Nelson Mandela, clear thinking and grace...

You can always count on Marilynne Robinson to awaken the mind.  You may not like what she shares - and the implications of her insights may make you uncomfortable or even angry - but she always awakens our minds from sluggish and sloppy thinking.  Today as the first week of Advent inches to a close on my Sabbath day of rest, I give thanks to her abiding commitment to truth, goodness and beauty. 
In an essay entitled, "Puritans and Prigs," she notes that "the way we speak of Puritans (in contemporary America) seems to me a serviceable model" for the sloppy and foolish thinking that so invades public discourse.

Very simply, it is a great example of our collective eagerness to disparage without knowledge or information about the thing disparaged, when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved. And it demonstrates how effectively such consensus can close off a subject from inquiry.  I know from experience that if one says the Puritans were a more impressive and ingratiating culture than they are assumed to have been, one will be heard to say that one finds repressiveness and intolerance ingratiating. Unauthorized views are in effect punished by incomprehension, not intentionally and not to any one's benefit, but simply as a consequence of a hypertrophic instinct for consensus. This instinct is so powerful that I would suspect it had survival value, if history or current events gave me the least encouragement to believe we are equipped to survive.

Think, for instance, of Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin's recent bromides that have labeled Pope Francesco I a Marxist liberation theologian. Think of the way the Tea Party has described and defamed President Obama.  Think of the way the Republican Party once slandered John McCain in South Carolina before he became their standard bearer four years later.  To be sure, sloppy thinking is not a uniquely North American phenomenon, but it could be argued we have mastered it better than most.  

I often recall sitting in a bar and grill lounge in what was then Leningrad on New Year's Eve with a few clergy colleagues.  We had taken 50 of our youth from Saginaw to Soviet Russia for a learning encounter in cooperation with the local state college.  And after a few rounds of vodka, one minister said earnestly, "You know there really isn't much difference between the KGB and the FBI."  To say that my mind almost broke in two at that moment would not be an exaggeration. I had sadly grown accustomed to hearing such naive and dangerous broad characterizations from local peace activists in the USA. It seemed as if a pure heart excused all zealous and scandalous hyperbole.

So I listened and hoped from clarification, but none came.  To which I said, "The United States is far from pure.  We are often as tainted by serving the idol of Mammon as any nation state. And our external actions clearly include assassination and war. We have waged a covert attack on civil rights leaders for decades and blindly looked the other way when law officers murdered Black Panthers.  But we cannot make the leap of equating the KGB's reign of terror with Countelpro or any internal witch hunt.  Not only is the magnitude of death and torture not comparable, neither is the culture of fear and sorrow."  Three years later, while visiting with a member of Solidarity in Warsaw during the crack down of Marshall Law in Poland, I was reminded of this conversation when one protester said to me:  You can always tell an American - they speak before thinking - and that could NEVER happen here.

Today the world begins to mourn the passing of one of our saints: Nelson Mandela.  He has been called a living witness to the spirituality of Advent - a man who survived all of the darkness and triumphed in the light of justice, compassion, reconciliation, healing and forgiveness. The Puritan theologian, Jonathan Edwards, once defined authentic justice as the trust that "no one is so contemptible or worthless but the Lord shows him to be one to home he has deigned to give the beauty of his image."  Mandela could have remained incarcerated in hatred and revenge.  He could have chosen to become entombed in ideology.  And he might have opted to institutionalize an "eye for an eye" policy against all those who actively plotted his destruction.

But he created the commission on truth and reconciliation - and set Bishop Tutu as its leader.  He only ran once for president because he wanted to help his people learn the importance of practicing democracy and trust.  And he never spoke an ugly word about his ex-wife even as she became the antithesis of his healing grace.  And now brother Mandela has passed.  Cape Town Archbishop Thabo Makgoba prayed these words last night.

“Go forth, revolutionary and loving soul, on your journey out of this world, in the name of God, who created you, suffered with you and liberated you/Go home Madiba, you have selflessly done all that is good, noble and honourable for God’s people/We will continue where you have left off, the Lord being our helper."


Today on the Feast Day of St. Nicholas, I give thanks for the clear and deep thinking of Nelson Mandela (and Marilynne Robinson) for the witness and love shared in real time.  Last night at our jazz gig I got the chance to play this sweet, sweet modal tune born of the groove of Freddie Hubbard.  As we played it deep and slow, I kept thinking of Madiba how this song felt like Mandela to me.  Rest in peace, good and faithful servant, rest in peace.


On Sunday, we will play Linda Worster's brilliant, "Peace on Earth" as our tribute and prayer to Mandela.

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