Mandela the sinner? Mandela the prophet? Yes, cover both

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.

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The Methodist roots of Nelson Mandela

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Comrade. Leader. Prisoner. Negotiator. Statesman.

A giant banner outside the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg — which I visited during a 2009 reporting trip to South Africa — uses those terms to describe Nelson Mandela, although many more certainly could be applied.

It’s difficult to overstate the magnitude of Mandela’s life and — from a news perspective — his death Thursday at age 95.

Or, to put the news in a more personal perspective, here’s a tweet from a friend.

Alas, it would be impossible for anyone — not even your brilliant GetReligionistas — to critique all the millions of words written about Mandela just since his passing less than 24 hours ago. But we can take an initial crack at exploring the coverage of the faith angle. First question: What was Mandela’s religious background?

From that United Methodist News Service report:

Throughout his life, Nelson Mandela had many connections to Methodism.

A graduate of a Methodist boarding school where many future African leaders were educated, the anti-apartheid champion was mentored by Methodist preachers and educators and formed a bond with a Methodist chaplain while in prison.

As president of South Africa, he worked with church leaders in shaping a new nation and eventually married Graça Machel, a United Methodist, widow of the former president of Mozambique and an advocate for women’s and children’s rights.

The Gospel Herald suggests that Mandela’s “Christian faith was the bedrock of his extraordinary life legacy.”

Christian Today — not to be confused with Christianity Today, which is mentioned below — reports:

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Pod people: Stopping in again at the Death Café

Pull thoughts and words from my head and form sentences with them on a screen? No problem.

Speak into the air for those interested to hear? A little more of a challenge.

Yet this week my number came up; it was my first turn at the mic for GetReligion’s “Crossroads” podcast.

I chair-danced while the introductory music played. I tried to answer host Todd Wilken’s questions honestly and succinctly while adding the insight he asked. I prayed silently throughout that my daughter’s small, white pet rabbit sitting next to me wouldn’t start loudly munching on the wicker basket in the corner.

I’m told these things become easier with time and practice — not to mention professional voice coaching, a dialect makeover and a stint living somewhere outside the proverbial Bible Belt.

Pour yourself a cup of coffee first, though, because we’re stopping in again at the Death Café. In summary, I wanted to order up an item that wasn’t on the menu: any real spiritual discussion related to death, the destination of souls or thoughts about the afterlife.

I enjoyed reader FW Ken’s take on the subject and appreciated his thoughts on the journalistic questions I raised:

Finally got around to reading the article, and I’m here to tell you, is hard to take seriously a program called a Death Cafe. It sounds like a Deathmetal eatery. Maybe like that one in Chicago serving unconsecrated hosts on a burger.

Mulling over the critique that the article lacks substantive discussion of the afterlife, I would be fearful of such a discussion going in the circles illustrated in the comments on this thread. I can’t imagine that such a cheerful program would allow such theoretical discussions, but it would be nice to know if they happen, and how they are handled.

We also looked back at a BBC installment in its series on kindness regarding Keshia Thomas, an anti-KKK protester at a KKK rally that took a dangerous turn when a white supremacist was spotted in the anti-KKK section. Thomas said her instinct to shield the supremacist with her body was born of faith, and that she felt like angels were picking her up and placing her across him to protect him. The follow-up questions about her spiritual background and religious convictions were nil, however.

I haven’t seen a retrospective of this 1996 rally that has done Thomas’ story justice, but I’m still looking. I’m sure it will be a good one, if a reporter is willing to really listen to her replies and delve into the answer as to why she kept this man from being harmed that day.

Enjoy the show, and remember I’m the rookie around these parts!

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KKK hoods, ‘two angels’ and a frustrating ghost

It’s a “where are they now” story that I was intrigued to read, since I had missed the first installment back in 1996. The 2013 update promised drama, forgiveness, lessons learned and perhaps racial reconciliation. Oh, and as a bonus: a faith element.

Darn the ghost.

Courtesy of GetReligion reader Kate comes this feature from BBC Magazine — an inspiring piece about a young black woman named Keshia Thomas. At a 1996 rally in Michigan, Thomas shielded a white supremacist from the sticks of a crowd of anti-Ku Klux Klan protesters.

In summary, the day of a planned KKK rally in Ann Arbor dawned with opposing sides separated by barricades of officers.

Thomas had participated in the protest and was photographed standing with other students. Events turned violent, however, when a woman with a megaphone shouted that there was a Klansman in their area.

A mob mentality rippled through the angry crowd, which chased and then began to punch the man, kick him and jab him with the pointed ends of their placards, according to the story:

“It became barbaric,” says Thomas. “When people are in a crowd they are more likely to do things they would never do as an individual. Someone had to step out of the pack and say, ‘This isn’t right.’”

So the teenager, then still at high school, threw herself on top of a man she did not know and shielded him from the blows.

So what gave Thomas the impetus to help a man whose views it appeared were so different from her own? Her religious beliefs played a part. But her own experience of violence was a factor, too.

“I knew what it was like to be hurt,” she says. “The many times that that happened, I wish someone would have stood up for me.”

 Thomas has never heard from the man she saved, but she did once meet a member of his family. Months later, someone came up to her in a coffee shop and said thanks. “What for?” she asked. “That was my dad,” the young man replied.

Kate, who came across the story after a friend linked to it as an inspiring example of compassion and mercy, saw more. She saw an impetuousness born of religious conviction, thanks to the story’s allusion. She and I want to know more about Thomas’ background, specifically her faith upbringing.

It appears that Thomas dropped plenty of hints that should have prompted faith-based questions from the reporter. For example, she offered this insight when asked what she was feeling when she decided to intervene:

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Ghosts in blue-state — er, red-state — West Virginia?

There’s a lot to digest in the Washington Post’s nearly 4,000-word political road trip to West Virginia, headlined “A blue state’s road to red.” Even at that word count — mammoth for a newspaper — it’s a definite challenge to boil down an entire state, its people and their attitudes and way of life into a single story.

Does the Post provide an accurate portrayal? Or does it traffic in stereotypes and condescension? Since I don’t live in West Virginia, I’m not sure I’m qualified to provide a definitive analysis on those questions.

But I will take a shot at critiquing the religion angle, which figures somewhat prominently in the Post’s report, starting at the top:

PINEVILLE, W.Va. — Those old enough to remember still tell visitors how this mountain town helped make history on April 26, 1960. That was the day 600 people showed up in front of the Wyoming County courthouse to hear a patrician senator with a Boston accent make his case to be their next president.

The electricity that afternoon in Pineville foreshadowed bigger things to come for the struggling candidate. Two weeks later, John F. Kennedy won more than 60 percent of the vote in West Virginia’s Democratic presidential primary, a victory that helped move the country past the presumption that a Catholic could never be elected to the White House.

In late June of this year, another expression of Pineville’s values appeared on the terraced lawn of the old courthouse. There was no fanfare around the installation of the new stone monument, but like that Kennedy rally more than half a century ago, it was a way of saying how the town felt about where the nation is headed.

The stone is engraved with the Ten Commandments, and it instructs: “They are to be used as a historical reference and model to enrich the knowledge of our citizens to an early origin of law from past generations so that they will serve as a historical guide for future generations to come.”

Interestingly, the Post isn’t the only major newspaper giving the JFK/West Virginia connection prominent ink this week. USA Today had a front-page story recounting when the state’s 1960 Democratic primary ensured Kennedy’s nomination and smashed “the myth that Bible Belt Protestants wouldn’t vote for a Roman Catholic.”

But while the Post story contains a fair amount of religion, the actual insight into West Virginia’s faith — and its role in the political shift — seems pretty shallow.

Concerning the Ten Commandments monument, the Post reports:

The American Civil Liberties Union has complained that this is an encroachment of church on state, and an affront to religious minorities. A headline on the front page of the Charleston Gazette on July 4 asked: “Constitutional showdown in the making?”

But most here seem to agree with Melissa Mitchell, a stay-at-home mom who was getting things organized for a midsummer church picnic at a park near the courthouse.

“We love it, and we will fight for it,” she said of the stone marker.

Why? “Honestly, because everybody in this county hates Barack Obama. That is the biggest reason,” Mitchell said.

Animosity toward President Obama runs high here. He lost Wyoming County by nearly 56 percentage points last year, despite the fact that registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 3 to 1.

But as Mitchell and her friends talked more about it, their conversation turned to fears and anxieties that had little to do with party or politics. They discussed the well-paying jobs that had vanished with the coal industry; the crime and drugs that followed: the changing culture that mocks what they hold sacred.

“This county has seen the need for God. We can’t control what’s going on out there in the world, but on this small little corner of our small little town, we can,” said one woman, who gave her name only as Megan.

Maybe this is nitpicking, but I’d prefer a little deeper reporting — and religious insight — than a quote from a woman “who gave her name only as Megan.”

Then again, the Post seems willing to make all kinds of broad generalizations without any named sources at all:

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Baltimore Sun looks at art and religion, but not really

From the beginning of this weblog, your GetReligionistas have urged mainstream newsrooms to do a better job of covering liberal religious believers — as RELIGIOUS believers.

Far too often, believers in liberal institutions are covered as if there is nothing to their lives and beliefs but politics.

The same thing tends to happen to African-American churches, even if — doctrinally speaking — these churches are quite conservative. Far too often, it seems that journalists simply assume that these believers are basing their lives on political and cultural motivations, period.

Well, the newspaper that lands in my front yard just served up a story that I kept thinking was going to avoid this syndrome. Why? Because this story focused on a Baltimore project that focused on cooperation linked to religion and art, as opposed to being exclusively about religion and politics.

Trust me, I know that the high arts have become just as politicized in our culture as the popular arts. In fact, because of their connections to government funding and academia, the high arts are even more politicized.

However, this Baltimore Sun story still had the potential to ask some spiritual questions linked to progressive religious institutions and an arts institution, with the added benefit of the involvement of some more traditional African-American churches. Here is the overture:

The old arched red wooden door to the Seventh Metro Church is less that two blocks from the modern glass-and-steel panel that floats in front of the Maryland Institute College of Art’s newest exhibition space. They bring to mind two different eras and seem designed to be used by two dissimilar groups of people: spiky-haired artists and church ladies wearing fancy hats.

But when a white art student in her 20s met a middle-aged African-American pastor, they discovered that both doors opened into sacred spaces where people look for answers to the same big questions.

Caitlin Tucker and Ryan Preston Palmer became acquainted through an innovative program that brings together two of the seminal institutions that have helped transform the Station North neighborhood — the Maryland Institute College of Art and a group of local churches.

“This program has been a catalyst for bringing together the whole neighborhood,” Palmer says. He admits that until recently, he had never set foot in MICA, though he himself is an artist. For her part, neither Tucker nor Bashi Rose, an artist assigned to the Seventh Metro project, had previously crossed the church threshold.

First, let me make a picky comment about Associated Press style. Why does the Sun continue its strange practice, when dealing with the black church, of ignoring AP style for the titles of ministers? In this case, we are talking about “the Rev. Ryan Preston Palmer,” on first reference. Yes, the story calls him a pastor in the previous sentence — but that does not cancel out the guidelines of AP style. I do not think I have ever seen the Sun them ignore this rule with a white clergy person.

Moving on. It’s clear, from the list of participating churches, that this project combines the work of modern artists with the culture of liberal white churches and the style and folk art of more traditional black churches. Here’s the participants list, in urban Station North: Seventh Metro Church, St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, the New Second Missionary Baptist Church, St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church and the Spiritual Empowerment Center.

Tucker states the thesis of the story:

“There’s sometimes an assumption that there’s a divide between artists and communities of faith,” Tucker says. “Not a lot of members of our class identify as religious. The students at MICA who practice a faith have said in campus surveys that they feel discriminated against. But historically, there’s a strong connection between art and religion.”

Now, that is a promising statement, one that I truly hoped would be fleshed out in this story.

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On poverty, race, families and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Other than arguments about the United States becoming entangled in Syria, and Miley Cyrus coming unwound at the MTV shindig, the big story the past few days here in Beltway land has been — thank God — the 50th anniversary of the “I Have A Dream” speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Lincoln Memorial.

The other day, the Divine Mrs. M.Z. Hemingway touched on some of the wonderful coverage that led up to this event. Check that out. And here is another faith-themed report from Religion News Service. Read that one too.

Still, I would like to note what I think is a religion ghost in one of the major Washington Post stories linked to these events, an important story that ran under this headline: “Fifty years after March on Washington, economic gap between blacks, whites persists.”

Let me state right up front that this story contains all kinds of painful information about race and poverty that all Americans need to take seriously. I say that as a old-school conservative Democrat who has a large portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his office. Here’s the top of the story:

Even as racial barriers have tumbled and the nation has grown wealthier and better educated, the economic disparities separating blacks and whites remain as wide as they were when marchers assembled on the Mall in 1963.

When it comes to household income and wealth, the gaps between blacks and whites have widened. On other measures, the gaps are roughly the same as they were four decades ago. The poverty rate for blacks, for instance, continues to be about three times that of whites.

Later in the story, there is this information that hints at some of the complex realities inside these horrible numbers:

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Cutting ‘the Rev.’ out of a key Ravens executive’s work

If you number yourself among the millions and millions of Americans who follow the National Football League, then you know that this coming week is one of the most interesting, important and traumatic times of the year. It’s the time when “The Turk” walks the hallways at NFL camps, delivering the horrible news to players that they have been cut from the final rosters that teams take into the new season.

For many players, it represents the quick end of a dream or, at the very least, a severe setback. For journeyman players, it can mean the end a career or, at best, a time of radical life changes that can involve quick moves to a new location for their families or separation from loved ones they leave temporarily leave behind, because there’s no time to sell homes, change schools, etc.

What can NFL teams do to help men deal with all of this trauma? Or how about the flip side: What can be done to help young men handle the fact that they are now millionaires, with all of the attention and temptations that come with that amazing life change?

At the center of that maelstrom is a professional who is usually referred to as the “director of player development,” a job that is only growing in importance in the days when everything NFL players do in public or in private is subject to mass-media and social-media dissection to an unprecedented degree.

The Baltimore Sun recently ran a massive profile of Harry Swayne, the former NFL great who fills that role for the world-champion Ravens. The article argues that Swayne — simply stated — is a nationally known superstar in this crucial role, with a four-tiered player development program that is a model for others. Here’s some key background material:

Swayne is 48 years old and 55 pounds lighter than he was during a playing career that included a stint at starting right tackle on the Ravens’ Super Bowl XXXV team. These days, he is in his fourth year as the Ravens’ director of player development, a role that calls for Swayne to build relationships not only with players, coaches, team executives and their families, but also with corporate sponsors and business and community leaders.

It’s a tireless, yet rewarding job that has come under scrutiny recently with the slew of offseason arrests of NFL players, most notably the murder charge against former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez. The arrests, including one involving linebacker Rolando McClain, who retired less than a month after joining the Ravens, have spurred questions about the level of responsibility NFL teams have in recognizing and preventing destructive off-the-field behavior.

Swayne didn’t comment on individual cases, but he was more than willing to address what he feels is the biggest misconception about player development directors.

“If there is a problem off the field with players — and there always is and always has been — [people say] what’s going on with player development?” Swayne said. “One thing we are not is behaviorists. In my line of work and this is for all 32 player engagement directors, we don’t babysit 20-something-year-olds. They are going to do what 20-something-year-olds do across all cultural groups, across this whole country. Their parents can’t keep them from going out and doing some stupid stuff. Certainly, the player development director isn’t going to be able to either.

“But in that same respect, what we are is proactive individuals who like to approach things where it puts us out in front of some cloudy decisions before they even get an opportunity to make a bad choice. All 32 player engagement directors kind of have that approach.”

And what does the NFL think of this man, who strives to help the Ravens find the right kinds of players for the climate in the team’s locker room?

“People ask if I can give them information, what should the structure look like, how much involvement should this individual have, who should they report to. I just tell them, ‘I’d like for you to speak to Harry Swayne, who is in Baltimore.’ That’s the winning model,” said Troy Vincent, the 15-year NFL cornerback who runs the NFL Player Engagement Organization. “He has it all. He’s the benchmark.”

Now, what I am suggesting is that this is story is about ethics, morality, sin, wisdom, life changes, patience and a whole lot of other subjects — as opposed to being just another sports story. And what makes it GetReligion material?

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