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Mandela and Legacies

December 30, 2013
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Recently I was asked to comment on Nelson Mandela and whether or not he had once been a terrorist and what this meant about how we should view his legacy. Given that I was asked this in a situation in which I was the only white person present it might be worth reviewing the words of a another rebel leader, Admiral Ackbar, “It’s a trap!” but I actually found the question rather easy to answer despite the fact that I don’t know very much about Mandela’s early years. Specifically, I have no idea what the legitimacy of the terrorism charges leveled against him was or was not. I also do not believe that knowing this is important to thinking about Mandela’s legacy.

What everyone is going to remember about Mandela is that he was instrumental both in ending apartheid and in making sure that the end of apartheid was peaceful and did not merely involve a reversal of an exploitative social order (in the manner of, say, Mugabe’s revolution against white colonial power). That’s what Mandela leaves the world – a South Africa that is a lot better off (despite its problems, some of which are probably also part of Mandela’s legacy as president).

So why don’t I think the details of Mandela’s early life are important and why do I think it’s worth talking about this on a Christian theology blog? Mostly because Mandela changed. The man who died was not the man who went to prison on Robben Island. Imagine for a second that Mandela really was a terrorist organizer when he was put in prison. He certainly wasn’t when he came back out of prison, when he negotiated with de Klerk to end apartheid, when he became South Africa’s first black president, or when he became a beloved elder statesman on the world stage. The early Mandela left a legacy only through the later Mandela and the later Mandela’s legacy is an amazing accomplishment.

So why bring this up on a Christian blog? Because allowing Mandela to be the man he was at the end is remarkably Christian. When someone repents and converts we expect that God sees them as they are and not as they were and yet we are sometimes unwilling to make that step in any more mundane fashion. Now, were this all this would not be all that interesting. However we also give Mandela credit for his trajectory. Not only do we remember Mandela the elder statesman in preference to his earlier and more fiery self but we tend to give Mandela credit for changes he made between his time as president (when he made political decisions that not everyone liked and in some cases turned out to be bad decisions) and the period after his presidency when he learned from his mistakes (e.g., his handling of the public health hazard presented by AIDS) and was perhaps better able to follow his conscience. Moreover, even those who are sure that Mandela was a terrorist in his early life are often willing to give him credit for changing – not just the credit due to a man who was always peaceful but extra credit for turning aside from violence. This issue of trajectory is import and I believe it is one that Christians need to pay more attention to.

Mandela is obviously an easy case to give credit to since he ended his trajectory in a very good place and (as I said earlier) where he started may been fine anyway. However, we are also willing to recognize trajectories that start from very bad places and do not complete. We recognize when people make an effort to change and we think that effort should be recognized.

As Christians we often ignore the slope of a trajectory to focus on the points inside it. Take the thief on the cross beside Jesus who is told that he will be in Paradise that day when he dies. We often talk about this as a question of place: the thief moved from a bad place to a converted place and that’s what matters. Perhaps, but does it matter because the place the thief was in was so good or because that movement was along the correct trajectory? Does God recognize the trajectories of our lives and give us credit (or demerits) for them?

In college a professor of mine, explaining why he found many soteriological formulas problematic, told a joke. In the joke a pastor is walking along a road and finds a man who has been stabbed and shoved out of a car. The pastor tries to get information from the man to help him but the man, learning that he is talking to a pastor, says, “No, this will kill me. Please, hear my confession and pray with me – I want to be a Christian when I die. I’ve been a mobster all my life, I’ve stolen and I’ve killed people, and I want Jesus to forgive me.” The pastor prays with the mobster who then promptly expires. As the pastor stands back up and steps back into the road he thinks, “Look at this awful man. He does everything wrong, I do everything right, and he makes some apologies right at the end and ends up in heaven while I work so hard to –” and is hit by a car and killed instantly while in sin and goes to hell. There are plenty of theological problems with this joke but answering them by discussing places gets rather convoluted. The whole point of the joke is that the pastor is in a bad place when he dies while the mobster is in a good one. But trajectories would solve this problem – the trajectory of the pastor’s life has been towards the right thing, never mind the little hiccups. The mobster may or may not have a good trajectory (this partly depends on his motives for converting) but it’s possible that both men are headed the right way.

A lot of the more complicated schemes of salvation try to ignore the dynamics of human relationships. When we think of a public figure though we do pass judgment on them and these dynamics, including the changes they’ve made over their lives and where they are headed, come to the front. It may be worth considering how much salvation and that personal relationship with Jesus really is like a personal relationship in terms of how it gets evaluated.

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