I just finished reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. I used to be inspired by such stories of overcoming difficult odds on the road to achieving something great. But this time, I finished this book sad and angry. After resisting the brutality of apartheid, Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years. During that time, his wife Winnie was a single mother who was often harassed, arrested, fired from jobs, forced out of her home, and separated from her children. After his release from prison, their marriage fell apart. The cost of the Mandelas’ political advocacy for racial justice was unspeakable suffering and the loss of their family. And it only moved the needle of progress so far.
After years of working for justice and reconciliation and experiencing a regular white backlash (even one that pales in comparison to the suffering endured by true freedom fighters), when I read stories of activists whose entire lives were ruined by the pursuit of freedom, I am more angered than inspired. While I respect and honor Mr. Mandela’s spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness, I understand Winnie’s bitterness and militancy even more. Why must people be forced to make a choice between either acquiescence to marginalization or resistance that results in brutality? Why must people’s lives be ruined in order for others to experience a bit more freedom? And why must the power structures always regroup through ever more sophisticated structural means? I understand that the way of the cross is the way of sacrifice and forgiveness, but I also know that’s the excuse many white people give for inspiring themselves with the sacrifices of people of color while maintaining their own power and comfort. The way of the cross is not found in finding one’s own pleasure and inspiration in the suffering of others.
This week, I had hard conversations with several white male church leaders who were sent to me by black pastors to talk about race. Most of my conversation was listening in disbelief and muted anger as I heard the tired “desire for racial reconciliation” mixed with several variants of the “I’m colorblind… I never owned slaves… Can’t we just start fresh… Why don’t African-American leaders join what we’re doing… Can’t we all just love Jesus…” theme. It’s like they had lived in a different country for the past 60 years. I spoke with forthrightness, frustration, and steadiness. I left feeling yet again ready to be done with all things evangelical. If it takes that much to move the needle a tiny bit, is it worth it? It sometimes feels like the ministry God has called me to can be summed up with, “White people, get your people.” It’s important but exhausting and sad work. I thought we’d be further along by now.
The radio in my car was on scan today and a song came on that said, “We all bleed the same, so tell me why… tell me why we’re divided” and all I could be was angry and incredulous that such kumbaya platitudes could in any way pass as a Christian account of reconciliation. An answer to the question immediately came to mind, “Perhaps it’s because some of us have made others of us bleed so much…” The truth is that there can be no reconciliation without justice, without the removal of that which marginalizes the other. I still believe in the possibility of reconciliation because I believe that God is restoring all of creation through Jesus Christ, setting relationships right, leveling mountains and making things new. And yet, in the pursuit of His kingdom, the work is never done, never accomplished, always messy, often painful, sometimes beautiful, and often angering. Today, more than being inspired by Nelson Mandela, I am angry with those who put the Mandelas of the world on crosses.