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Grace after Grace

December 6, 2013

In the immediate aftermath of the announcement of the death of Nelson Mandela the world is rightly hailing him for his role in ending apartheid in South Africa and, even more, his ability to show extraordinary grace in leading a nation not to seek revenge for decades of persecution at the hands of the ruling white minority.  The latter is indeed amazing.  After being jailed for 28 years, after seeing friends and family imprisoned or slain for seeking equality, he urged his nation not to retaliate and set the tone for a genuine attempt at reconciliation.  It was indeed a show of amazing grace and he was rightly given the Nobel Peace Prize for the effort.

Yet he shared that prize with F.W. deKlerk, the white leader of the government that had imprisoned him.  When deKlerk freed Mandela from prison in 1990 he too took an extraordinary step of grace; the grace to admit that what you were doing was entirely wrong.  In some ways this was a much more difficult grace.  DeKlerk was in power and had no reason to believe that the release would go well for him and his party.  Indeed, it was fear, the fear that if they relinquished power they would be attacked, that had kept the apartheid government holding on for so long.

While the deKlerk grace can be called the lesser grace, it accomplished only a chance for Mandela and the majority population, it was surely the more dangerous grace.  We see little like it today.  Look at all the dictators who hold on to power at all costs.  Why do they do it?  I think fear plays a huge part; the fear that once power is gone they may be imprisoned or killed.  This fear is often well-founded.  Revenge is a much more common human emotion than grace.

At the Nobel ceremony we had pictures of the two men smiling and accepting the award.  It is a picture of harmony.  When Mandela was inaugurated President there was another smiling picture, Mandela holding up the hand of deKlerk who was stepping down.  Once again, a picture of harmony.

But, while true to a point, the public harmony hid a long dislike and distrust of each other.  Even after the turn-over of power the well-chosen words of harmony and reconciliation from both of them were often accompanied by barbs and evidence that trust and liking did not play a big part in this historic change.  They both concluded that neither liking nor trusting should be an impediment to grace; that you don’t just show it to people you are comfortable with.  It might even be said that it is not grace when you want to do it anyway; that you think it is deserved.

Motives are never pure.  There were factors other than grace at work in both men.  But first one and then the other managed to do something extraordinary.  It is fitting that, each in his own way, they attributed their actions to their faith.  The deKlerk grace of admitting you are wrong and facing the very real fear that your wrong actions may have consequences for you is instructive to Christians today.

Today the “culture war” rages and it always seems to me that fear is the basis of the evangelical side of the war.  The fears start with “If we…” and go on to list horrible consequences of giving even one inch in the war.  “If we allow same sex marriage then traditional marriage will be destroyed.”  “If we allow laws setting standards for what secular employers must give in medical coverage then our religious freedom is in jeopardy.”  Soon we are engaging in hyperbolic warnings about jailing pastors, closing churches, and forbidding Christians to worship freely.

Today we have a situation where the majority, Christians, often consider themselves under attack and living in fear they are only one-step away from persecution.  For deKlerk this fear was both logical and reasonable.  Yet he chose to give up power and face his fear.  Do culture war Christians have the grace to do the same?  Do they have the faith to trust God in a situation where human political power can be freely set aside?

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