Questioning Advent: Day Six – The Hope of Mandela

Copyright, AFP/Getty images
Copyright, AFP/Getty images

There’s nothing that can be said about the life of Nelson Mandela that hasn’t been said better already. Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s remarks this morning sum up his legacy well, so most of us shouldn’t even try. But as I sit to write about hope today, on the day after Mandela has died, I feel that I cannot do so without writing about him.

When Mandela was released from prison I was nearly 14 years old. He had begun his imprisonment 14 years before I was born. I remember hearing about his release and thinking about a man being in prison for the entire span of my own life, times two, and wondering how any person could survive that. This was before I knew about what happened to him in prison; the beatings, the forced labor, the isolation. How in the world could anyone emerge from that without being completely broken?

And more importantly, how could anyone experience the worst that humanity has to offer, and still emerge with hope?

This first week of Advent we speak about the hope that comes in Christ. In Advent we remember that God became human, like one of us, to bring hope to a broken world. And in the Christmas story, there in the background, is the knowledge of how this all ends: that broken world will do its best to break the child who comes in hope. But in the end, new hope will come from the one who rises above the worst that world has to offer.

Nelson Mandela was not Jesus Christ. I don’t want anyone to think I’m saying that. But he was a man who, despite the worst the world was able to do to him, still believed in hope. And more than that, he shared that hope with a changing country that needed it more than ever. To put a man in a jail cell for 28 years with nothing but hope, and to have him emerge 28 years later and have hope enough for a country…there are no words to describe it.

Nelson Mandela once said, “I am not an optimist, but a great believer of hope.” That’s an important distinction. To be a hopeful person is not to be one who sees the world through rose colored glasses. To be a hopeful person is to be one who sees the brokenness of humanity, and yet who refuses to believe that reconciliation and new life are not possible.

That’s what being a follower of Christ in Advent is like too. We cannot gloss over the pain and injustice and violence in this world. We have to name it. But, more than anything  we have to refuse to become incapacitated by it. We have to choose hope, and we have to share that hope with others. I can’t imagine any better modern witness to that than Mandela.

Question: Where have you seen the brokenness of the world, and how have you chosen to hope anyway?

Prayer: God of hope and justice, we commend to you our brother Nelson and all who have chosen hope over hatred, over resignation, and over defeat. Bless those who tread in the most broken places of our world, and strengthen them in hope, that their hope may also strengthen others. Amen.

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