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Mandela and Zeeland

By December 9, 2013 4 Comments

On February 11, 1990, I was teaching an adult education class in Zeeland, Michigan.  No, I do not have some savant-like ability to remember what I did on every day of my life.  It’s just that I was reminded of February 11, 1990 last week because that was the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

I heard about Mandela’s release that morning as I was driving to the church in which I was teaching.  It was one of those moments when I felt the world had suddenly encountered a seismic shift, that things were better than they’d been the night before, and that the human race had taken a colossal step forward. I wouldn’t say I was obsessed with South Africa, but I knew what was going on there.  I had read Cry, the Beloved Country and thrilled to the movie Cry Freedom and gotten Alan Boesak to sign a book for me once. I had befriended South African students while in seminary and listened to their sad stories. Now Mandela was free.  Look out world! 

The first jolt to my optimistic naivety was about to be delivered. I expected the adult education class I was visiting in Zeeland to be as ecstatic about Mandela’s release as I was.  I started my class eagerly, sharing the great news I had just heard.  They took the news with a glassy-eyed look best described as “dead fish on ice in a shop window.”

Jim Bratt, writing on this website on Saturday, scolded the Christian Reformed Church for their inactivity towards apartheid.  Daniel Meeter followed Jim’s post with a comment more charitable toward the RCA.  Yet this moment in Zeeland seemed to capture the giant gap between denominational pronouncements and average people. I didn’t sense any hostility from them, any racially biased belief that Mandela was a communist or terrorist or any particular sympathy with their Afrikaans cousins.  It’s just that Mandela meant nothing to them.  What did his release have to do with the price of corn or what their high school age kids had done the night before or problems in the office furniture industry?  By and large, many of them simply had never heard of Nelson Mandela.  Those that had didn’t think his release would change a thing, or, if it did, it would change things in a country 8000 miles away but not here.

In a sense they were right.  Since Mandela was released from prison Rodney King was beaten, OJ Simpson and George Zimmerman were found not guilty of murder, affirmative action became a political football and the Supreme Court knocked down key sections of the Voting Rights Acts.  We live in a racially charged and divided nation.   

But it still bothered me, and bothers me to this day, that that particular group of adults didn’t know Mandela, and didn’t identify him as a symbol of hope, equality, justice and freedom. Their sin was more a sin of omission than commission.  They didn’t seem to be paying attention. 

There is a huge disconnect here.  According to Jim Bratt and Daniel Meeter, the CRC officially got apartheid wrong while the RCA officially got it right.  As is often the case, those official stands meant little in many places.  The church I was in on February 11, 1990, was an RCA church, and, like many churches, it was filled with people staggeringly indifferent to denominational pronouncements. What do we call that gap? 

Last Thursday night, when the network newscasts were filled with various tributes and reflections about Mandela, I wondered how many millions changed channels to find something more interesting – a rerun of Two and a Half Men or Wheel of Fortune or Pawn Stars.  In many cases those not paying attention are the very ones who should be most grateful that Mandela consistently chose peace and forgiveness over revenge and retaliation.  But they didn’t pay attention in 1990, and they’re not paying attention today.  As Don McLean sang in a different context some years ago: “They would not listen, they’re not listening still, perhaps they never will.”



Jeff Munroe

Jeff Munroe is the editor of the Reformed Journal. 


  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Wow, Jeff. Thank you to both you and Jim for those powerful reflections. Much to ponder. How often we are a people who walk in darkness without even knowing we're in the dark. "Dayspring from on high be near, Daystar in my heart appear"!

  • Jim Schaap says:

    Yesterday, on the Sabbath, I heard two advent sermons on Christ as the Prince of Peace. Fine and dandy. But it dawned on me already in the morning that any talk about that subject, this week (!), that didn't even mention Mandela's prophetic voice for peace, his role in South Africa and world affairs, was astonishingly short-sighted and oh-so-sadly provincial. Neither sermon–two different preachers (one CRC, one RCA, by the way)–even mentioned the man, his life, his death, or his astounding witness for the divine power of forgiveness. I told no one that news; but your words, Jeff, help me go public because yesterday's worship experiences were just another chorus of the very same sad song. Thanks.

  • Carolyn says:

    Hi Jeff:

    This is one of the best writings of yours I have read, and I thank you very much. I would like to say that this is one of the reasons that I left "traditional" Christianity, and have gone to another avenue for my Spiritual health & growth, one that embraces putting into practice these tenets of peace, justice, and equality for all. I also do not wish to condemn any churches or denominations for not being able to do this as I would like them to. I do agree with the above writer, they are in the darkness and don't know it. I also remember when Mandela was released, and when he became President; I also know a friend who lived there at the time, when he was still in prison, during Apartheid, and her experience was that it wasn't that "noticeable" as a white person, because the government kept them so segregated, you had to really look or find out for yourself if you wanted to "see" it. That woke me up to a reality I was not aware of, since this person is now a very informed, active person in her community. I also had the experience last Thursday, upon hearing the news on the radio, of going to a restaurant with a bar (a rather fancy place in the area) where I could watch the news & see what was being said about Mandela; one of the bartenders, a young man of about mid-twenties age, did not know who Mandela was by name; when I described him, he still didn't show any recognition, but when Mandela's image appeared on the screen, he did say he recognized him. At first, I was angry, wondering why he was so out of touch, but then, as I described Mandela to him, and saw his openness and awe at what he had done, I softened, and realized that we just haven't done a very good job in our society at large at educating people about what is going on in the world apart from our little corner of it. So, I don't think it's "just" the church that is in the dark; it's a national illness that we must address. I don't know what the solution is; I have just become aware of the issue, so I will need to take more time to consider what my part is. Thank you again, Jeff, for such a thoughtful post.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Jeff, well done. Despite my own comment to Jim's piece, don't let it be thought that I don't think you're exactly right on with this.

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