Yesterday, in churches around the world, the faithful remembered Nelson Mandela. For our modern lesson at Virginia-Highland Church, we used Maya Angelou’s beautiful tribute, “His Day is Done,” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=PqQzjit7b1w) and I saw the young people lean forward and many of the adults wipe away tears and swallow hard. That is as it should be.
There have been an endless stream of tributes, but I have been fascinated as I have remembered those who did not consider him a hero during his life. Mandela was only removed from the United States terrorist watch list in 2008 after a man with similarly colored skin became president. The blog Daily Kos wrote:
Jerry Falwell was against him. Pat Robertson was against him. Dick Cheney was against him, and William F. Buckley was against him, and George Will was against him, and Grover Norquist travelled to South Africa to be against him, and the Heritage Foundation was against him, and of course Ronald Reagan was steadfastly and famously against him.
Everyone would agree that apartheid was wrong, mind you, but Nelson Mandela and the others who fought against the system were just so … uppity? In the rancidity of Jesse Helms’ behavior towards the man it would be impossible to not detect the lingering fury of our own nation’s not-that-distant civil rights battles, a fight that many of the same segregationists were still eager to fight, a fight where everyone could agree on the inherent unacceptability of institutional racism but who were forever finding reasons why those who stood up against those things could not be trusted and would not be supported.
It was fascinating how the movie Lee Daniels’ The Butler portrayed Ronald Reagan’s refusal to impose sanctions on South Africa when the rest of the world was unanimous. I was shocked to realize that I had forgotten that bit of history. As I recalled the enemies of Nelson Mandela I thought about a sermon series I preached many years ago. I used as my scriptures the many texts in the gospels in which his enemies attacked Jesus.
In the end, they inadvertently proved to be his most powerful witnesses. My favorite was when Jesus was hanging on the cross, and a detractor said, “He saved others, but himself he cannot save.” Yes.
At the end of our lives we can only hope our enemies will rise up to bear witness to those we saved from hunger, despair, and injustice when we might have used our life seeking to save ourselves.
by Michael Piazza
Center for Progressive Renewal