Sometimes saints and heroes can function as a mirror that shows us our unkempt hair and smudged face and drives us to clean up the image of the person we see. Their excellence reminds us of our own imperfections, but simultaneously inspires us to work toward that excellence. I believe Nelson Mandela was such a person for much of the world, but certainly was for me.
Mandela has shown that Christian ideals such as forgiveness, loving your enemy, mercy, and compassion are not just good ideas, they are practical solutions. How often have we thought, "Sure, loving my enemy sounds good, but this is real life?" or "All that morality stuff is great for my personal life, but it doesn't work in politics or economics." What's particularly amazing to me is that Mandela at one time would have agreed. In the 1960s, he turned from non-violence and advocated violent acts as the only way to overturn the oppressive government. Love, peace, and compassion seemed an impossible path toward justice.
And yet, decades later, Mandela proved his younger self wrong.
By welcoming his opponents into his government, by refusing to seek revenge for decades of violence, and by introducing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (by which many pro-apartheid leaders were granted amnesty in exchange for publicly confessing their crimes and listening to the testimonies of their victims), he managed to sooth much of the hatred and fear that had permeated the country for decades. In fact, one could argue that his insistence on forgiveness, peace making, and reconciliation worked better at creating a stable transition to democracy than any of the other examples we have in recent memory. (Just look at the struggles that Libya and Egypt are having today.)
Mandela would have been perfectly justified with pursuing a different route, one that demanded greater retribution from former oppressors, yet he found the strength to believe and embody the words of his compatriot, Archbishop Desmond Tutu: "Goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death." In so doing, Mandela managed to heal a nation set it on a path that would have seemed impossible even shortly before his release. I pray that Mandela's life may continue to challenge us to recognize that ideas such as love, mercy, and forgiveness are not just pie-in-the-sky philosophies, but are practical, real-world Gospel.
“You're possessed with a power that's bigger than the pain.” -Everclear, "Heartspark Dollarsign"