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The tributes and praise for Nelson Mandela have come pouring in, from every corner of the globe and every segment on the political spectrum. For those of us who remember how Mandela and his organization, the African National Congress (ANC), were vilified by so many for so long, the effect is a bit dazzling, a testimony to conveniently selective memory. True, we shouldn’t demean the power of repentance on the part of those who see their judgments about the man, his character, and his policies to have been proven wrong. But much repentance —at least some basic honesty—is due on this occasion of Mandela’s passing.
The long-prevailing judgment was, quite simply, that Mandela was a Communist and a terrorist, end of story. That, on top of the indisputable fact that he was black, therefore not quite civilized, not up to order and progress and all the other virtues embodied by the good folk who brought us apartheid. Churches, universities, and countries that proposed to divest themselves of any holdings in South African companies until apartheid vanished were reproved with the advice—now somber, now hysterical—that such proposals were rash and hasty and uneconomic beside, that they misjudged the facts on the ground and would harm the black and colored majority whom they meant to aid, that the only aid and comfort rendered in the process would redound to Mandela’s Soviet sponsors and the world-wide Communist conspiracy. The milder version of the critique, offered up by the wise ones, the rational ones, the cautious and prudent and sensible ones, sighed that Mandela and his followers were impatient, too demanding, unrealistic, foolish in their politics and—so far as Christian faith had come into the picture—wrong in their theology.
It was all a replay, rhetorically, of the opposition the civil rights movement had encountered a generation earlier in the United States. Sainted and pedestaled now, deradicalized of his testimony against American violence and imperialism and class oppression, Martin Luther King, Jr., we forget, had also been scolded for being hasty, feared as a dangerous malcontent, defamed with Communist allegations—not least by white Christians of resoundingly orthodox credentials. How silly, how wrong, how embarrassingly mistaken this all seems now in retrospect. How cowardly the wise and cautious ones, how perverse the judgments of the patriots who reduced all issues everywhere to ‘free world’ vs. Communism. How asinine that ‘freedom’ included apartheid and Jim Crow.
How bold and courageous and correct the witness of King and Mandela has turned out to be. How pathetic were the timorousness and reflex protectionism on these matters of my own denomination, the Christian Reformed Church. Ok, other denominations too, but this one not in the rear of the bunch. With respect to Mandela and apartheid, this one stands in the spotlight for sharing the same Dutch ethnicity and the same passion for Reformed orthodoxy and the same hysteria about Communism as apartheid’s architects and defenders.
Bring ye no tributes to the man you once thought well imprisoned on Robben Island, until you remember how glad you were that there he would be for life. Think well on the ethical deliberation, the veritable sanctification Mandela underwent in that exile. Consider what like sanctification would entail for you, what penance you might owe for your fear and blindness, and for what latter-day grotesquerie your bill of repentance is mounting right now. Consider, mourn, weep, and repent for what the reputation of the church might be today had it stood with Mandela instead of against him. And King. And who this moment?