What’s it like to be on the wrong side of history? Ask me. I know.
By now, if you care anything about history and how it is made, you have seen or read plenty of stirring tributes to the incredible man known to us as Nelson Mandela, son of a Xhosa chief, who was baptized a Methodist, given his familiar English first name, then began his long journey to destroy the fascism of apartheid, what President Obama called “one of history’s foulest evils,” and what President Reagan labeled “a malevolent and archaic system totally alien to our ideals.” By doing so, by radically changing South Africa, this amazing freedom fighter, who remained on our government’s terrorist watch list until 2008, did indeed, as President Clinton said, make the entire world a better place.
When I was in college in 1986, there was quite a debate raging about what our policy should be toward South Africa, toward apartheid. President Reagan and many conservatives opposed strong sanctions against the white fascist government, Reagan calling those sanctions “economic warfare.” I was among those conservatives who opposed tough sanctions, who opposed what became the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. As I have written elsewhere, in the fall of 1986 I debated a college teacher over the issue of sanctions. I defended what was then called “constructive engagement,” an incremental approach that sought not to isolate and punish the white government in South Africa, but to softly encourage it to end the apartheid regime. In my debate, I even borrowed the term “economic warfare” to describe the sanctions proposed by mostly Democrats.
Like other conservatives, I was less concerned about the evil of apartheid than I was about South Africa falling into the hands of the Soviet Union. The Cold War was a useful excuse for right-wingers like me to essentially ignore the awful and ongoing brutality of state-sponsored terrorism, executed by white fascists in Pretoria against the country’s pigmented majority. I criticized “Western moralizing” and tried to make the case that South Africa was valuable to our national security interests because it held large reserves of strategic minerals. I quoted a retired Chief of Air Force Intelligence who warned,
within the next five years, it will be necessary for the United States to place several divisions into South Africa to recapture access to and to prevent Soviet-Marxist control of, the strategic materials that now come from that country. We’re going to have to secure and take by force of arms. That’s how serious the South Africa matter is.
I also said during that debate that,
even if blacks should prevail and come to power, it would be because of Soviet-supplied weaponry; and it is a good bet that a Soviet-backed, Marxist government would be established, leaving the United States in the unenviable position of having to deal with our enemies to obtain vital strategic materials…
It turned out that the emergence of a Soviet-backed, Marxist government was not a good bet. It turned out the bet should have been on Nelson Mandela. And thus it turned out that I, and so many conservatives, were on the wrong side of history, even if some of them, like Dick Cheney, have had a hard time admitting it. Ronald Reagan vetoed that sanctions law in 1986 and his veto was promptly, and historically, overridden. By then, enough congressional Republicans could see that history would not be kind to those who ostensibly sided with the oppressors.
And it should be noted here that the push for sanctions, the push from the outside against the fascism of apartheid, was largely a push made by those on the left, both here and abroad, those whose vision was not darkened by images of potential Soviet aggression or clouded by pleas to go slow until the fascists came to their senses.
The left was right about sanctions. The left was right to aggressively oppose what was going on in South Africa both before and during Nelson Mandela’s 27 years of imprisonment. But I don’t believe anyone could have anticipated the greatness inside the man so honored today, a man who had once endorsed violence against the fascists but, after he became the first democratically-elected president in the country’s history, turned to peace and reconciliation and thus avoided the civil war that so many had predicted.
Finally, I will leave you with a lengthy excerpt from a book I read in 2003, after I had left conservatism and while I was still struggling with leaving evangelical Christianity. The book, Rumors of Another World, was written by the famous evangelical author, Philip Yancey. No matter what your religious beliefs are, no matter if like me you have consciously left the confines of a confining evangelicalism, I would ask you to read the following as a way of paying your respects to Nelson Mandela, whose strong Christian faith no doubt greatly shaped his amazing life, a life that we both mourn and celebrate today:
Grace is irrational, unfair, unjust, and only makes sense if I believe in another world governed by a merciful God who always offers another chance. “Amazing Grace,” a rare hymn that in recent times climbed the charts of popular music, holds out the promise that God judges people not for what they have been but what they could be, not by their past but by their future. John Newton, a gruff and bawdy slave trader, “a wretch like me,” wrote that hymn after being transformed by the power of amazing grace.
When the world sees grace in action, it falls silent. Nelson Mandela taught the world a lesson in grace when, after emerging from prison after twenty-seven years and being elected president of South Africa, he asked his jailer to join him on the inauguration platform. He then appointed Archbishop Desmond Tutu to head an official government panel with a daunting name, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mandela sought to defuse the natural pattern of revenge that he had seen in so many countries where one oppressed race or tribe took control from another.
For the next two-and-a-half years, South Africans listened to reports of atrocities coming out of the TRC hearings. The rules were simple: if a white policeman or army officer voluntarily faced his accusers, confessed his crime, and fully acknowledged his guilt, he could not be tried and punished for that crime. Hard-liners grumbled about the obvious injustice of letting criminals go free, but Mandela insisted that the country needed healing even more than it needed justice.
At one hearing, a policeman named van de Broek recounted an incident when he and other officers shot an eighteen-year-old boy and burned the body, turning it on the fire like a piece of barbecue meat in order to destroy the evidence. Eight years later van de Broek returned to the same house and seized the boy’s father. The wife was forced to watch as policemen bound her husband on a woodpile, poured gasoline over his body, and ignited it.
The courtroom grew hushed as the elderly woman who had lost first her son and then her husband was given a chance to respond. “What do you want from Mr. van de Broek?” the judge asked. She said she wanted van de Broek to go to the place where they burned her husband’s body and gather up the dust so she could give him a decent burial. His head down, the policeman nodded agreement.
Then she added a further request. “Mr. van de Broek took all my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him. And I would like Mr. van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him so he can know my forgiveness is real.”
Spontaneously, some in the courtroom began singing “Amazing Grace” as the elderly woman made her way to the witness stand, but van de Broek did not hear the hymn. He had fainted, overwhelmed.
Justice was not done in South Africa that day, nor in the entire country during months of agonizing procedures by the TRC. Something beyond justice took place. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” said Paul. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu understood that when evil is done, one response alone can overcome the evil. Revenge perpetuates the evil. Justice punishes it. Evil is overcome by good only if the injured party absorbs it, refusing to allow it to go any further. And that is the pattern of otherworldly grace that Jesus showed in his life and death.