“There is no improving the future without disturbing the present.” Catherine Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature[a] God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!” – Paul
The last few months have been important ones for South Africa as we celebrate two decades of post-apartheid life and come to terms with the reality of life without Nelson Mandela’s presence in our nation. We have rightly celebrated his life and that which he brought to us as a nation and also to the world. But in this process I think we risk having him dressed up and made comfortable for us, a nice grandfatherly figure who made us feel warm and fuzzy rather than a willing and courageous disturber of the present in the fight for an improved future.
On the morning after his death nearly six months ago, as I cycled to work I thought of the Nelson Mandela I grew up with in South Africa. The “terrorist” – the man who threatened the status quo of white privilege so profoundly that everything about him was banned – his image, his words and his family! He was a fighter who made those in power feel threatened because he profoundly threatened their present. And since we benefited from this power the vast majority of whites did not question this perception.
We do no favour to ourselves, those of us born into wealth and power anywhere in the world, to forget that we fought against his legacy. We, in South Africa and in other parts of the western world, saw him as someone who threatened our hegemony and so we labelled him and isolated him. We were on the wrong side of the arc of history that Martin Luther King told us bends towards justice and we dare not forget or be imprisoned by that reality. We also do no favour to ourselves, those of us not born into power but now finding ourselves with access to that power, to imagine ourselves immune from the evils that previous generations have committed. We too can find ourselves on the wrong side of history.
In thinking about this I am grateful for the theologian Denise Ackerman’s wisdom:
“A painful history can cripple human memory in two ways: you can either forget the past or be imprisoned by it. I wish neither on you. Your understanding of your past will enable you to deal with your future. Understanding the past will also help you to recognise – both in yourselves and in those who will govern you – the inclination to harm and destroy…
If, on the one hand, you believe yourselves to be immune to the evils perpetrated by previous generations you will be more vulnerable to evil. If, on the other hand, you believe yourselves to be the victims of history, you will forgo the opportunity to emerge from self-exoneration into the more turbulent, but rewarding waters of self-knowledge. So my prayer for you both is that you will not shirk the clamour of history, while at the same time you will not be burdened by it to the extent that you feel helpless to act.”
This month we’ve also remembered the death and resurrection of Christ, a moment in history that fundamentally disturbed the present in order to initiate a better future. Jesus gave up his present comfort and his power as God, to incarnate himself in this world so that salvation could become possible.
As South African’s we live in a country that once again stands on the brink, not because Madiba has died, but because we have not been sufficiently willing or able to disturb our present lives in the fight for an improved future. We live with a state that is increasingly enjoying power for its own sake and seems more interested in preserving that power than it is in serving a nation. We live in a country and world increasingly dominated by an economic elite that is willing to destroy millions of lives to increase its wealth and power, whilst at the same time paying lip service to development and transformation.
So at this time as I continue to mourn a man who helped create a future I am able to participate in, as a lament the fading of our rainbow nation dream and as I remember the death and resurrection of my saviour Jesus I also pray for the courage and determination to find myself willing to disturb the present in the fight for an improved future.