Are you willing to see?

We went to see the documentary Reconciliation: Mandela’s Miracle the other night at the Denver Film Festival. This film looks at the story behind Invictus, the major motion picture that recounts the story of Nelson Mandela and his relationship with the improbable world cup winning South African rugby team, the Springboks.

The Springboks had represented apartheid to the black South Africans. When the Boks would play, blacks would root for the other team. With Mandela’s release from prison and election to the highest office in the land, the black South Africans were understandably ready to change everything about the nation that reflected anything of apartheid, especially the Springboks. However, Mandela saw an opportunity to unite a very polarized and fearful nation. He insisted that the Springboks stay intact, and keep their apartheid-era team colors. Mandela believed that to treat the whites badly would mean confirming their worst fears and create more tension and polarization amongst the people. He would not return evil for evil, but overcome evil with good.

“Forgiveness begins today,” he often said.

It is a stunning story. How often does someone emerge from mistreatment and many stolen years in prison with forgiveness and reconciliation in their hearts? How many could endure such inequities and not demand their due? How many are truly willing to risk forgiveness? To do that in this case meant that you had to choose trust the heart of your former enemy. It looked foolish.

One of the producers of the film remarked to the audience that she has been a Buddhist for 40 years. This was because the only people she had heard of having such a startling and powerful attitude of forgiveness were Tibetan monks…and now Mandela. That is a powerful thought for us post-modern reformers. How is it that Christianity is not known as a people who espouse forgiveness? We may proclaim it as abstract truth in that we believe that God forgives our sins through the atoning work of Jesus. But perhaps the world gets to see the miraculous power of true forgiveness and reconciliation amongst real people with serious issues all too rarely.

Slowly, many of the white South Africans were awakened to the human rights abuses and cruelties of the system of apartheid. They chose to allow elections that would invite into leadership one who had formerly been seen as a terrorist against the state. It was all the more remarkable because no-one could know what this would mean for anyone, black or white. There was no certainty of outcome. There was no guarantee that the country wouldn’t erupt into chaos. The only thing that was sure was that this choice would change their world forever. And yet, they all chose to prefer and honor each other over their long term, firmly held beliefs, even Christian beliefs. Though they are not the only culprit, Christians in South Africa had justified the existence of apartheid through a particularly onerous version of Calvinism that permeated theological thought and culture and eventually became ensconced in the laws of the nation. In the film a former apartheid Minister of Law and Order admits, “I am a Christian. I love the Lord. But I did not see what was happening. I was blind. Now I see, and I pray I see all people as Jesus sees them”.

The story of Nelson Mandela and the creation of the “Rainbow Nation” is one of the most powerful incarnations of the gospel in human history. It causes me to wonder: We are often so sure of what we believe and so sure we are right. To what or whom are we still blinded? Are we willing to see, even if it changes everything?

Nelson Mandela and Springbok Captain Francois Pienaar

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  • Tammy

    Hey Ellen! JUST watched “Invictus” this past weekend! Loved it…very powerful movie! And, was thinking the whole reconcilation thing would make a great post…and, I was right! heehee!

    Love this line: “They were blind and through a risky and painful change of heart, they were able to see.”
    Honestly, I am IN somewhat of a change myself…sometimes the painful process is looking back and seeing how blind I was and forgiving MYSELF?! :-/

    • ellenharoutunian

      Great point, Tammy! It sounds like quite a healing journey! 🙂

  • Aram

    The line (and thought) that struck me most was this: “How many are truly willing to risk forgiveness? To do that in this case meant that you had to choose trust the heart of your former enemy. It looked foolish.” To do that requires a profound sense of belonging-ness and security in something larger. It struck me that Mandela SAW his imprisonment as an opportunity: he chose to allow his 27 years in prison to “burn the hell OUT of him”, rather than allowing the exterior hell he was in to move inward. The Gospel of John chapter nine comes to mind – especially the last 3 verses.

    • ellenharoutunian

      That’s one of my favorite chapters ever – all about “seeing”. 🙂

  • Barbara Dokter

    Besides loking “foolish” sometimes it feels like you are doing something “wrong”…or “outside of community”… ?

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