A meeting place for tradition and modernity, viewed from a Masorti perspective
Friday, 6 December 2013
On the Death of Mandela - And Parashat Vayigash
This isn’t a eulogy.
That would be inappropriate, and besides there are many far better placed than I.
Want to give a sermon in honour of the passing of a giant in my life, and that of the world.
And I’ll have a word of two to share about Joseph, another leader who knew darkness and imprisonment and came through that experience of oppression to provide great leadership.
He was in a category of one, an elder to the world and his life touched mine.
I believe he provided a leadership unmatched in our times.
Three insights into his life and death.
Mandela had great faith.
When I suggest he had faith, it’s not the classic relationship with God I have in mind.
Mandela’s religious convictions were complex. Clearly great love for Desmond Tutu in particular.
But not talking about religious dogma and belief in a particular kind of deity.
True faith is that which exists when the physical corporeal environment gives nothing to rely on.
When all that goes, what is left, what inspires a person to believe in the possibility of a future and human possibility when left to rot in a prison cell for more than 20 years?
The thing that is irresolute in the face of such physical depravity is faith.
It’s the thing that makes no sense to hang on to, it’s the thing that cannot be taken away by oppressors whether the oppression comes dressed as prison wardens, or cancer cells or P45s or anything else.
Faith is that thing we should all pray never to have tested.
But it’s the thing that keeps us believing even in the darkest of times.
Mentioned Joseph – in fact spoke about this last week.
In the darkness of the pit, in the experience of being sold into slavery, in the experience of being imprisoned because of the false accusation of Potifar’s wife, Joseph demonstrated faith.
And through his experiences on Robben Island, even through the death of his own son, it’s clear that Mandela also demonstrated faith.
And that faith is the source of hope and of love and that faith is the source of what makes us human.
And the greater the faith, the greater the human.
And Mandela’s faith was great.
The second thing is this.
Mandela worked out how to look at a human being and see a creation in the image of God.
Again I don’t want to co-opt Mandela religiously – he had his own stunningly poetic way of explaining his life and work – but this is the way I have to talk about the outstanding moral contribution of his life.
Exactly what he did and believed as a young man, I make no claim.
But from the time he walked out of those prison gates he looked at the face of the hated Afrikaner opponents to everything he, Mandela, believed in, and saw humanity.
Maybe that’s a little over-romantic.
In his autobiography Mandela records how he and those who followed him even in prison worked to befriend the prison wardens, ‘hostility’ wrote Mandela was self-defeating. There was no point in having a permanent enemy among the wardens.’
But he goes on to say, ‘It was ANC policy to try to educate all people, even our enemies; we believed that all men, even prison service wardens, were capable of change.’
It’s this commitment to the possibility of ‘all men, even prison wardens’ that, surely, explains some of the great acts of leadership in Mandela’s earliest days as President of a truly democratic South Africa – I wrote last night of his wearing the Springbok jersey to the World Rugby Finals. I read today of the invitations to his inauguration sent to his jailors, his prosecutors and his interrogators.
That’s the truly remarkable moral strength, the strength to live through oppression and refuse to come out hating.
The strength to live through the experience of having your humanity stripped from you and still to believe in the inherent decency and goodness of all humanity.
It takes great strength to refuse to fight violence not with violence but love.
And were it not for that strength, God help us, God help Africa.
There is, perhaps, an equivalence in the story of Joseph.
Joseph has, of course, had a difficult relationship with his brothers who were prepared to leave him to die, only to decide to sell him into slavery.
In this week’s parasha we get the moment Joseph reveals himself to his long-lost family as his brother.
And his first words.
He seeks to reassure his brothers, don’t be angry that you sold me into this, for this is all God’s doing.
He’s able to open his heart and not carry the hate.
It’s an extraordinary achievement. And one that, thank goodness, we read of from any number of people who have experienced oppression and rise beyond it.
They talk of not wanting to carry the hatred as an additional burden.
I’m sure that’s right.
But I don’t know how you open a person’s heart that there is another way beyond the playground battles of he hit me, so I’ll hit him back.
Or rather I know of only one way.
It takes a witness.
It takes someone you trust and respect who finds a way to respond to hatred with an open heart. And all of a sudden a different way opens up.
It takes a combination of that person’s experience of oppression and their standing and that witnessing can change – well in the case of Mandela it changes a country, it might even have changed a world.
So where now.
Mandela was no saint – his own life was – of course just like any other life – sprinkled with foibles and failures.
And South Africa remains a country still struggling with its share of strife, inequity and violence
But maybe that is the point.
Jonathan Freedland, writing earlier in the year, warned off seeing Mandela as a saint in that that suggests something ‘beyond’ about what he achieved. Freedland’s point was that Mandela’s achievements were human achievements, achieved by a human being, just like you or me.
There is no-one to wait for to make the changes needed in our own post-Mandela world. There is only us, simple human beings, just as Mandela was ultimately human.
Mandela himself, I suspect understood this perfectly.
Tony Blair was on Radio 4 this morning recording how Mandela came to a Labour Party conference after his retirement an introduced himself as an ‘out of work pensioner with a criminal record.’
I understand that when asked what he wanted his tombstone to read, Mandela replied, "I would like it to be said 'Here lies a man who has done his duty on Earth.' That is all."
I suspect he said it with a smile on his lips, but he said it knowing his own humanity.
There are rabbinic teachings that make the same point. From Pirkei Avot we learn
Lo Hamlecha Ligmor, aval lo atah Ben Horin L’Hivtel mimena
It is not up to you to desist from the work, but you are not free to desist from it.
Mandela certainly did that and much much more.
Uvmakom she ain anashim, hishtadel lihiyot ish
In a place where there is no humanity, be a human – an ish – a Mentsch
Mandela was certainly a man in world desperately bereft of men of true faith, morality and courage.
This is the conclusion of Mandela’s massive autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. I took the well thumbed book back off the shelf this morning.
When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved, but I know that is not the case. The truth is that we are not yet free. We have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journety. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but t live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just the beginning.
I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter. I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.
Mandela’s death should remind us of the importance of faith, as the source of hope and the source of humanity.
His death should remind us of the importance of seeing every human as being a creation in the image of God, even our enemies. It should serve as a witness to the power of fighting hatred with an open heart and an embrace.
And Mandela’s death should remind us that he was only a man, just like you and I, and in his absence, the responsibility to complete his legacy, now falls on us all.
May he rest in peace, his memory will surely always be for a blessing.