On December 10, 2013, the eyes, ears, and hearts of the world were focused on Soweto, South Africa, on the occasion of a memorial service to remember the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela. Mandela will be remembered for a great many things, including his commitment to peacemaking and nonviolence in his later years. However, in a way unlike Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi, with whom Mandela will be remembered as a great world leader of liberation, Mandela’s relationship to nonviolence and peacemaking was especially complex.
In the Los Angeles Times in the days leading up to the memorial service, Robyn Dixon reminded us how Mandela once embraced armed struggle to end the racist system of apartheid.” In the 1950s and 1960s, Mandela was convinced that the nonviolent efforts the African National Congress (ANC) had adopted to fight the white supremacist regime were ineffectual. He and others trained for military action and established Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed branch of the ANC, which was willing to use violence to reach its goals. Yet, this was not the stance Mandela would always maintain.
Dixon goes on to explain how “Umkhonto we Sizwe abandoned its policy of violence in 1990 as negotiations on the dismantling of apartheid and the setting up of free elections continued. After his release, and on becoming South Africa’s chief executive in 1994, Mandela adhered to the commitment to peace, tolerance and equality that became the hallmark of his presidency.”
Although his story isn’t about embracing radical nonviolence from the outset, Mandela’s story is about conversion to nonviolence. His is a story that offers hope for those who believe that they cannot let go of the necessity of violence in our world. His is a story that encourages us, especially those who bear the name of Christ, to give nonviolence a chance.
Nonviolence is often viewed as impossible and seen as an unrealistic dream of the naïve and foolish, particularly in an age marked by drones, nuclear weapons, and diffuse terrorism networks. This sort of logic is what led the young Mandela to endorse taking up arms.
However, there are prophets that continue to cry out in the wilderness of our twenty-first–century world on behalf of nonviolence. For example, Pope Francis called Christians and all people of good will to join him in a prayer vigil for peace in Syria on September 7, 2013. During that day of prayer and fasting, Pope Francis spoke at St. Peter’s Square: “We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves as if it were normal we continue to sow destruction, pain, death. Violence and war lead only to death.” The pope, who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the Argentinean government for this nonviolent witness and its result, was offering a challenge to the world to follow in the spirit of Mandela’s own lifelong conversion toward peace and nonviolence.
What seems impossible and illogical might just be our own unwillingness to take seriously the Gospel imperative of peace. Pope Francis asked during the peace vigil: “Can we get out of this spiral of sorrow and death? Can we learn once again to walk and live in the ways of peace?” And offered a Gospel response: “I say yes it is possible for everyone. From every corner of the world tonight, I would like to hear us cry out: Yes, it is possible for everyone!”
His challenge to us is to return to the Gospel and embrace nonviolence as the way to be peacemakers and reconcilers. Nelson Mandela’s life story illustrates the possibility of this conversion. The logic of violence has had its reign for long enough. Can we too give nonviolence a chance?