On Forgiveness and the Death of Mandela

I have to admit that I’m a bit of a news junkie.  The one story that garnered the most text and eyeballs in the last month is the death of Nelson Mandela.  Regardless of political stripe or creed, talking heads from around the world rushed to laud Mandela’s struggle and legacy.

As often happens with dead luminaries, a narrative tends to form in the telling and retelling of their lives, a narrative that often becomes simplistic and repetitive.  For Mandela, it seemed, there were two major elements of his narrative: his longsuffering patience in prison at the hand of his adversaries and his forgiveness as he ascended to the South African presidency.  These two elements, the story goes, cemented Mandela’s legacy as a great man whose likes we have rarely seen and will rarely see again.

Let us hope that this is true, I thought.  I know, it seems strange.  But the more I thought about Mandela, I thought about how historical leaders who we bestow with the crown of greatness are always made so in the crucible of great injustice.  We remember Mandela’s courage, patience, and vision because these qualities were put on display in the setting of racist Apartheid South Africa.  Lincoln’s greatness was born in the crucible of American slavery, Gandhi’s in the oppression of imperialist British rule.  But in many ways, these leaders represent a change whose time has already come; they represent they zeitgeist of their time.  If an injustice persists long enough, there will be a natural backlash, and often these “great men” are there with enough sense to let the change take place.

So, when heard an NPR pundit muse that we look around and don’t see leaders like Mandela, I thought that we only need wait until the next great political injustice for the next great man to be crowned, and if we go long enough without canonizing a great man, perhaps we could be thankful for not needing one.

But this pundit’s musing struck me strangely in a second way.  She posed that the forgiveness, this willingness to move past the past as something we don’t see in our current leaders.  Her yearning for this quality, this willingness to renounce the need for vengeance, seemed oddly misplaced.  After all, the virtue of forgiveness isn’t one we often expect in our leaders; indeed, it is often difficult to find it in ourselves.  I began to think of how difficult it is to move on from our own perceived slights on a daily basis.  In Mandela’s example, we praise a man who embodied this virtue of forgiveness, a humility that sees a greater need than personal vengeance, and extol him for this courage.  But asking why we do not see it in other leaders seems a less pertinent question than if we see it in ourselves.  For if we cannot, we must always expect that Mandela, than man who forgives, will be exceptional.  How much greater would we be if it were the expectation rather than the exception.

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