*During the Christmas season, millions around the world reflect on the miraculous birth of a divine prophet who taught that we should “forgive those who trespass against us” and love our neighbors — including our enemies — as we love ourselves. The iconic freedom fighter who was recently laid to rest in South Africa proved through his living that there are few forces as powerful and transformative as love expressed through forgiveness.
As he was memorialized around the world, Nelson Mandela was lauded for his forgiving heart. We are awed by the fact that he emerged from nearly three decades of brutal incarceration with a commitment to reconciliation rather than revenge. That commitment empowered Mandela to soothe hearts and to unite a nation bitterly divided by decades of violent racist oppression. Forgiveness, modeled by Mandela, was key to South Africa moving toward becoming an inclusive, democratic nation rather than another Balkanized state locked in ethnic violence and civil war.
But fence mending requires more than the forgiveness of those who have been wronged. Repentance by the wrongdoer is also imperative. The forgiving prophet whose birth in a Bethlehem barn is celebrated at Christmas, also taught the necessity of making amends with people that one has harmed. So important is this duty that Jesus gives it precedence even over worshiping in the temple. “First be reconciled to thy brother and then come offer thy gift,” he commands in the fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel.
So, Nelson Mandela’s willingness to forgive those who had oppressed him and his people was only one factor in the equation that transformed South Africa. Acknowledgment of apartheid’s cruelty was also essential. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), convened by President Mandela’s government in 1995, provided victims of apartheid with a crucial public platform from which to testify about the horrors of South Africa’s racist system. The TRC was also a confessional for South Africa’s apartheid leaders. Former president F.W. deKlerk, who dismantled most apartheid laws and released Mandela from prison, performed a vital task when he apologized to the Commission for “the tremendous harm that apartheid has done to millions of South Africans.”
Nelson Mandela set the tone for the coming together that made South Africa a new nation. As President Obama stated during his speech at Mr. Mandela’s memorial service in a rain-drenched soccer stadium: “It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well…to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion and generosity and truth.”
The democratic, racially inclusive South Africa that Nelson Mandela steered into existence stands – despite its imperfections – as a testament to the healing power that flows through forgiveness. That power is worth celebrating at Christmas and the whole year through.
Thank you for listening. I’m Cameron Turner and that’s my two cents.
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