahmed Deedat was presenting a defense of Islam at the same university. Ironically, he was from South Africa too. He had a bent to abusive language and inflammatory speech, mocking opponents and inciting anger in his supporters towards those of a different view. He provoked all the baser emotions for a supposedly elevated cause. Deedat had delivered his talk at the university in his usual hate-filled style, mocking Christianity and calling it nonsensical and unlivable, among other charges. When Professor Lee, one of the few Christians in the audience, questioned his charge, Deedat called him to come to the front. Professor Lee walked forward. Deedat raised his hand and with a full swing slapped him with a stinging hit to the face. Professor Lee was nearly knocked to his feet. Deedat then barked, “Now turn the other cheek!” It was obvious what he was trying to do. Suddenly he paused and said, “We can do this quicker. Give me your shirt!” Professor Lee unbuttoned and took off his shirt. “According to Jesus, you should now offer your trousers, too, shouldn’t you?” Deedat said. Professor Lee turned to the audience, apologized to his students and faculty colleagues, took off his trousers, and quietly walked out of the room in his underwear. The audience was in a dazed, stunned silence. Outdone by a gentle but equally determined scholar, Deedat looked utterly juvenile and like a man who had just been hoisted on his own petard.
Dr. Lee went back to his office and put his face in his hands, his spirit swirling with indescribable emotions. He wept though he knew he had done the right thing in standing his ground. A few moments later there was a knock on the door, then another, and another, and another. When he opened the door, he saw students and colleagues lined up to apologize to him for the pain and foolishness just displayed.
Deedat was freewheeling in rhetoric but a slave to pride. Quite incredibly, he spent the last few years of his life smitten with a stroke, unable to speak. The only weapon he had was lost to him. But in reality, Deedat could never have attained greatness because he was already too great in his own eyes.
Mandela had a cause greater than himself and is so remembered. He spent the last few years of his life quite unwell. But his example continued to speak for the freedom of all mankind. His spirit fought for the dignity of man, and he never compromised the dignity of anyone in fighting for it.
So when we read 1918-2013 we would do well to remember that though the span of Mandela’s life is finished, the span of our human struggle is not closed. But if our leaders do not know how to use speech supported by character and instead use words only to provoke hostile instincts, we will kill others with hate and the bracket around dignity and freedom will be closed. Not everything that is fatal is immediate. We are near the edge of that precipice. We have a choice. We all have a platform.
I cannot end without mentioning one wound that Mandela probably wished he could have healed: the break-up of his family. The price for him was huge and the pain must have been deep. It was a price my mother would not pay: We five children would have been the cost. It is a sobering reminder for all of us. Our nation and our homes need healing. The national struggle and the heart of a child will shape the future. Politicians and parents play that role. No momentary gain had dare violate eternal truths.
I pray for our leaders. I pray for our families. May God guide and help us.