Friday, December 6, 2013

Saint Nicholas, Saint Nelson

Today is the feast day of Saint Nicholas--yes, that St. Nicholas, the one who would be transformed into Santa Claus.  For more background on that saint, see this post on my theology blog.

I was thinking about the feast day of St. Nicholas as I drove home yesterday afternoon--and then I heard the news of the death of Nelson Mandela.  I cried much of the way home.

It's not the first time that news of Nelson Mandela has made me cry in the car.  I remember hearing about the voters standing in line for days to elect him president--and I wept.  It was astonishing to me that Nelson Mandela--who had been imprisoned before I was born--was not only free, but about to be freely, and fairly peacefully, elected president.

I spent my college years demonstrating against apartheid and discussing what might happen to plunge South Africa into full-out war.  I had activist student friends at larger schools who built shanty towns on the Lawn and demanded divestment.  My liberal arts college teetered on the edge of bankruptcy for all the years that I was there, so there was no need to demand divestment from oppressive regimes--my school had already liquidated most of its assets.

I also went to gatherings that were more religious in nature.  I remember a multi-faith gathering that assembled to mark the 15th anniversary of the Soweto uprising.  We prayed for the end to apartheid.  I can't speak for the others, but I didn't expect it to happen.  It's not the first time I've dismissed the power of nonviolent protest and prayer, and happily, it's not the only time I've been proven wrong.  For more on the power of non-violence and the intersection of faith movements, see this great article by Jonathan Schell and Taylor Branch.

I remember the day that the announcement came that Mandela would leave prison.  I held my breath.  Like much of the world, I worried that he'd be shot.  But not only did he live, he went on to transform the country.  With his Truth and Reconciliation Committee, he showed us a different path to justice.

Let us think about Nelson Mandela on this Feast Day of St. Nicholas.  Let us think about our own gifts.

We might think that we are not special, like Nelson Mandela.  But I would disagree.  We are each of us called to a transformative mission.  We may not know it, but we are.

With luck, we will not have to suffer for our vision and our mission.  With luck, we will not spend 27 years working in a quarry in a brutal prison like Robben Island.  But even in imprisonment, Mandela showed us a better way.

Many people have stories of how he inspired his fellow prisoners.  They spent their time in prison discussing how they would transform their society.  They had no reason to expect that they would ever be free--and yet, they didn't waste time dreaming of violent retribution.  They dreamed visions of transfiguration.

Thus, when they were released, they were ready.  Even though Nelson Mandela was well into his 70's, he was a powerful leader.  He showed us that it's never too late.

We may have no dreams of political progress, but we have other dreams.  Mandela shows us that it's not too late.

In the meantime, we can act as if the fulfillment of our dreams is already in progress.  We may not live in a physical prison, but many of us reside in prisons of other kinds.  We are paralyzed by the progress of others or by our fears or by our reaction to set-backs and disappointments.  With time, our spirits may be a bit crushed.

On this day when we celebrate both the life of Saint Nicholas and the life of Nelson Mandela, we can remember that it is possible to make a way out of no way.  If we dwell in chains, we may wonder how--how can we make a way when no way seems possible?

We can take comfort in each other.  If someone else has had success, we can dream of it too.  That success may be the publication of a book with a spine.  It may be increased literacy rates in our lifetimes.  It may be the overthrow of an oppressive regime.

Often our dreams are too puny.  We hold back because we're afraid to be disappointed again.  But now is the time for big dreams.  What would you like to see manifest in the world?  What would you work for if you truly believed that anything is possible?

In the meantime, we can take solace from our compatriots.  We can encourage them and hold them up.  Together, we will be stronger when we fight against despair.

At some point, we'll likely see some success.  At that point, I hope that we remember to turn around and stretch out our hands to others who need us.  If we have that kind of power, we can hire the younger artists, even though we may feel threatened by them.  We can work for the freedom of all, even if we worry that we'll lose some of our benefits--I continue to be amazed that F. W. de Klerk set Mandela free, even though it meant the end of a system that had given him so much.

Mandela and St. Nicholas remind us that we're given gifts to share them.  We're not supposed to hoard our riches.  And we're to use them in the service of the poor and oppressed.

I have friends who claim that they can't believe in a god who would let ________ happen.  They would ask God, "How could you have stood by and let the Holocaust happen?  How could you have let ________ happen?"

God would likely ask the same thing of us.  Nelson Mandela's life reminds us of the power of human effort.  Mandela reminds us that change is going to happen--it's up to us to shape that change.

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