The Power of Moral Action: Nelson Mandela and Pope Francis

In modern culture, those who make the moral point are usually mocked -- as "righteous" and "judgmental," "naïve" and "unsophisticated." In reaction, the public and the culture's gatekeepers (critics) regularly go slumming on the wild side, most recently enthusing over Breaking Bad, the TV series about a high-school chemistry teacher who, terminally ill, turns to crime -- cooking meth -- to secure his family's finances after he's gone.

Meanwhile, it remains a truism, according to the cultural script, that a character "breaking good" would never fly; he or she would be colorless, grim, or, worst of all, boring. Satan, we keep being told, had all the best lines in Milton's Paradise Lost.

And yet when a real-life mortal does "break good," as in the cases of Nelson Mandela and Pope Francis, addressing the rightness and wrongness of things on the world stage and taking moral action, the world in response is awestruck, thrilled -- it is, in a word, gob-smacked. Why? Because such mortals satiate within us not just a want -- for entertainment or diversionary slumming -- but a profound need, an aching need, for our leaders, any leaders, to "do the right thing."

With Mandela's death, world reaction was immediate and sorrowful: A great and good man is gone. When this mighty timber fell, the loss was resounding.

Mandela's moral greatness lay not only in the 27 years of imprisonment he endured for his leadership role in the black liberation movement against apartheid, as unimaginable a sacrifice as that was. Perhaps the peak moral action took place upon his release: As he told interviewer Ted Koppel, it is a "tragedy" for a person to lose the prime of his life behind bars, though Mandela put those years to good use, learning and planning. He would have been justified, and he'd be reinforced by innumerable historical examples, had he advocated revenge, both for personal and political reasons, against a vicious system that sought to render him inhuman.

But somehow -- from principle? love? strategy? -- Mandela did the right, super-human, moral thing: He pressed for reconciliation with the white oppressors, thereby freeing his own people, putting the oppressors at ease (and freeing them, too), and, in doing so, no doubt averted civil bloodbath. If moral action is defined as that producing the greatest good for the greatest number of people, Mandela's moral action ranks high -- and singular -- in history's annals.

Of course it must be noted that South Africa's liberation is not complete: Blacks still do not fare well economically, the white elite is wealthier than ever, and the ranks of the African National Congress, which Mandela led, has become dismayingly corrupt. Current president Jacob Zuma lavishes more money and attention on his palatial home than on his country. Mandela himself, as the country's first black president, proved less able as a governor than a revolutionary. And he was the first to admit that, as a man, he was no saint.

But the power of his moral model remains: Mandela delivered freedom for all. Now freedom must be stewarded -- by others who, like Mandela, "do the right thing."

Likewise, Pope Francis excites the world simply---simply?---because he does the right thing. Apart from the example of humility he sets for himself---abjuring the papal apartments for simpler lodging, driving his own car---he is reminding the faithful and the Roman Catholic church itself of the Church's original mission: that of serving the poor. And he finds the words that resonate in a complex and confused world, for example, casting the church in the image of a "field hospital" that tends to the world's wounded.

But it was when the new Pope spoke out against the "idolatry of money" and the "tyranny" of capitalism that he most dramatically penetrated the realms outside the Church, to those of us in the world at large. What a welcome surprise! At a time when the world is still struggling five years after the financial crash to recover equilibrium, and when the world's financial centers continue to resist reform, and when the income gap between the rich and everybody else increases ever more glaringly, Pope Francis, in a 50,000-word apostolic exhortation, attacked the nub of the problem head-on:

"Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are waiting."

To those who see the widening income gap and its attendant human suffering as morally wrong, this warning from the Pope is a powerful moral antidote, literally manna from Heaven. And it can't be an accident he uses the "trickle-down" locution, to attack anti-regulation, anti-tax policies. Forbes, conservative bastion of finance, castigates Francis for his "ahistorical, populist attack on an economic system that has done more to alleviate poverty than a thousand Mother Theresas ever could." But the world is with the Pope when he writes, "I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor."

Capitalism with a human face: Who else makes the case more forcefully than Pope Francis?

Moreover, the new Pope is seeking to redress the abomination of sexual abuse of children by the clergy---at long last. It's this abomination, going unaddressed for years, that drove so many of the faithful from the Church. Judging by comments online and out in society, legions of the faithful are considering returning to the fold, because of this Pope. Finally: The Church, a notionally moral institution, is acting in a moral way. No wonder Time magazine named Pope Francis "Person of the Year," as the individual who exerted the most influence in the world, this time for the good.

So: Far from the negative stereotype of the moral voice as "righteous" and "judgmental," Mandela and Pope Francis show right-thinking judgment as positive and paradigm-shifting. As for "naive" and "unsophisticated," there could hardly be more canny leaders than these two men, truly changing the world. And, contrary to the rap on moral action as grim and futile work, note the joy and the ease in their skin of these two, doing the right thing. And, again, note the joy the world takes in them for doing the right thing.

Will we continue their example? Will other leaders? If we understand what it means to swallow the cultural message of moral action as negative and "breaking bad" as permissible, if we understand that such messaging serves only to excuse and absolve ourselves from doing the right thing, then perhaps we will make the world around us a better place.

The question becomes: Will we have the courage to "break good"? Think Mandela, think Pope Francis -- and act.

Carla Seaquist's forthcoming book of commentary is titled "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality." Her book "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character" came out in 2009. Also a playwright, she published "Two Plays of Life and Death," which include "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."