Why Mandela Forgave the Butchers

Mandela with Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Mandela with Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Back in the early 1960s, black South African lawyer and activist Oliver Tambo was asked to describe a colleague who had just gone to prison for resisting white minority rule in that country. He replied that this man is “passionate, emotional, sensitive, quickly stung to bitterness and retaliation by insult and patronage.” Tambo was talking about his law-firm partner, Nelson Mandela—remembered today for his grace, humor, and empathy, as well as his remarkable courage and leadership.

What happened to Mandela in prison, what changed him so radically, is still a bit of mystery in my mind. He was often asked about a slice of this question—how he let go of the anger he felt specifically toward whites—and his responses were usually of a fairly standard therapeutic variety. Bill Clinton, in an interview aired last night by CBS Evening Newsrelated one such exchange with Mandela.

I said, “Now, Mandela, you’re a great man but you’re a wily politician. It was good politics to put your jailers in your inauguration and put the heads of the parties that imprisoned you in your government. But tell me the truth, when you were walking to freedom the last time, didn’t you hate ’em?” He said, “Yes. Briefly I did. I hated them and I was afraid. I hadn’t been free in so long. And then I realized if I still hated them after I left, they would still have me. I wanted to be free. And so I let it go.” He said, “That’s what you have to do. That’s what we all have to do. We have to let it go.” I mean, that’s the kind of thing he would say to me just in ordinary conversation.

“They would still have me.” How true. But does this explain the difference between the petulant man sized up by Oliver Tambo, circa 1963, and the Nelson Mandela we came to know and revere? Former Time managing editor Richard Stengel, author of Mandela’s Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage, has offered some further insight into Mandela’s personal transformation during his 27 years locked up in a tiny cell. Asked in an interview if prison was one of Mandela’s great teachers, he said:

Yes. Because prison changed that young man, and it burned away a lot of the extraneous parts of his character. And again, part of it was through his own self-analysis, but part of it is through this imposed control that prison has on you. I mean, the only thing you could control when you were in prison for all those years was yourself.

I mean, I remember when I first went to his cell in Robben Island. And I walked in, I walked—nearly walked in, but I gasped when I saw it, because—I mean, Nelson Mandela, as you know, is a big man. He’s 6’2″ inches tall, he has big hands and a big head. And he is larger than life in a literally and figurative way.

And this prison cell—I mean, he couldn’t even lie down and stretch out his legs. I mean, it could barely contain him. But what he learned and what he taught himself was how to contain himself, how to practice the self control that he actually didn’t have before he went into prison.

I don’t know if even this explains how someone becomes a strikingly different human being, although prison has been known to bring about extraordinary changes in people. What’s clear is that Mandela left prison with forgiveness in his heart—but there’s no getting around the politics.

Mandela’s Politics of Forgiveness

Mandela understood the difference between personal forgiveness and forgiveness in politics. In one of many symbolic and deeply personal gestures, he made his white jailer an honored guest at his presidential inauguration in 1994. But he knew that something else was needed in dealing with the larger ranks of white South Africans (often in the police and military) who had committed terrible human-rights violations. Mandela did not, as is widely believed, simply let those people go free, unconditionally. They had to do something in return for political amnesty. And that something was enshrined in the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission that he set up with Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu as its chairman.

Human-rights abusers had to go before this tribunal, whose proceedings were televised, and tell the whole truth about their atrocities. They had to reveal, in some cases literally, where the bodies were buried, and they did so often in grisly detail. Or else, they faced criminal prosecution.

This is not garden-variety forgiveness. It is not a single, unconditional act of letting bygones be bygones. Political forgiveness is different. It is a process, usually a negotiated one. It calls for truth and acknowledgment, if not necessarily repentance, and there are trade-offs and conditions. Without the conditionality, forgiveness loses a vital link to justice and restitution. It ceases to have a reason for being in politics.

Mandela knew this. At the same time, he realized that justice alone (investigations and prosecutions) was not the answer. For one thing, there might not have been a negotiated settlement with the apartheid regime, without clear provisions for amnesty. In other words, there might have been the bloodbath between white and black South Africans that many had predicted.

Beyond that, Mandela had other pragmatic considerations that didn’t arise simply from the goodness of his heart. His clear-eyed view was that the stability of the New South Africa depended on a well-calibrated process of reconciliation. He went down this road at least partly because there was no real alternative. As a politician as much as a person, Nelson Mandela knew there was no future without forgiveness.

Posted today also at Tikkun Daily. …read more

The Blessings of Unfreedom

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: mugshot in the gulag

Yesterday, an estimated two thousand people filled the National Cathedral in Washington for a memorial service that celebrated the post-incarceration life of Charles W. Colson, the Watergate conspirator-turned-evangelical who died last month. Colson was part of an infamous group of men in the Nixon White House who could be charitably described as revolting. In 1974 he went to prison for Watergate-related crimes including the cover-up that toppled a president. Seven months later, he was “born again,” as he proclaimed upon release—a changed man.

Many were skeptical of his jailhouse conversion, then and for years afterward. But Colson eventually proved them wrong as he dedicated the second half of his life to serving the spiritual needs of his fellow sinners in the slammer, through his organization, Prison Fellowship Ministries.

This basic story line and its variations are not unfamiliar. Many have gained remarkable insights into themselves and their world, peering out from behind bars. Some, like Colson, were incredibly guilty; some were ultimately vindicated; others were prisoners of conscience or of politics. Nelson Mandela, to name a revered one, was a violent revolutionary, overflowing with resentment (and not without cause), when thrown into the cramped prison cell that contained him for 27 years, courtesy of South Africa’s white minority regime. He came out a reconciler. Mandela’s honored guest at his 1994 presidential inauguration was his white jailer.

Some inmates have reached a level of consciousness where they could see themselves as radically free. They might even look upon the rest of us, on the outside, as existing in a kind of spiritual incarceration. Such was the illumination given to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn during his eight years in the Russian gulags after World War II.

Mistaken as Alive

In his 1973 classic The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn recalled when he and his fellow political captives were transferred from one slave labor camp to another, on a regular passenger train. They were dressed in ordinary clothes because the gulags were a state secret. “You sit on ancient passenger benches, and you hear strange and insignificant conversations,” he wrote of train-station palaver about trivialities such as family members who don’t wipe their feet after they walk through the apartment door. “The only one there who is alive, truly alive, is incorporeal you, and all these others are simply mistaken in thinking themselves alive.”

These quotes come from a handy sourcebook, Foundations of Theological Study, edited by Richard Viladesau and Mark Massa, S.J. Solzhenitsyn continues:

So what’s this about unwiped feet? And what’s this about a mother-in-law? What about the main thing in life, all its riddles? If you want, I’ll spell it out for you right now. Do not pursue what is illusory—property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life—don’t be afraid of misfortune; and do not yearn after happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don’t claw at your insides. If your back isn’t broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes see, and if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart—and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well.

Viladesau and Massa note in their introduction to the excerpt from The Gulag Archipelago that Solzhenitsyn’s train-station experience amounted to a spiritual awakening. Though his circumstances were extraordinary, he seemed to speak for Mandela, Colson, and many others unknown when he wrote: “I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: Bless you, prison!” …read more

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