So has everything been said now? Is it time to move on? And consign Mandela to history, or legend, or some uneasy fudging of the two? Are we ready, as 2013 stutters towards its end, are we ready to close the book on Nelson Mandela, leave him be in his place of rest, in the family graveyard alongside his parents and three of his children? Are our faces already turned away, scanning the horizon for the next new newsworthy thing? Maybe. Maybe that funeral, that curious mixture of the personal and the political, the tribal and the military, the fragments of Christian liturgy filled with hope for the end of days set against the landscape of Africa, where human life began, maybe that was the last chapter of this saga and we can all breathe out now that Mandela is finally at peace in his place of rest.
But I’m still musing on what that signified, that some people were feeling ‘Mandela’d out’ after less than a week. I know that wasn’t the mood at the Finchley Reform Synagogue when we held an evening that week for people to come and talk about Mandela and South Africa, about what it felt like to live under apartheid and what it meant to fight against apartheid, there or here.
Our gathering - we called it a ‘commemoration of the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela’- didn’t attract a huge number of people, a couple of dozen maybe; but it was a privilege to be there and listen to people’s stories, whether it was the sickening feelings of living in a racist regime, or the experience of imprisonment, or the inspiration that Mandela had generated, with his decades of perseverance, his belief that justice must in the end win out over injustice, his ability to allow some deep humane quality in him – a spiritual quality, I suppose – to transcend bitterness, or the wish for revenge, to show generosity, to act with restraint. This meant something, something noble and profound, to many of those who came and shared their thoughts and experiences. Who were definitely not feeling ‘Mandela’d out’.
Don’t we need to know, in an era of cynicism and duplicity, don’t we need to be reminded, that there is such a thing as a deeply moral, compassionately human politics? That one person’s actions, and beliefs, can make a real difference, a difference for good?
But that ‘Mandela’d out’ reaction – and I began to hear it quite a bit as the week went on – needs an explanation, or at least it needs to be reflected on. Because I don’t think it was just an inevitable reaction to the 24/7 television news culture we live in, where the images and pundits were inescapable, and we were flooded with Mandela stories and newspaper supplements everywhere we went. I do wonder if it was something more subtle than that, maybe more unconscious, something about the challenge Mandela’s life presents to our own lives.
Because one could have a response to his life like that voiced by President Obama, in that remarkable speech he made at the memorial gathering, when he talked about something stirring in him when he first learned as a student about Mandela’s struggles and it “woke me up to my responsibilities to others and to myself”, he said, and although, “ I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be a better man. He speaks to what’s best inside us.”
And I think that is true. The narrative of Mandela’s life does give us glimpses of what it means to live true to one’s deepest values, the best, most humane, parts of ourselves. Because yes, he was a warrior, and there was something in him as hard as steel, and of course he had his flaws, but there was also a kindness, a humility, a wry sense of humour, and above all that gift, his greatest strength perhaps, that he knew how to make peace, how to heal wounds. “Who is strong?” asks Rabbi Eliezer in a 8-9th century CE text: “Someone who is able to turn their enemy into their friend.” (Avot de Rabbi Nathan 23).
And this is part of why he was inspirational for many. And yet, at the same time, there may be something almost unbearable about seeing this potential. It could be something that (paradoxically ) we might want to turn away from, something that unconsciously stirs in us to say, ‘Well, I could never be like that, I could never live like that, holding fast to those demanding standards of what it means to be human; I can’t act with that much kindness, I can’t turn my enemy into my friend, I can’t overcome my bitterness, my sense of unfairness, my inner hurts’ – and if this uneasiness is going on inside, it can quite quickly translate into the feeling, ‘Oh I’ve had enough of all this praise, all this news, all this attention on the man and his heroic qualities. I’m just “Mandela’d out”. Give me a rest’.
And what we want a rest from, I’m suggesting, are the reminders: ‘You can be better than you are, kinder, more generous, more compassionate’. We might not feel we can, and it might be painful to be reminded of it day in day out for a week and more. That’s how we do become ‘Mandela’d out’.
Because we do know just how hard this is – to turn enemies into friends. This isn’t turning the other cheek, it’s not a masochistic adherence to suffering. It’s acting in a way that can transform the feelings in other people, aggressive feelings, into something more benign. And I’m not sure how good we Jews collectively are at this. We are more used to keeping our enemies – or those we see as our enemies, which isn’t the same thing – keeping them at a distance, keeping an eye on them; we’re more accustomed to that aggrieved stance than the hard and humbling work of trying to turn them into friends. We are good at paranoia, not so good at reconciliation.
But one of the things that did come out during that evening was people’s pride in the Jewish contribution to the ANC and South African politics. You will probably be aware that many, the majority, of Mandela and Walter Sisulu’s white South African colleagues were Jews: not necessarily, not usually, religious Jews, but secular Jews who were nevertheless steeped in the Judaic ethic, the Biblical ethic, of support for the oppressed, the outsider, the stranger. Jews who had grown up with the Exodus story that we began to read today in the synagogue Torah cycle, with its archetypal narrative of a liberation struggle, with a leader who becomes the representative voice of his people, who goes and speaks truth to power, as Moses does when he says to Pharaoh, “Let my people go”.
This narrative has inspired oppressed and victimised people the world over, through the generations: it’s a narrative that inspired William Wilberforce as an evangelical Christian to embark on a twenty-six year campaign against the British slave trade until he guided the Slave Trade Act through Parliament in 1807. And it’s a narrative that Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel shared in the era of the American civil rights movement. And it’s a narrative that fed into anti-apartheid movements, either in its Biblical ‘Let my people go’ formulation; or in a secular guise, in the language of human rights.
And Mandela always acknowledged that Jewish contribution to the liberation struggle, even though of course there were many Jews who supported the status quo, who were unable or unwilling to live out the highest ethical values of Judaism. Because those ethical values can be deeply uncomfortable, deeply discomforting of how we live. Who wouldn’t be unsettled by those demands? For the Hebrew Bible, just like the New Testament, presents us with a bias towards the weak, the vulnerable, the oppressed, and a God for whom justice is a primary passion, a God who demands that his people, individually and collectively, incarnate justice as foundational for their being-in-the world. A God who is not on the side of the strong, but pleads with his people, over and over again, to resist the injustices committed by the powerful against the powerless.
This is the beating heart of Judaism – and it has nothing to do with traditional religious rituals and practices. It’s about ethics and morality, and those Jews who aligned themselves with Mandela and his colleagues, defending them in courts, and supporting them when imprisoned, and advocating their cause over the decades, risking their lives, sometimes giving their lives for the cause of an oppressed people, these were Jews living out the core ethical values of Judaism – whatever their overt relationship to their Jewish faith was or wasn’t. And while we can take pride in those who did this - maybe be a bit in awe of those who did this – it might make us wonder if we have the courage in us to fight injustice when we see it, because it can be very hard to do it. It is much easier to look away.
This is why I am not feeling that it’s quite time to be ‘Mandela’d out’. In relation to South Africa, we can see how fragile Mandela’s legacy actually is. A bloodbath has been avoided thus far, but there is still much political turbulence there, large inequalities between classes, and between rich and poor, there are problems of corruption, deep political rivalries, and the challenges of reconciliation that have not gone away - some might say that they have hardly begun to be faced.
We look around us and it hard to see where that ancient vision of justice is being enacted in the political realm. It is rare and difficult to live in the light of that vision, to live up to the demands on everyday life that this vision asks of us. The Middle East, for example, has no Mandela figures to look to. There is no Palestinian Mandela, and there is no Israeli de Klerk. And it was a Jew who assassinated Israel’s last best hope for reconciliation, almost 20 years ago now. Because Yitzchak Rabin was on a journey from warrior to peacemaker, there were those in the so-called ‘religious’ camp who saw this as treachery, and so he was murdered for it. And what we have now on the Israeli political scene can make us cringe when we compare it to what true greatness of moral leadership is. Netanyahu couldn’t even afford the plane fare to attend last week’s events. It was shameful.
We don’t really need reminding about the injustices of today, and the places where that moral voice needs to be heard – whether it is in relation to the 3 million Syrian refugees enduring terrible hardship in neighbouring lands, or the 6 million Syrians internally displaced (ie half the population are no longer living in the homes they had three years ago), a humanitarian disaster ‘over there’, safely out of sight if we want it to be. Or on our own streets of Barnet, where homelessness has increased by 60% in this last year, as has child poverty, directly as a result of a compassionless ideological assault on those who often were already leading lives of quiet desperation.
When we look at any of this (and who can bear really to look at it?), do we want to know about it? That there are half a million people in the UK relying on food banks and emergency food handouts this winter in order to feed themselves and their families? Isn’t this also shameful? And where are the Mandela-like voices and actions speaking against injustice, against inhumanity, against unfairness? But no Mandela, no Moses, is going to come and say ‘Enough – this has to stop. This has to change’. We all want heroes to come and do this for us. We all want salvation to arrive from somewhere else, outside of us. But the hard lesson is that no one is going to come along and sort it out. It’s down to you and me, if we can bear it.
The miracle of the burning bush story that we read today (Exodus 3) was not that the bush was burning without being consumed. The real miracle was that an ordinary person, Moses, in the midst of his daily life, shepherding the sheep, turned aside to see what was happening: “And Moses said: I will turn aside now, and look...” (Exodus 3:3).
That turning to face what is happening is the moment of decision. That freedom to say: ‘I will look at this’. That strength to say: ‘I will respond to this’. That life-changing moment when we say: ‘I cannot ignore this. It is going on in front of my eyes. And it isn’t going away’. And when that choice is made, in the midst of our own lives, to turn aside from what we are busy doing, and look, and acknowledge the conflagration – “the bush was still going on burning” - and respond actively to it (as Moses does in the narrative), when we do this (if we can bear to do this) then we stand on holy ground (Exodus3:5).
May the example of Nelson Mandela - and Moses – offer us hope: hope that in a fractured world, a world still beset with inequalities and strife, we can lead our own small lives inspired by a larger vision of what is possible. To live in dialogue with a religious tradition means that each one of us is called to task. Mandela’s vision was that ‘what is’ can be transformed into ‘what should be’. May we each find the strength to stand on holy ground and live out that ancient call of the prophets : ‘Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream...’ (Amos 5:24).
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, December 21st,2013]