Mandela and Peace Sabbath

Posted: December 8, 2013 in Uncategorized
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Following is the message offered by Tim Carson at the Bluegrass Sabbath Service, Saturday, December 7, 2013, at the old meeting house of the Christian Church in Rocheport, Missouri:

The Stump of Jesse           Timothy L. Carson
Isaiah 11:1-10               December 7, 2013

This prophetic text from Isaiah presents the hope and expectation for the arrival of the Davidic Messiah and a kind of utopian messianic age of peace and harmony. The Davidic king would reign with righteousness and pursue justice for all, especially the weak and downtrodden. And the result of love and justice would be the peaceable kingdom, exemplified in the lion lying down with the lamb. It is a beautiful vision and hope.

Of course, this future vision from Isaiah is often read during Advent as a way to describe the rising hope leading to the birth of Jesus. Could there be such a messiah that would fulfill the hope for a new Davidic king who would usher in an era of peace? As we later discovered, Jesus would both fulfill and not fulfill that expectation. He would usher in a new era of the Spirit, but it would not resemble that expected reign of the earthly king and messiah.

In fact, his kingdom was not of this world, not like that expected. It would transform it differently, unexpectedly.

Whether you are talking about the Messianic expectation in Isaiah or the unique way that Jesus fulfilled it, two things remain constant: justice and reconciliation. The messianic leader combines those two in a remarkable way. On the one hand there is an insistence on justice for the oppressed. On the other hand there is an equal insistence that peace and reconciliation will reign. That is not an easy balance, not one often achieved.

This week we all received the news of the passing of Nelson Mandela.  He is, in my mind, one of the best contemporary examples of the righteous leader who combined an insistence on justice with an expectation for peace and harmony.

I remember during college when Mandela and South Africa started becoming a common matter of discussion. We became acquainted with apartheid – the policy of racial separation – and how the Afrikaners, the Dutch Colonists, had dominated the native Africans. It was parallel to North American Apartheid in that we, too, followed a policy racial separation. In both instances it was separate but unequal. The difference was that North American apartheid originated in slave trade that brought and dominated an African minority in the states, while in South Africa a minority group of colonizers dominated the majority of Africans in their own land (like the British in India or Spanish in Mexico).

The United States preceded South Africa in its revolution equal rights, but South Africa was close behind. Like in the United States there was violent repression and reprisal to silence demonstrators. Incarceration and imprisonments were common. Torture and summary executions were the way of the day. Those who spoke for justice were routinely vilified and accused of being communists or worse. Nelson Mandela was one of those voices of protest.

In the winter of 1964, Nelson Mandela arrived on Robben Island where he would spend 18 of his 27 prison years. Confined to a small cell, the floor his bed, a bucket for a toilet, he was forced to do hard labor in a quarry. He was allowed one visitor a year for 30 minutes and could write and receive one letter every six months. Through his intelligence and irenic spirit, Mandela eventually won over even the most brutal captors. He emerged from this experience as the mature leader who would would create a new democratic South Africa. He would become its first democratically elected president. And the way that he brought about change made the difference between a peaceful transition and a bloodbath.

Nelson Mandela somehow fulfilled the expectation of the peaceable kingdom in Isaiah 11 that drew together those not-so-cozy principles, justice and peace. He never wavered in denouncing all structures that would dehumanize anyone.

At the same time – and this is where he parted ways with so many other bloody revolutions – he insisted that the future of South Africa would be secure and peaceful only if it included peace for all, even and especially for the whites who had oppressed the blacks for so long. When the society heated up and it seemed that the pain and rage of the past would boil over, Mandela showed up and told them to turn their swords into plowshares. And they did. Because of his moral leadership a future together became possible and the lion would literally lie down with the lamb. Justice and peace would co-exist.

Violent revolutions litter the pages of history. We certainly have had our own in the United States. We have participated in them around the world. But there are those high examples of movements led by extraordinary people (shall we call them Peaceable Kingdom people, Isaiah 11, people?) like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mandela, who hold justice in one hand and the future of peace in the other at the same time. Theirs is the harder way. And the outcomes they created were the product of how they went about it.

I remember in the 1980s having an exchange student from South Africa in our community. When we talked to him about South Africa he said that his parents – who had been in South Africa their whole lifetimes, the descendants of the Dutch Colonists – were afraid that they would lose everything and even be killed. For this young man and his family, happily, none of that came to pass. South Africa was transformed, but not with more blood.

That is why the aftermath of apartheid was addressed by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and not a war crimes tribunal with hangings at the end. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought together those who were violated with those who did the violating. The stories of both were heard by each. And though forgiveness can never be demanded of anyone before they are ready to forgive, this set the stage for the lion to lie down with the lamb.

I remember when Desmund Tutu, Archbishop of South Africa at the time, chaired those Truth and Reconciliation sessions. Hearing the incredible stories of violence and murder, he sometimes put his forehead on the table and wept. What else is appropriate in the face of such inhumanity? Only grief can cleanse the heart of the indescribable pain.

And this is something for all of us to ponder on this second Sabbath of Advent, one traditionally called peace Sabbath. It may seem faster and easier to take up arms and find what seems to be an easy solution by force. We often default to this in our approach to world problems. But the way that we go about negotiating conflict and injustice actually shapes the way that the future shall appear. The ends do not justify the means; rather the means shape the kind of ends we realize.

The gift of Nelson Mandela to history is to serve as a great exemplar of the possible. When people say that peacemaking is impractical and ineffective they are refusing to consider what may be the very best response to injustice and war. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers” for a reason. It’s because it works.

You have to be the peace you desire on the way to creating the peaceable kingdom. In fact, it is the only thing that makes that kingdom peaceable.

A shoot shall indeed come out the stump of Jesse and every stump where the Spirit of God broods and transforms and grows. And when it does, here and there in the torn world, in cradle and on the cross, in Birmingham and Johannesburg, a new creation is at work. Even the seemingly impossible comes to pass, things like lions taking their places beside lambs. And when you see it, you will say, “I lived in the time when the lion and lamb co-existed together, when the impossible came to pass. This I have seen with my own eyes.”

And on that day we will give thanks to the God who was and is and is to be, and his son Jesus Christ, and the Spirit of Life. Amen.

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