Friday, December 06, 2013
Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013
Only one faculty meeting stands forever in my Faculty Meeting Hall of Fame, and that one happened years ago at a date I can almost pinpoint--it had to be early to mid-80's. South African apartheid hadn't failed yet, although undoubtedly it failed the moment it was implemented. The president of Dordt College, Rev. B. J. Haan, had been offered an honorary doctorate from an Afrikaner university, Potchefstroom, a nice gesture on their part. Whether Haan was worthy wasn't the question. What was on the table that night was whether he should take their offer.
The forces on either side were daunting. On the left stood those who believed that his accepting the honorary doctorate would give the granting institution and the apartheid system a kind of legitimacy they did not deserve. To stand with the Afrikaner authors of apartheid, segregationist apartheid, would be to wed the forces of Satan, argued faculty on the left.
On the the right stood those who saw Afrikaners as fellow children of the Lord, laborers in the vineyard, men and women with whom we could pray, people who needed our help in finding their way, not the back of our hand. We didn't have to stop hating apartheid to love them, to respect them, the conservative side argued.
Dr. James Skillen, a man who went on the devote his life to the interface of politics and the Christian faith, spoke for those who were asking Haan not to accept the doctorate. Of the two spokesman, he was the less passionate, but most convincing. Any dalliance with the Afrikaners was a dance of death, he argued, because those offering the President this honorary doctorate were only looking for political goodwill. He told the President that, should he take the honor, he'd be a pawn in the bloody racial struggle being waged in South Africa. Even little Dordt College would be scratched up on the wall of those who were fighting for apartheid.
On the other side stood Rev. Dr. E. L. Hebden Taylor, an Englishman, an Anglican priest and eccentric scholar no alum will ever forget. The son of South African missionaries, he'd grown up there and knew South Africans like no one else. That familial relationship was the foundation for his argument--you don't slap confessional brothers and sisters in the face when they're offering respect and love. He'd prayed with Afrikaners. The President simply had to go, so said the Englishman. Of the two, Taylor spoke most passionately. South Africa was, to him, itself a homeland.
There was no rancor, despite the fact that the sides were deeply divided. Both men laid out arguments plainly and powerfully, even personally; but neither condemned the other. What went to war that night was two very strong arguments, neither of which was evil, both of which carried inherent righteousness.
When it was over, the President stood up, thanked Skillen and Taylor, and said he'd decided not to go to apartheid South Africa, that the possibility of being used at this particular moment in history was just too great.
I took the liberal side in that argument that night, but at heart I was a conservative, haunted by the idea that giving every single citizen of South Africa the vote would create another Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. Democracy, in South Africa, would be the end of apartheid, but the beginning of bloody chaos.
On that score, I was dead wrong; but then, even as a believer, I had vastly underestimated the sheer power of forgiveness because all that good talk and the arguments thoughtfully created by both sides were made forever moot by a South African named Nelson Mandela, whose most powerful political weapon was, of all things, forgiveness.
Among all these good Christian people, who could have imagined such a thing? Forgiveness. Who among believers around the world could have thought forgiveness had that much clout?
It's worth mentioning that the political theory of Abraham Kuyper, the patron saint of Dordt College, was complicit in the creation and establishment of apartheid. I'm not proud to say that, but it's true. Somewhere in Kuyper's explanation of what he called "sphere soverignity" there lay enough latitude for Afrikaners to create a system in which, theoretically, each tribe and people could prosper in their own individual ways. Kuyper wasn't to blame for apartheid, but those of us who follow him need to acknowledge his theoretical role in the horror.
But it was Kuyper who taught me, somewhere in Near Unto God, that good Christian people who desire to come close to the Lord will get there best by practicing what God almighty does himself. Take forgiveness, for example. When we forgive, Kuyper says, we'll come closer to God than we might in any other moment in time because we are doing what we know he does.
Not simply South Africa, but the entire world, walked behind Mandela down the paths of the righteousness when he determined the only was to live in the new South Africa or anywhere at all was to forgive. The man brought the world near unto God.
Yesterday, the day Mandela died, South Africa's President Zuma said, "Our people have lost a father."
He is not wrong.
But what he might have said is that the world has lost a father.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 7:00 AM