Friday, December 06, 2013

Nelson Mandela

A Young Lutheran South Africa Confession

In order to tell the story of Nelson Mandela's profound impact on my life and spiritual journey, I have to talk about Coca-Cola and my high school church choir. 

I have always preferred Pepsi products to Coke products. Although I drink them much less often now, during high school I was more than a little bit addicted to Mountain Dew, a Pepsi product. For years, our church had a Pepsi machine, for which I was grateful. Then suddenly, one year, I think this was 1987 or 88, the new business manager of our congregation secured a better deal with Coke (or so he reports--he was from Texas and a huge fan of Coke products--to this day when we see each other we kind of tease each other about this event), and one day we found the Coke 
machine standing there in place of the Pepsi machine.

All of us at this time were quite aware of the international anti-apartheid campaign. Although the disinvestment campaign in the United States began on university campuses in the late 70s, it really gained critical mass between 1984-1989. Coca-Cola was one of the more prominent corporations from which to divest. At the time Pepsi had more clearly divested already than Coca-Cola; the process of Coca-Cola's divestment was a bit more complicated; even what I have just claimed is still contested and examined in historical context, historians are researching yet to this day.  

So full disclosure: I, a high school junior and a fan of Pepsi products, actually brought a resolution to our annual congregational meeting asking us to divest from Coca-Cola and bring back the Pepsi machine, because Pepsi was not complicit in the continuation of apartheid, and Coca-Cola was.

I fully confess to the self-interest implicit in this purportedly moral action, but I only realize it now in retrospect. At the time, I really believed it was an important way I could participate in a social justice movement to end apartheid. I remember reading very closely lists of corporations from which to divest, and tried not to buy their products.

Interestingly, Coca-Cola has now worked together with the Weinstein Brothers to produce a movie about Nelson Mandela.

It's always difficult to imagine how we can work for social justice for communities distant from us. South Africa is the most obvious example of this from my childhood. Apartheid was so obviously wrong, so obviously backwards compared to the gains most of us benefited from in some fashion from the Civil Rights movement, that it was a movement to which we wanted to add and with which we identified.

Iowa High Schoolers Singing Hymns from South Africa

The second story is also a high school story. Our church choir, led by our new youth pastor, now Bishop Michael Rinehart of the Gulf Coast Synod, included in its repertoire some great Christian hymns from South Africa. These were by far our favorite pieces, highly memorable, joyous and rocking to sing. They have since found their way into some of the worship resources of the ELCA. The two I remember best are the following:

Thuma Mina

Siyahamba (We Are Marching): Included in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #866

With these hymns, I can't say that they influenced me at a conscious level per se. I was in high school, after all, so I was in that choir to have a great time, make friends, and participate in the life of Christian worship. In retrospect, I realize how profoundly singing a couple of South African hymns as part of our repertoire shaped my understanding of Christian worship as global, ecumenical, and inspired by the Spirit of God which breathes music into many cultures and across all kinds of cultural and national barriers.

Again, this is not disconnected from Nelson Mandela at all. Our tour coincided with the release of Mandela from prison and the end of apartheid in 1990. We were singing on that midwest tour, in solidarity with the spirit of freedom being sung across South Africa that year. And it was Nelson Mandela on whom the charism of peace and justice especially rested.

I have continued over the years to be inspired by Christians living and serving in South Africa. Camp counselors on summer exchange from South Africa who told stories at camp of the continuing struggles for racial equality; the ELCA Young Adults in Global Mission South Africa program; outstanding South African theological educators influenced by the apartheid movement and working to continue its legacy in positive ways.

So on this day I give thanks for the life of Nelson Mandela. He is one of the great humans of this or any age.


Please find published below the full text of an article by Anthony Egan SJ, of the Jesuit Institute of South Africa in Johannesburg.

We woke this morning (Friday 6th December 2013) to the news that Nelson Mandela had died. Though expected for some time, it still came as a shock. I am not going to repeat the well-deserved tributes and obituaries but ask: what does Madiba’s life mean for us from a theological point of view? 
Central to Catholic Social Thought (CST) is dignity of persons and human rights. Even a brief sketch of Mandela’s life shows us how thoroughly he stood for human rights, not just for South Africans but all people. The struggle was for human rights and the end to dehumanisation of the majority of South Africans by apartheid. After 1994, inspired in part by Mandela’s inaugural “Never again!” speech, he led the country towards a human rights culture. Though a collaborative effort of many, our Constitution and Bill of Rights, and the Constitutional Court set up to arbitrate the law in the light of the Bill of Rights, is a mirror of his vision. 
Mandela also lived dignity and demanded even in prison that prisoners and captors alike treat each other – and themselves – with respect. The recognition that human dignity is inherent lay also in his campaigning for the rights of women, children, refugees and especially people with HIV/AIDS. While lesser people equivocated or collaborated with stigmatising the latter, Madiba insisted that persons with HIV be treated with respect.Linked to dignity is option for the poor and vulnerable. Mandela, though he came from Xhosa nobility and was by profession a lawyer, could have stayed aloof from the poor. Yet he remained personally in touch with ordinary poor people and tried – within all the constraints of a global economy often indifferent to the poor – to help the marginalised. Though by no means poor himself, he lived simply (certainly by the standards of many of his former comrades) and concentrated his retirement on a series of projects to help poor people and children in need. 
Mandela was also a strong defender of peace and disarmament, in that – while not a pacifist – he promoted nonviolent resolution of conflict wherever possible. He was one of the central players in the negotiations that led to the 1994 democratic transition in South Africa, a process that many doubted could happen. Madiba and a core of similar minded people made it happen. 
Solidarity is another CST theme Nelson Mandela made his own. During his presidency he tried to infuse in South Africans a common sense of nationhood and the need to seek the common good. His famous support for the Springbok rugby team, a minority sport in the country, was an effort to bring black and white together around a common vision, unity in diversity. In his dealings with people he had the unusual knack of being able to meet people where they were and, in doing so, to make them feel he was part of their lives. 
I could go on. But I have made my point. Nelson Mandela deserves all the accolades he has received. But our greatest tribute to him, his greatest epitaph, must be in the years that follow. Madiba, you affected our lives for the good. May God help us all to take forward your great and generous vision.
Anthony Egan, SJ
Text from page
of the Vatican Radio website

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