His life began with aspirations for security and success. His was, like many of ours in youth, a life learning all about – as Richard Rohr puts it – ‘a language of ascent’. He hoped for a safe career as a civil servant.
Then, responding to the ravaged politics of racism, he protested with others in the streets of South Africa and was arrested in a demonstration against apartheid.
He said he was willing to die for the values of equality among people in his divided country.
He didn’t die for his conviction at the time. But was sentenced to life in prison. Early photos of Nelson Mandela show a young, stalwart, brusque-looking man in exercise clothes. The impression is one of strength, emanating a ‘don’t mess with me’ attitude. He reminds me in this early time like a boxer about to enter the ring.
Instead, his time in prison taught him ‘a language of descent’, one that religion at its best teaches – teaches us to shed tears, weep, and let go.
What did he do in prison? He befriended his guards, and taught his inmates how to read. When he emerged from prison twenty-seven years later, he was a changed man. He entered prison as a wolf, and emerged more as a lamb willing not so much to dominate and exercise power over his opponents, but to serve them. Of course, it is in this stage of life whilst practicing a language of descent, when Nelson Mandela became the first black president of South Africa.
I don’t think there are many world leaders who demonstrate, like Nelson Mandela did, the qualities of John the Baptist with his raw, initiating energy on the one hand, and the gentle, servant leadership demonstrated by Jesus on the other. And perhaps it is not ours to try to imitate these giants of history.
But maybe ours is the task to recognize our own calling to conviction, pursuit of justice, in the name of Jesus. John the Baptist was making a way clear for one who was to follow, one who was greater than him. Any work on our part to do the right thing will sometimes mean our needs for security and success will take a back seat. We will follow Christ, and make a way clear for him to come again, not by pursuing selfish goals, by hoarding and doing the safe things. But by practicing a language of descent, a letting go of our ego compulsions, and acting out of a conviction of Christ’s love for us, and for all people. As Nelson Mandela once said, “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”
When we let the light of Christ shine through our lives, the whole world will see and be transformed.
Richard Rohr writes about the role of religion in teaching a language of descent, p.47 “Everything Belongs”, especially to men