In this 1998 photo, South African President Nelson Mandela, left, and U.S. President Bill Clinton peer through the bars of prison cell No. 5, the cramped, gray cell where Mandela was jailed for 18 years in his struggle against apartheid, on Robben Island, South Africa. Mandela died Dec. 5 at age 95.
It is such a simple word, such a difficult concept to employ in real life. I had the occasion to consider forgiveness several times last week. One came with news that Nelson Mandela, the father of modern South Africa, a pacifist lawyer turned revolutionary fighter, a fighter turned statesman, a socialist who protected corporate property, had died.
I saw Mandela in 1990 in Atlanta, Georgia. He was amazing orator. To hear it from the right, from victims of Obama Derangement Syndrom, Mandela was a bloodthirsty Marxist intent on murdering white children.
That was not the man we saw and heard in Atlanta. The man we had come to see preached a message of reconciliation and peace, of protection of the white minority even in the face of decades of brutal colonial violence by the minority government. He said he would protect families from illegal retribution and he tried, and mostly succeeded, in that effort when he became South Africa’s first black president.
This was a man who admitted to bitter anger at those who had him imprisoned for 27 years in South Africa’s gulag, often tortured and isolated from any friendly contact for decades. If any man had the right to abandon forgiveness and seek revenge, it would have been Nelson Mandela. But he put aside his justified anger. Not for himself, no, but for his country and for future generations of South Africans of all races, kin and creeds.
I talked last week to a man who works for the Salvation Army. He said the Army, one of the most effective organizations that the world has ever created for helping the homeless, the destitute, the sick and the addicted, has made mistakes. We were speaking specifically in reference to the troubled history of the Army and the LGBT community.
Many of the LGBT community were horribly hurt when, last year, an officer with the Army in Australia went seriously off-message and on a radio show said, based on a stunningly narrow interpretation of the New Testament, that gay men and lesbian deserved to die. The Salvation Army disowned the statement and has tried, with varying degrees of failure and success, to show that it does not discriminate based on gender and sexuality, orientation or identification.
But many in the LGBT community are suspicious. They look for, and will find, evidence of continued antagonism to their very being. But the Army is asking for… forgiveness.
I listened to Sufjan Stevens’ amazing Christmas song, “Sister Winter,” and it’s refrain:
All my friends, I’ve
Returned to sister winter
All my friends, I
And I, too, apologize if I don’t understand the lyrics precisely, but I think that the singer is asking for forgiveness, in this case, to return to friends and celebrate a happy Christmas.
Forgiveness. It seems like such a small thing, but perhaps the greatest gift we could give in this cold and troubled time.
From the staff,
Las Vegas CityLife