12/09/2013 08:36 am ET Updated Feb 08, 2014

Mandela: A Christmas Story

I've been buked and I've been scorned,
I've been buked and I've been scorned,
Children, I've been buked and I've been scorned,
Tryin' to make this journey all alone
You may talk about me sure as you please. . .
Your talk will never drive me down to my knees. . .
Children, Jesus died to set me free
Nailed to that cross on Calvary

(From a Traditional Spiritual - Harry Belafonte)

Evil begets evil. Abuse and repression do not make people good. These are not ingredients for improving the moral character of society. Inevitably the degradation and violation of human dignity perpetuates violence. War and violence are not true recipes for peace.

Few stories in modern history are as compelling and provocative as that of Nelson Mandela, who was scorned and mistreated and imprisoned by the apartheid regime of South Africa for 27 years. If anything could bring a man down or fuel his rage, it would be the years of humiliation to which he was subjected. On one occasion Mandela was forced by his jailers to dig a trench for his own grave. As they made him lie down in that macabre trench they unzipped their pants and urinated on him.

It is unusual, if not miraculous, within such degrading and abusive conditions as well as the isolation and long years of forced labor, that Mandela did not become focused on his humiliation and suffering but on the dream of bringing freedom to his people. It was a vision that he realized could only be achieved through peace and reconciliation; by breaking with the historic cycle of revolutionary violence where the oppressed become the oppressors, and the oppressors become the oppressed. While there are those who say that Mandela used forgiveness and reconciliation as a calculated political strategy, I doubt that such was the case for he had nothing to gain by actions such as inviting his former jailer to be an honored guest when he was inaugurated as President of South Africa.

I've had occasion to meet with political and revolutionary leaders, former prisoners in a number of countries. Inevitably I have found that the humiliations of being imprisoned had either left them broken in spirit or so embittered and enraged that they could not wait for the day to be able to avenge their enemies. On a few rare occasions I have met leaders similarly imprisoned but who came to eschew revolutionary violence and revenge to embrace a lifestyle of peace and reconciliation as the result of a transforming spiritual encounter with Jesus Christ. Among such leaders were Roger "Bomba" Arienda former violent student revolutionary leader in the Philippines; Francisco Galan the former rebel leader of the ELN Revolutionary forces in Colombia; George Speight who overthrew the government of Fiji in a coup d'état; and Tamerat Layne, leader in the movement that overthrew the Mengistu regime of Ethiopia. Like Nelson Mandela, these leaders pursued the way of forgiveness and reconciliation that is far more daunting and difficult than any way of violent revolution and revenge. Each of their stories uniquely reflect the Christmas story which is essentially the story of the humiliation of God in Jesus; a suffering rejected human being, in order to bring the good news of forgiveness and reconciliation to all people.

The romanticized image of a babe in a manger and the joyful carols we hear don't tell the whole Christmas story. The real story is that of God subjecting himself to the worst of humanity's bickering, brawling, and belligerent ways as one of us in order to show us a better way. Jesus absorbs the disrespect, degradation and violence of our ways yet without seeking recourse through retaliation or revenge. In doing so he expresses and makes God's forgiveness and reconciliation real. He is the Prince of Peace.

As human beings we are so easily drawn into conflict -- we meet conflict with conflict, insult with insult, violence with violence. The political and social stage of the world reflects our human nature. One does not have to look very far to see political leaders who refuse to compromise for the sake of the common good of their people; brothers in the same family who cannot resolve their perceived insults; husbands and wives who can't break out of the cycle of betrayal and disrespect; nations and groups that pass on their injuries and insults from one generation to the next; and wars that restore order but not peace. Against the normal background of human injustice and violence Nelson Mandela said ...

The Good News borne by our risen Messiah who chose not one race, who chose not one country, who chose not one language, who chose not one tribe, who chose all of humankind...Our Messiah,, born like an outcast in a stable, and executed like a criminal on the cross...whose life testifies to the truth that there is no shame in being conquered: Those who should be ashamed are they who conquer others...Whose life testifies to the truth that there is no shame in being oppressed: Those who should be ashamed are they who oppress others. (Zion Christian Church, Moria, 3 April 1994)

The Christmas story, the story of Jesus the Prince of Peace, is the story of God breaking through the human cycle of violence and revenge by offering his forgiveness, to reconcile us to himself and to give us peace beyond all human understanding. In a significant way, the story of Nelson Mandela is a reflection of that greater story -- a story I am pausing to remember this Second Week of Advent as we light the candle of Peace.

He was despised and avoided by others; a man who suffered, who knew sickness well. Like someone from whom people hid their faces, he was despised, and we didn't think about him. It was certainly our sickness that he carried, and our sufferings that he bore...He was pierced because of our rebellions and crushed because of our crimes. He bore the punishment that made us whole; by his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:3-5)

Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy... having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. Don't do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. (Philippians 2:1-6 CEB)