His death was supposed to be a footnote. It was supposed to be a local story, buried in the inside pages of the paper: Imprisoned Terrorist Nelson Mandela dies in Prison.
It didn’t happen that way. In the days since his death he has made worldwide headlines. Frankly, it was time. He was 95 years old and had been in critical condition since developing a lung infection nearly 6 months ago. He was home but his home was transformed into an intensive care unit.
Mr. Mandela’s life story is largely public and known. After becoming a lawyer in apartheid South Africa he joined the African National Congress. He first embraced the idea of nonviolence in battling apartheid, but later abandoned that and co founded a militant wing called Spear of the Nation. Because of his actions he needed to go underground, but was found and arrested in 1962. Tried and convicted of trying to overthrow the government, he expected to be sentenced to death but instead was sentenced to life in prison.
For the next 27 years he languished in prison. By the 1970s and 1980s he became the public face of the injustice of apartheid, even though there were no pictures taken of him since 1963. His release from prison in 1990 seemed a miracle.
But for me, his release wasn’t the miracle. It’s what happened to him while in prison and how he sculpted post apartheid South Africa. While nobody knew in 1990 how he would spend the rest of his life, many feared he would take the opportunity to exact revenge on those who harmed him. They feared he would respond to injustice with injustice of his own.
He didn’t. After his election as President of South Africa in 1994 he founded the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. He knew that truth must come before reconciliation, and that reconciliation is the only path to true peace. As I think about this, I can’t help but remember Archbishop Tutu’s belief about forgiveness:
Forgiving is not forgetting; its actually remembering–remembering and not using your right to hit back. Its a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you don’t want to repeat what happened.
His time in prison changed him from someone who advocated violent resistance to someone who saw that revenge only continues the cycle of violence. He loved his nation and that love healed him of his anger toward his captors.
We are all better for it. Much like Gandhi and Martin Luther King before him, he taught us the ferocious power of love and forgiveness. I’m grateful that Mr. Mandela is the only one of the three to not die violently.
For those of us who live on, our mandate is clear: we are called not only to stop tolerating injustice, we are called to forgive those who benefited from it. Once those who create or benefit from injustice are defeated, we must not exact revenge on them. Their sin must be called out, but they must be forgiven. Only then will there be peace.