One of the greatest mysteries in life is the moral complexity that is often found in the hearts of great men and women who live truly great lives and, even, in their best moments perform great deeds that can be called blessed, or even holy.
There is no question that the turning points in the life of Nelson Mandela, the times when he went to the mountaintop, required him to make stunningly courageous choices about issues that can only be described in terms of morality and justice, forgiveness and grace, sin and redemption. Where did the content of these decisions — especially his decisions to oppose vengeance and revenge on white oppressors — come from? What was the well from which Mandela was drinking?
Yes, he was a brilliant political figure and a flair for the dramatic. But something else was going on, too.
Meanwhile, what about the many personal valleys along the way?
Out of today’s tsunami of coverage, much of it hagiographic in nature, I thought two pieces stood out in wrestling with this duality. Consider the top of a major news essay at The Daily Beast, which even dares to use the term “sinner,” in large part because the great man himself spoke it.
The headline? “Mandela: The Miracle Maker.”
Nelson Mandela, who died December 5, refused to be thought of as a saint. “I never was one,” he insisted — “even on the basis of an earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps trying.”
He wasn’t just being modest. He had a weakness for fine clothes and good-looking women, and he certainly was no pacifist. But a halo was the last thing Mandela needed. He spent half a century wrestling South Africa’s white-minority rulers to the negotiating table, and when he finally got them there, he had to be a hard bargainer, not a holy man.
And yet he worked miracles. … By insisting on looking forward rather than back, Mandela kept the nation from collapsing into a bloody orgy of revenge. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who received the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the fight against apartheid, said it unequivocally to Mandela’s biographer Anthony Sampson: “If this man hadn’t been there, the whole country would have gone up in flames.” No one else — not even Tutu himself — had the moral authority to hold South Africa together.
The question journalists are wrestling with, of course, is this: What was the source and nature of his moral authority?
A sidebar at The Los Angeles Times directly addressed this issue, as well.