Mimetic Mondays: Nelson Mandela and the Mimetics of Forgiveness

Nelson Mandela revisits his prison cell. (Getty Images)

Since Nelson Mandela’s death, we have been fortunate to reacquaint ourselves with his extraordinary life. As I’ve watched the news coverage of his death and memorial service, a remark on CBS This Morning from a South African struck me as particularly meaningful. He said about Mandela,

He emancipated me from the bondage of oppression. Now I know what is peace [and] what is forgiveness. He taught me to forgive and I am now a forgiven person.

In life as well as in death, Nelson Mandela has taught us the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation. But Mandela’s story could have been very different.

As a young man, Mandela was understandably angry and uncompromising in his resistance to the demonic forces of Apartheid in South Africa. During the early 1950s, the African National Congress (ANC) attempted many nonviolent protests against the laws of apartheid, but by 1953 the South African Government increased its violence against peaceful protesters and Mandela decided that nonviolence wasn’t working. He then formed the underground military wing of the ANC, called Umkhonto we Sizwe, which translates into “Spear of the Nation.” In 1962 he went on a secret tour of Africa, where he met with political rulers who gave him money for weapons and training in guerrilla warfare.

During this stage of his life, Mandela responded to violence imitatively, that is, with violence. In his latest book, Battling to the End, René Girard warns that “violent imitation is the rule today, not the imitation that slows and suspends the flow [of violence], but the one that accelerates it” (13). In 1963, Mandela was convicted of sabotage against the government and sentenced to life imprisonment.

While in prison Mandela changed. He abandoned violence and he committed himself to nonviolence. His embrace of nonviolent tactics led to friendships with prison guards, but specifically with a guard named Christo Brand. An 18 year old pro-apartheid prison guard, Brand arrived at Robben Island in 1978. It was Mandela’s dignified commitment to respecting even his prison guards that won Brand over. Before prison, Mandela imitated his government’s violence. While in prison, Mandela lived into the life of forgiveness and reconciliation that he is known for. Violent imitation may be the rule of the day, but Mandela reveals another rule of “imitation that slows and suspends the flow” of violence. Brand describes how Mandela’s rules changed his life:

When I came to prison, Nelson Mandela was already 60. He was down to earth and courteous. He treated me with respect and my respect for him grew. After a while, even though he was a prisoner, a friendship grew.

Mimetic theory claims that we are formed by our models. Nelson Mandela is certainly one of the greatest models of the 20th and 21st centuries. Our models can lead us toward violence, or, if we take models like Mandela, they can lead us toward forgiveness and respect. Mandela had a dream for South Africa and it is a dream for the world. He once stated that,

If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.

As the man in the CBS video says, “He taught me to forgive and I am now a forgiven person.” This is the mimetics of forgiveness. Mandela has become one of our greatest models of forgiveness and we would do well to mimic his all-embracing forgiveness. It’s a forgiveness that leads us down the road of true Goodness. This is a Goodness that is not created by being against another racial, religious, or political group. Rather, it’s a Goodness that comes from being forgiven for our own sins and invites us to share that forgiveness with the world.

But who was Nelson Mandela’s model? Few have emphasized Mandela’s faith, but Christianity played an important role in his formation – and especially in his ability to forgive. Indeed, two of the most important roads before us are named Goodness and Forgiveness. Those roads run parallel and are central to modeling our lives on the life of Jesus. As James Alison says in his book series Jesus the Forgiving Victim,

In the Christian understanding, there is no holiness except from forgiveness. You can’t be good, let alone holy, except in as far as you are forgiven.

Jesus and his follower Nelson Mandela modeled the mimetics of forgiveness to us. In a world where violent imitation rules the day, the mimetics of forgiveness is our only hope.

Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen


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