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A Grateful Word That Must Be Earned

The vigil for Nelson Mandela has captured the attention of people around the world, especially those whose lives were touched in some way by his courageous leadership.  I was in the presence of this charismatic figure just once when he addressed the Assembly of the World Council of Churches at its meeting in Harare, Zimbabwe in 1998.  It was a revealing moment.

Earlier in the week the president of the host country, Robert Mugabe, had made a similar visit.  Zimbabwe at that point was already plunged into economic crisis by the extreme policies of the President.  Dissent was routinely crushed, democratic institutions were under threat, and the corruption of entrenched power was clearly visible.  We had been instructed by the General Secretary of the World Council to greet our “host” politely.  The welcome was correct, but decidedly cool.

Four days later Mugabe accompanied Mandela to the assembly hall.  When the doors opened and the two entered, pandemonium erupted in cheering, singing, clapping, and shouting, many delegates and visitors standing on chairs to get a better view.  Mandela slowly made his way through the adoring crowd, smiling.  His fellow freedom fighter, Mugabe, walked with him, stone faced.  It was apparent to everyone, and certainly to the host President, which man was deemed to have honored the legacy of the struggle for freedom, and which man had betrayed it.

What Mandela said to us that day was also revealing.  His message was a simple one.  Thank you.  Mandela wanted us to know that the support of churches had been pivotal in the freedom movement.  Many of those represented had participated in divestment campaigns in their own countries, campaigns which helped to further isolate South Africa in the international arena, campaigns often carried out against the stiff resistance of denominational endowment and pension fund directors.  Several international ecumenical bodies like the Lutheran World Federation and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches had declared apartheid a status confessionis, a violation of the confession of the Gospel so profound as to make communion impossible.  The membership of several of the white Reformed churches of South Africa had been suspended as a result, the first time in those organizations’ histories such an extreme step had been taken.  Churches and institutions around the world, including places like Chicago Theological Seminary, had become a refuge for exiled South African church leaders and kept visible the plight of those, like Mandela, imprisoned or living under threat inside the country.

The World Council of Churches itself had stood firmly with the African National Congress, then engaged in armed struggle, providing funds through the Programme to Combat Racism.  The Council and its member churches, particularly those in the United States, were attacked relentlessly by conservatives in the churches and the broader society, their leaders accused of supporting terrorism.  While today Mandela is everyone’s hero, forty years ago he and his comrades in the armed struggle were viewed with hostility and suspicion by many – perhaps even most – in Europe and the United States.  Conservative groups and media like the Institute for Religion and Democracy, The Reader’s Digest, and CBS’ 60 Minutes launched attacks on mainline denominations and ecumenical bodies, vilifying the churches’ support for the ANC through the World Council’s engagement and their own divestment campaigns.  These attacks would continue in some cases for decades, doing significant damage to the churches.  In Harare Mandela acknowledged those costly decisions:

To us in South and Southern Africa, and indeed the entire continent, the WCC has always been known as a champion of the oppressed and the exploited.  On the other hand, the name of the WCC struck fear in the hearts of those who ruled our country and destabilized our region during the inhuman days of apartheid.  To mention your name was to incur the wrath of the authorities.  To indicate support for your views was to be labeled an enemy of the state. . . .  When, thirty years ago, you initiated the Programme to Combat Racism and the Special Fund to support liberation movements, you showed that yours was not merely the charitable support of distant benefactors, but a joint struggle for shared aspirations. . . .  It is because of this that I put aside everything to take the opportunity to come and say thank you for all you did for each and every one of us.  Thank you, and again thank you.

Gratitude.  This was Mandela’s message in that unforgettable appearance.  And that is our word today to him, to those who suffered with him and then led a nation with him, and to our predecessors in the church who stood with him.  Similar struggles await our decisions to act today, not as distant benefactors, but as daring participants in joint struggles.  To hear a man like Mandela say thank you was a great gift.  But it was a gift earned by those who risked their personal reputations and the resources of the churches and ecumenical institutions they led.  The joy of discipleship cannot be bought at a discount.  Great moments like the one I experienced in Harare only follow years of risk, costly struggle, even doubt when the moral choices are not always clear and the heat of criticism is severe.   So thank you, brother Mandela, not just for your witness, but for inviting the global church at one particular point in the 20th century to live up to its calling.

John H. Thomas
July 11, 2013

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