Rev. Caleb J. Lines
South Street Christian Church
One of the problems with going to the movies these days is that far too often you know what’s going to happen before you ever step foot in the theater. Each genre has it’s own formula and you pretty much know what you’re going to get. If it’s an action movie, you know that there’s going to be some catastrophic event in the world or in the main character’s personal life. That character will go on some kind of impossible mission, overcome obstacle after obstacle, one of the supporting characters will likely die, and at the last moment when everything seems the most hopeless, through some marvelous act of heroism, the central crisis will be averted and everything will go back to normal. Or if you go to see a romantic comedy, you know that two people (often from different walks of life) who may or may not initially like each other will have a meet cute, a funny situation in which they meet. Regardless of whether or not they initially like each other, they’ll fall in love and spend more and more time together until they are virtually inseparable. Then, something will go wrong – an ex enters the picture, one lies to the other – insert whatever mistake you’d like – and they break up, often even date someone else. Then, just when it seems like they’ll never get back together, one of them will realize his or her true feelings. Through some big romantic gesture, some grand act of love, all is forgiven and they proceed to their happily ever after. The formula has been developed, it’s tried and true and we know more or less what’s going to happen before we ever see the movie. But every once in a while, a story comes along that is unexpected. Every once in a while, there’s a story that breaks the mold, that grabs ahold of us and won’t let go. These are the stories that keep us on the edge of our seats. These are the stories that challenge our assumptions and make us revaluate our world. These are the stories that we remember. Of course, these unexpected stories don’t just occur in the movies, but also in real life.
One of the most unexpected stories that grabbed a hold of the world this week is that of Nelson Mandela. Mandela will be remembered for his peaceful presidency as the first black president of post-Apartheid South Africa – and rightly so. However, just like any good story, his is a complicated one.
Mandela was born to a Xhosa family in Apartheid South Africa. Apartheid, being that oppressive, segregated class system in South Africa. He grew up to be a radical revolutionary. His party embraced the ideal of nonviolence, but Mandela thought that nonviolence was ineffective. He thought that violence was a justifiable means to an end – the end being the upheaval of the Apartheid-supporting government. In response to this belief, he helped to form a militant wing of the party. It was his association with this faction that led to his trail for and conviction of high treason. This conviction landed him in jail with a life sentence, of which he served twenty-seven years. It was during this time that some things changed for Mandela.
He spent his days breaking rocks into gravel, then working in a lime quarry. He was initially forbidden to wear sunglasses and the glare permanently damaged his eyesight. He spent his nights living in a damp 8×7 concrete cell (which often led to health problems) and slept on a straw mat. He didn’t have much connection with the outside world in those early years. He would frequently smuggle in newspaper clippings, which often landed him in solitary confinement. In later years, conditions improved, however. He was offered release various times based on certain conditions. One of these conditions was always that he renounce violence, but each time, he refused, saying that he would only renounce violence when the government did – which was never going to happen. In his last few years in prison, he was allowed more contact with the outside world and worked behind the scenes with leaders to talk about an end to Apartheid.
After the Election of a new president, F.W. de Klerk, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was finally exonerated. He was released from prison in February of 1990. At that time, he expressed interest in peace and reconciliation with the white minority and said that the African National Congress would only respond defensively to violence. By May of 1990, he offered a cease-fire. He could have been filled with hatred and resentment, but he let those things go and chose the path ofpeace and reconciliation.
He was elected the first black president of South Africa in 1994. His presidency, which formed his legacy, was much different than his early life. He pursued peace rather than violent retaliation. He met with leaders from Apartheid days, emphasizing personal forgiveness and reconciliation. He gave cabinet positions to National Party leaders and de Klerk became the deputy president. Mandela formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, which invested crimes committed during the Apartheid years by both the government and the his own party. In addition to his emphasis on peaceful reconciliation, he did a great deal to further social justice in his land. He helped pass legislation to shrink the huge disparity between the rich and the poor. He helped return land to its native inhabitants, enacted an affirmative action program, and instituted free healthcare for pregnant women and children under the age of six.
Mandela stepped down as president after one term to establish a precedent, but continued in activism and philanthropy. One of the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s primary goals was to combat HIV/AIDS and he frequently spoke out against use of violence, particularly by western nations trying to police the world. What an expected story! Who would have guessed that a militant revolutionary living in Apartheid South Africa would become the president of that nation who was know forpeace, reconciliation, and forgiveness. That’s the kind of unexpected story that breaks the mold, grabs ahold of us, and changes the world!
As we journey through Advent and hear the familiar stories, we forget how surprising, how unexpected they would have been to those who first heard them. Who would have thought that a child born in rural Galilee would grow up to be one of history’s most central figures? Or who would expect this story from Isaiah? Today, the prophet Isaiah lists a series of situations that should never happen, like a wolf living with a lamb. When we hear this, we think, “That’s nice, the wolf living with the lamb.” But it’s more than nice – it’s a radical vision of the future in which even mortal enemies get along. The wolf doesn’t live with the lamb, the wolf eats the lamb! Isaiah’s story envisions a future in which we can all get along – even with enemies – if we work hard enough at it. How radical this is! It’s what we hope for on Peace Sunday. Today, as we light the Peace candle, we envision a world where amazing things are possible, where peace and reco
nciliation are cornerstones of our being.
Too often, when we think of peace, we think of a passive peace. We think of peace as a simple absence of conflict – that is not realistic. We’ll never agree on everything, nor should we. What’s more realistic is what I call “active peace,” what Jesus called being a peacemaker. Active peace is where we acknowledge our differences and talk through them. We may not
always agree, but we can find common ground. It’s only through calm and measured confrontation, instead of angered retaliation, it’s only through active peace that we accomplish anything.
As Christians, we have an unexpected story with an unexpected ending. Each week when we gather, we envision a world that is filled with peace, where the wolf and the lamb live together. In order to reach that unexpected ending, we must live our lives unexpectedly – we must live our lives thinking about others and pursuing active peace. May it be so. Amen.