We have spent some time in worship and our small group reflection this month playing with this interesting notion introduced by the novelist David Foster Wallace. Speaking to the graduating class at Kenyon College in 2005, he argued that there are “default settings” that operate in our thinking. He described them as the kind of ideas about which we are absolutely certain, but that, all the same, are, in his words, “totally wrong and deluded.” And chief among these, he said, is the deep belief that “I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” Of course, he said, we rarely think such things because, in his words, “it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down.”
Wallace’s words echoed in my mind earlier this year as I read news reports about the South African leader Nelson Mandela lingering near death, as he still does. Now, two decades since his release after 27 years in prison, Mandela has been lionized on the world stage. He has been celebrated in films like “Invictus” and widely praised by world leaders, including our own President Obama.
It’s worth remembering, though, that at the time of his release there was much uncertainty about what Mandela’s new freedom would bring. The collapse of Apartheid in South Africa, the 40-year-old system that had codified racial oppression in every way that country’s white leadership could conceive, left a vacuum that no one knew what would fill. Mandela himself was in his 70s and long absent from the politics.
And so it was all the more amazing that from the moment he emerged Mandela took his place not only as a vigorous leader of an anxious and expectant nation but also as one of the world’s preeminent advocates for racial reconciliation. Despite a lifetime under the heel of virulent racist oppression, Mandela opened a path for healing and renewal for all people, one that adroitly took account of just the sort of default settings that Wallace pointed to.
We Unitarian Universalists have made a practice at this time of year at around when the United Nations was founded of widening our vision a bit and considering what the larger world has to teach us about the possibilities for peace and freedom. So, today, as we near the 68th anniversary of the UN’s founding, we turn to the story of Nelson Mandela and the hope his life offers humankind in its long walk to freedom.
Mandela writes in his autobiography that he began his life feeling that he was free, or at least, in his words, “free in every way that I could know.” He grew up in villages in the Transkei, a South African province bordering the Indian Ocean, many miles from the major cities of Pretoria, Cape Town, or Johannesburg, and was raised in relative privilege. His father was a local chief and advisor to the king of the Thembu tribe.
Seen as a boy with promise, he was sent to a Methodist boarding school, where he was given the name, Nelson. But shortly afterward, when he was 9, his father died, and he was sent to live with a family friend who was the area regent. He attended classes at a British boarding school – which helped make him a lifelong Anglophile – but he counted some of his most important education as witnessing the regent, his protector, as the leader of area assemblies.
These were occasions of great ceremony at which any man, rich or poor, was given the opportunity to speak – sad to say, woman weren’t given this privilege. Issues were discussed, and when a consensus was reached, the regent would sum up the results, a poet would deliver a song full of both praise and satire, and the evening would end with the regent leading the crowd in a roar of laughter.
Mandela headed off to college at 19, seeing a future for himself in the government’s Native Affairs office, and got involved in student government. On returning home, though, he found his protector had arranged a marriage for him to a woman who he knew was in love with a friend of his. He fled to Johannesburg, but later reconciled with his protector, completed college by correspondence course, apprenticed himself to a law office and later entered law school.
Friends counseled him against getting involved in politics, but he was drawn in all the same. As he wrote later, “it was only when I began to learn that my boyhood freedom was an illusion . . . that I began to hunger for it.”
The African National Congress had been organized in 1912, and as early as 1918, the year of Mandela’s birth, at the Versailles peace conference, it had voiced the grievances of African people. By the 1940s, when Europeans adopted an Atlantic Charter asserting the dignity of each person and arguing for democratic reform, the ANC responded with a similar charter calling for full citizenship of all Africans, the right to buy land, and the repeal of discriminatory legislation.
In 1944, Mandela and his allies, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, helped organize a Youth League of the ANC, to advance its goals. But in 1948 Afrikaner Nationalists came to power and brought with them the policy of Apartheid. Blacks in South Africa were already essentially non-citizens in their own country, without the right to vote or hold property. But Apartheid codified that oppression as never before. It regulated who could live where and forced blacks to move from some areas. It restricted who could hold what jobs and who would receive what education and instituted a policy of police terror and political persecutions for those who opposed it.
Mandela and Tambo worked as lawyers to help people navigate the system and helped organize the ANC response – a Defiance Campaign that broadly challenged the Apartheid system. The results were thousands of arrests and ultimately an epic trial for treason against Mandela and 29 others that lasted from 1955 to 1960 that resulted in their acquittal. Later that year, though, police in Sharpeville fired on a massive protest demonstration, killing 69 and wounding at least 180 others.
Shortly afterward, to avoid being arrested, Mandela went underground. During that time he even went on an international tour as an ANC leader and was chosen to head an offshoot group called the Spear of the Nation. That group led a shift in the ANC’s tactics, for the first time organizing acts of sabotage in the hope of weakening the state’s resolve. After two years in hiding, Mandela was captured and put on trial for crimes against the state. In 1963 he was sentenced to life in prison. He was 45 years old.
Social scientists argue over the origin of racism, but I think a credible claim can be made that it originates in something like the default setting that David Foster Wallace identified: “I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” Carried further, it’s easy to see how this way of thinking morphs into an attitude that sees my interest as trumping all others. So, I need not concern myself with others’ welfare, even their humanity.
It’s not something we’re likely to confess, as it is, as Wallace observed “so socially repulsive.” Ugh! I hate to confess it, but I think Wallace is right. It’s an impulse that each of us struggled with. I can certainly find it in myself. And Nelson Mandela could see it, too, not just in his oppressors but also in himself.
In an interview with Oprah Winfrey after his release, he said that it was certainly a tragedy that he spent most of his adulthood in prison. But, in his words, “if I had not been to prison, I would not have been able to achieve the most difficult task in life, and that is changing yourself.”
Yes, sitting in a narrow cell or breaking up stones in the prison yard on Robben Island, he thought deeply about the future of his nation and how he would like to change it. But he also gave attention to what he considered the flaws in himself: his impulsiveness and pride, the hunger for vengeance. To help temper that, as the grind of prison life went on, he began to get to know his jailers and study the Afrikans language and history as well as that of his own people. He came to appreciate the fear that underlay that racist state that oppressed him, and to see something else: another and very different default setting within us.
“I always knew,” Mandela wrote, “that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. Even in the grimmest times in prison when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going. (Human) goodness is a flame that can be hidden, but never extinguished.”
Two decades after its demise, it’s hard to fathom how oppressive the Apartheid state was, how hard it worked to demean, even to deny the humanity of every non-white resident, but mostly blacks. Leaders who emerged were intimidated or assassinated, and reform groups, both black and white, were infiltrated with spies and troublemakers who worked actively to undermine them.
And still by the late 1980s the state itself, one of the most poisonous purveyors of racist oppression ever to have arisen, recognized that its days were numbered. So, in a remarkable turn of events it turned to the man it had demonized as the chief agent of its woes to negotiate a way forward. And he, despite enduring a prison term that snatched away a third of his life, agreed.
The iconic event of Mandela’s release in February 1990 was just a start. It took another four years to negotiate a new constitution and arrange new elections, which resulted in Mandela’s election as president. Soon afterward Mandela appointed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to investigate many decades of human rights abuses. The years since have seen the disbanding of the National Party, which had created Apartheid, and the continued success of the ANC, but political turmoil, grinding poverty, corruption, and the country’s many intransigent divisions make South Africa still a work in progress.
As Mandela put it in his autobiography, “when I walked out of prison, my mission was to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that that is not the case.
“The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficulty road. For, to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
It may have been because Mandela’s words were ringing in my ears, but I thought I heard them again just this past week in a very different context. The occasion was the Campaign for Southern Equality’s latest action at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds to end the state’s discrimination against same-sex couples seeking to be married. It was shortly before 10 same-sex couples accompanied by about 80 of us supporters were to walk over to request a license to be married and, for the first time ever, not be denied.
Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, the campaign’s executive director, was talking to the group gathered in the sanctuary of First Congregational United Church of Christ. “I look around this room,” she said, “and I see people who are willing to go a step farther, to say this law is wrong and I know it, and I’m willing to believe that something I do in my life can help change it.
“I see people who believe that if we stand up against these laws again and again and again and return to the counter again and again and again to say I am equal, I am human, this is who I am, this is who I love, that it will change things.”
“We dare to believe what we know in our hearts, that those truths are more powerful and transcend the brokenness of laws that treat any people as inferior to other people.”
The circumstances may be different, but the end is not. It is simply the language of liberation that calls to us across cultures, across decades, across the world, language echoed in religious teachings from the parables of Jesus to the dharma talks of the Buddha.
We cannot be free, we cannot be whole if we would countenance the oppression of others. It may be, as Nelson Mandela observed on his inauguration as president that, “there is no easy road to freedom,” but in the end it is also the only path to peace. Nelson Mandela’s life and work embodied that, the combination of steely resolve and undying hope in what is possible among us, hope that the fear within us can be quelled and the love within us can be stoked: that the world’s liberation can be our own.