In the Christmas season, it is natural for men and women of the Christian faith to ponder the lessons of the Gospel and particularly the forbearance of their savior who made the ultimate sacrifice so that others might be free. Few political leaders who have walked the earth inspire comparisons to Jesus Christ and the love he held for mankind.
Nelson Mandela, the South African leader who died Thursday night at the age of 95, would be the exception.
For many, Mr. Mandela will be remembered for ending apartheid rule, for fighting against racism and oppression, leading a revolution and for surviving 27 years as a political prisoner. But the transcendent accomplishment of his life was something far simpler yet profoundly meaningful — he forgave those who hated him.
He didn't just forgive them, he embraced them and sought to bring them to his cause. Having overcome those long, agonizing years in prison where he broke rocks in a quarry, slept on the floor, had limited contact with the outside world (one letter every six months and one visitor per year), he found it in his heart to reach out to those who had persecuted him.
When majority rule finally came to South Africa, Mr. Mandela didn't seek retribution or role reversal, he wanted reconciliation. Amnesty was offered those who stepped forward to testify to crimes committed in the past. For victims and their families, this helped bring closure, and such a spirit of forgiveness allowed the nation to avoid more recrimination and reprisal despite the terrible tortures and murders that took place during apartheid.
As a leader, Mr. Mandela will be judged by history. Poverty, corruption and racial divisions still exist in abundance in South Africa. But as a man, he demonstrated what so many of us aspire to be — capable of controlling anger, that most destructive of emotions, while generous in his willingness to show love, humanity's greatest healer.
Mr. Mandela was no saint. As a young man, he was much more of a firebrand and militant. But over time, he learned the power of consensus, compromise, of negotiation and non-violent protest.
That's not to say he condemned all force. He was offered a chance to leave prison early in 1985 if he renounced violence, but he refused to do so, allowing his people the option of physical aggression as a defensive response to the brutal attacks they endured.
"The methods of political action that oppressed people use are determined by the oppressor," he said in an interview in 2000.
His capacity for self-sacrifice was enormous, and so was his humility. He wanted what he was certain would be best for his country, an end to oppression of all kinds.
He set an example that inspired a generation of leaders far beyond his native village of Qunu or his country or his continent. Nor was his life merely about racism or the injustices that were forced upon him. Rather, he will be remembered best for achieving the moral stature of a Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi.
How many of us — not just future presidents but average people — could be so equally forgiving of our captors, to truly turn the other cheek to those who had meant us harm? This man whose middle name meant "troublemaker" demonstrated that we all have such a capacity within us. Such a life gives us hope that none of the challenges facing us today, whether in Baltimore or Johannesburg, are insurmountable when a human heart unfettered by hate is assigned the task.
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