It may seem odd to present a sermon about Nelson Mandela. However, I want to share with you something he said in 1994. But a quotation out of context kind of leaves you saying “what?” or “why?” So. Who was Nelson Mandela?
Nelson Mandela was the first black president of South Africa. He was a Nobel Peace Prize recipient.
He was born a little over 100 years ago -- in 1918 -- in a tiny village in South Africa, a remote village not reached by roads, reached only by foot paths. It was an agricultural village where they raised some livestock, and they grew and subsisted on maize, sorghum, pumpkin, and beans. Water they carried from springs and streams.
He was named Rolihlahla – khol-ee-HLAA-hlaa- [I hope] Mandela. The Nelson part of his name came later. Rolihlahla is an interesting word. Literally it means “pulling the branch of a tree.” But it’s more commonly translated as “troublemaker.” I’ve baptized quite a lot of people, but I don’t think I’ve ever baptized anyone named Troublemaker; young Troublemaker Mandela was baptized a Presbyterian. He was the first member of his family to go to school, though not in the simple village where he had been born. He took classes in English, Xhosa (KAW-suh), which is one of the eleven official languages of South Africa, geography and history. Something significant that he was taught was that the African people had lived in relative peace until the coming of the white people.
According to the elders, the people of South Africa had previously lived as brothers, but white men had shattered that fellowship. Black men were willing to share their land, air, and water with whites; white men, on the other hand, took all of these things for themselves.
As was customary in his tribe, Mandela underwent a coming-of-age ceremony at which the main speaker spoke sadly of young black men, explaining that they were enslaved in their own country. Because their land was controlled by white men, the blacks would never have the power to govern themselves; the promise of the young black men would be squandered as they struggled to make a living by performing mindless chores for white men. Is it any wonder that Mandela wanted to see a South Africa where blacks were not under the heel of the whites?
So he continued his education at a college that was South Africa’s equivalent of Harvard or Oxford, where he studied law to prepare for a civil service career, maybe as an interpreter or a clerk, the best profession that a black man could expect to achieve.
You may remember that South Africa’s government upheld a system of apartheid, a rigid, cruel, and oppressive system that kept blacks under the heel of the whites. Not surprisingly, a movement began to protest apartheid. There were boycotts. There was civil disobedience. There was non-cooperation. What did blacks want? Full citizenship, redistribution of land, trade union rights, and free and compulsory education for all children.
Success didn’t happen overnight. As a budding leader, Mandela directed peaceful, non-violent acts of defiance against the South African government and its racist policies. He founded a law firm that provided free or at least low-cost legal counsel to unrepresented blacks. And not surprisingly, he ended up being arrested. He was charged with treason for his political advocacy, although he was acquitted -- that time.
But he had decided that non-violent protest wasn’t working. So he stepped things up. He founded a movement dedicated to sabotage and guerilla war tactics to end apartheid. He orchestrated a three-day national workers’ strike, was arrested for leading the strike and was sentenced to five years in prison. Then, before those five years were up, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for his various political offenses, including the sabotage.
While he didn’t spend the rest of his life in prison, he did spend a grand total of 27 years in all. I wonder how the prison workers felt later. They had accorded him the lowest level of treatment – and then he later became their president…. At one point there had been a plot to let him “escape” so that he could be shot during his recapture. To the powers that be (that were), he was a threat because he was such a potent symbol of black resistance.
In prison Mandela had studied until he earned a law degree from the University of London. He continued to urge armed struggle. One time he was offered release if he would publicly renounce armed struggle; Mandela refused the offer.
A coordinated international campaign for his release was launched. That international groundswell of support exemplified the power and esteem that Mandela had in the global community.
A change in governmental leadership finally freed him; President de Klerk not only released Mandela, but he also removed restrictions on political groups and suspended summary executions. Things were looking up.
When he got out of prison Mandela continued his activism. He urged foreign powers to keep up their anti-apartheid pressure on the South African government. (The Episcopal Church participated in that anti-apartheid movement. I can remember going up to the cathedral to hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who thanked us for our support. We gave him a standing ovation that must have lasted at least four minutes, and when things finally quieted down so that he could speak, Tutu said that it was a good thing that his skin was so black. Otherwise we would see that he was blushing. – That was a digression. Back to Mandela.) While he was certainly committed to working toward peace, he declared that armed struggle would continue until the black majority in the country received the right to vote.
Twenty-five years ago his efforts were recognized when he and President de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work toward dismantling apartheid in South Africa. Mandela had negotiated with de Klerk for the country’s first multi-racial elections. After a lot of struggle, violence, and assassinations, negotiations between black and white South Africans prevailed, and on April 27, 1994, South Africa held its first democratic elections. Mandela was elected its first black president, and de Klerk, a white man, was elected as his deputy. His government encouraged reconciliation between whites and blacks (for a powerful and quite readable description of that, read Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s No Future without Forgiveness). The government funded the creation of jobs, decent housing, and basic health care. It fostered the establishment of a strong central government based on majority rule that guaranteed the rights of minorities and freedom of expression.
Would you believe that I tried to condense the information I found on Mandela? At the Bishop’s Size to Strength conference earlier this month I learned a new acronym: CASE, which stands for copy and steal everything. I decided as I was working on this that it can also be condense and steal everything.
Now. Finally. My point is this. Nelson Rolihlahla [khol – ee -HLAA – hlaa] “the Troublemaker” Mandela, in his Inaugural Speech when he was elected President of South Africa in 1994, must have had James and John, the sons of Zebedee, in mind when he said:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant,
Gorgeous, talented and fabulous?
Who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking
So that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.