There has been an outpouring celebrating the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela since his death last week. He was an outstanding statesman as well as leader and kept his nation from the brink of catastrophic civil war or worse by courageously walking the path of reconciliation, justice and peace. He refused to become like so many other post-colonial leaders, a strongman with a lifelong hold on power, insisting on serving only one term as president of a liberated South Africa.
What has been somewhat surprising has been the accolades he has received from conservative political figures. When he was a political prisoner, Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist by the British, American and other governments. As a matter of fact, he was on a list of terrorists kept by the Department of Homeland Security up until 2008.
Politicians who claimed he was a communist instigator of instability and revolution, and who actively resisted international sanctions against apartheid South Africa, are now singing his praises. The CIA had a hand in imprisoning Mandela, he was considered so dangerous by our US government. Now the US president is lionizing Mandela at his memorial service.
Mandela never backed down from his castigating the US for its military adventures overseas, never backed down from his support for national independence for the Palestinian people, never backed down from being a voice for the oppressed and colonized.
We have seen this before, haven’t we?
In the United States, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was considered subversive, increasingly so in the year before his assassination. Dr. King became progressively more trenchant in his criticism of the US war in Viet Nam, and increasingly vocal about economic justice and its relationship to racism and militarism.
Now he has a federal holiday in his honor, during which we are reminded how he dreamed of a bias-free society.
And guess who called upon workers to rise up and do this:
“Strike against war, for without you no battles can be fought. Strike against manufacturing shrapnel and gas bombs and all other tools of murder. Strike against preparedness that means death and misery to millions of human beings. Be not dumb, obedient slaves in an army of destruction. Be heroes in an army of construction.”
If you guessed the avowed socialist, Helen Keller, you’d be right.
Keller is lauded for her heroism in overcoming difficulties and prejudices associated with her disabilities, and her lovely words about optimism and hope are glowingly quoted. Like Dr. King, her pointed remarks about the wealthy leeching off of ordinary people while keeping them down are willfully forgotten.
This white washing of individuals who spoke out boldly for social justice, economic equity, and an end to war, colonialism, and imperialism dulls our senses and lulls us into accepting the status quo. They become domesticated saints, nonthreatening figures who stood for good things we all believe in. This revisionism is meant to keep us from catching their vision of the world made right.
Every Advent, there are right-wing pundits who deplore the so-called “war on Christmas.” In my view, the real “war on Christmas” was the battle that turned the celebration of the birth of Jesus from a warning that the powers of domination are going to be overthrown into a sentimental holiday.
The story of Jesus’ birth, told in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, tell of the political upset caused by the arrival of this baby. The stories of his birth describe him as a threat to the powers that be. King Herod seeks to destroy this claimant to his throne. Outcast sheep herders hear “good news” proclaimed about a “saviour” and “messiah” and “lord”—all political terms.
The revolutionary message of a great leader who taught and lived the way of resistance to domination, taught and lived the way of peace and reconciliation, has been domesticated and drained of its radical power.
It happens all the time.
Yet some of us will remember.
Some of us bear the memory of the ones who defied the powers—Mandela, Helen Keller, Dr. King, and a host of others, a great cloud of witnesses.
Some of us bear the memory of the prophet who proclaimed the arrival of God’s realm of justice and peace and embodied God’s desire for humanity in healing acts of protest and compassion.
Jesus was himself arrested by the powers that be, interrogated and tortured and finally executed as a political criminal. German theologian Johann Baptist Metz speaks of the “dangerous memory” of Jesus’ life and mission, dangerous because it continues to challenge the powers and principalities of this world, powers and principalities based on domination, exploitation, and violence.
Dangerous because the memory of Jesus draws us to the abandoned places of empire—the prison cell and torture chamber, the battle field and the homeless shelter, the toxic waste dump and the inner city school, the family farm and the sweatshop factories—drawing us out of our comfort zones and across lines of class, race, nation and culture to do the work of creating the realm of God.
We who are enlivened by the memory of those who proclaimed a vision of the world redeemed, the world salvaged, the world reclaimed by the passionate, unrelenting forces of love continue to struggle for it to be made in this world. We risk what they risked in the service of a vision of the world made right. In our efforts to make the world a better place, we truly remember and reenact the mission of all who came before us.
We contain within us the powerful memories of prophetic voices that proclaimed justice and truth to the powers that be. We remember all those who struggled to set the world right.
In this age of willful amnesia, such memories are dangerous.
May we all be bearers of such dangerous memories.