Sunday 6 December 2015

What would Madiba think of South Africa today?

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, on the second anniversary of the death of Nelson Mandela, St George's Cathedral, Cape Town on 6th December, 2015:

In the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,  Amen.

We meet today as people of faith, joining with brothers and sisters around the world, to pause and remember Madiba on the second anniversary of his death.  It is fitting that we should do this at the Cathedral because it is here that we, people of faith and of none, have over the past half century proclaimed a message of justice -- from this pulpit, from the platform below and from the steps outside.

    St George’s is still a place to declare the demands of justice – and the demands of a Creator who is just. Today and for generations to come, Madiba will be revered around the world as an inspirational symbol of peace and forgiveness, but also of the justice on which they must be based. He remains a beacon of hope for all those, everywhere, who are still fighting for their freedom and justice. On the international stage, the name Nelson Mandela is synonymous with the universal struggle for justice, human rights, freedom and democracy, issues that resonate just as strongly today as they did when he walked free from prison 25 years ago.

    In the Christian calendar, we are now in the season of Advent, in which we prepare for the coming of Christ into the world, and in the Anglican Church, our readings today are from Luke's Gospel. In these Advent days, Luke reminds us that if we are to be prepared for the coming Lord, then our hearts and lives have to be properly prepared for the encounter. A close reading of Luke dispels the idea that this is a huge task or a great spiritual feat. It is not. It is simply a matter of allowing ourselves to be loved. The Spanish Carmelite priest and mystic, John of the Cross, says: "When God looks, God loves." John of the Cross constantly reminded people that in their spiritual exploration, they should not be misled into thinking that they had to have a perfect heart. His own spirituality arose out of hardships in just about every part of his life, yet as one writer puts it, "all his suffering and pain never diminished his longing and searching for God. His heart's desire was not for perfection but for union, for an intimacy that overflows with joy and peace."

    Now I know that Madiba rarely expressed himself in religious terms, or voiced his religious beliefs. But I had the privilege of praying with him regularly during the last years of his life, and from my interaction with him I have no doubt that all his life he searched not for perfection but for union -- through other people -- with whoever he understood God to be. He understood that to live a truly good life you don't have to be perfect: as he once told an American audience, in response to their adulation: "I am an ordinary human being with weaknesses, some of them fundamental, and I have made many mistakes in my life. I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying."

    Allowing ourselves to be loved means recognising that God will never stop seeking us out and loving us into fuller life. Following Luke’s insights, all that is asked of us in these Advent days, is not that we pursue God but that we let go and let God take control. We are all tempted by the desire to dominate and control and yet history (and probably the story of our own lives) shows that these desires frustrate new life and human blossoming. Mother Theresa of Calcutta used to say: "Take whatever [God] gives and give whatever [God] takes, with a big smile!" She went on to say ‘Slowly I learn to accept everything just as [God] gives it."

    A last footnote that Luke adds to his narrative: in order to underline the enormity what God promises us through Advent, and to provide a significant clue as to where to locate it, Luke offers no fewer than six historical references, six coordinates for emphasising its importance. He refers to it in political terms and in religious terms, all in order to make the point that God's pursuit, God's love and God's gifts are never amorphous or abstract, but rather they are revealed in the concrete events of history, in the everyday happenings of our lives -- and it is precisely there that we need to look for the fingerprints of God.

    Does anyone doubt that in the life of Nelson Mandela, we see the fingerprints of God? Madiba's  memory acts as a powerful and continuing reminder that individuals have the power to make change happen in the world, no matter how mighty the obstacle. The vision of hope that I am talking about is portrayed by the Psalmist where he appeals: "Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God."
    So how do we celebrate Madiba’s legacy? To some, he was one of the world’s most revered statesmen, who has inspired generations of global citizens through his leadership in the struggle to replace apartheid with a multi-racial democracy. To many, he was the greatest statesman of his era, his leadership steering us through the most difficult time in our history, never compromising his ideals or principles, never pandering to populist demands, always standing up for what he believed in, even against leaders of nations much more powerful than ours. He will go down in history not just because of the impact he had on the lives of South Africans, but on those of countless people around the world. He made a superlative contribution to the global fight for democracy and human rights.

    Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu reminds us that when it came to reconciliation, Madiba lived what he preached. He reminds us how Madiba invited his former jailer as a VIP guest to his presidential inauguration. And he invited Percy Yutar, the prosecutor who wanted him jailed for life, to eat with him. He flew to Orania, the last Afrikaner outpost, to have tea with Betsy Verwoerd, the widow of the high priest of apartheid ideology. He was amazing. Who will forget his support for the retention of the Springbok emblem for rugby? And that breath-taking gesture when he walked on to the turf at Ellis Park wearing a Springbok jersey, with the huge crowd of mainly white spectators chanting "Nelson, Nelson…"

    As someone who prayed with Madiba, I cannot help but ask myself: If he were alive today what would he think of South Africa? What would he  -- who took a 20 percent pay cut soon after becoming president, and who donated much of what he did receive to his children's fund -- think of Nkandla? What would he -- who insisted on appearing in court to face a hostile cross-examination, despite advice by his aides that as president he should not -- think of a president who has done everything to avoid his day in court? What would he think of the apparent political assassinations which take place in Mpumalanga and North-West, and the shenanigans of the Free State ANC?

    Times have changed since Madiba played his extraordinary role in helping our society through its transition to democracy. Circumstances have changed, to the degree that we cannot look to what he did and emulate him in order to work through our current challenges. But we can look to the values which underpinned his life and everything he did. So as we look back, let us take inspiration from his life-long dedication to instilling the values of Ubuntu, integrity and learning, and follow his example in dedicating our every effort to making the world a better place in which all of humankind can live life, and live abundantly.

    May Madiba’s soul rest in peace. May his nearest and dearest be comforted and consoled and may we continue where he has left off, the LORD being our helper. May the example of a fallible individual, not a saint but a hopeful and whole person, a loving person and dare I say a holy man, inspire us to serve God in others and God’s creation until we too are called to God’s rest.

    And now, as our Advent hymn heralding the coming of God into the world, has it: "O come, O come, Emmanuel." 

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