We Want to Be Where Goodness Lives
So, Nelson Mandela has died and the tributes are deservedly pouring in. The world is undoubtedly a poorer place for Mr. Mandela’s absence. His story inspires and compels on so many levels. His legacy is sure and strong.
Whenever something big like this happens, I find myself drawn at least as much to the public reaction to the event than the event itself. It is fascinating to observe how we respond to tragedies, natural disasters, and the passing of great human beings—especially in our digital age. You know how the script goes, right? Within minutes of Mandela’s death, the floodgates were opened on Twitter, Facebook, etc. Over and over again, the same quotes from the same sources, the same inspiring pictures, the same truisms, the same carefully crafted statements from important political leaders or rock stars, the same images summoned into service as backgrounds and profile pictures, the same, well everything. Again and again and again.
The cynical side of me wondered the same thing I always wonder when I observe our (my) reactions at times like these: “What are we actually doing here? Especially all of us privileged folk who have never been on the wrong end of injustice, who have limitless access to technology and ample time to spend digging around for inspiring tidbits to link to ourselves? Is this just another exercise in the personal branding that defines so much of what we do in an online world? Are we using the death of this man for our own ends? To prove that we care about the right things, that we love the right things, that we are the right sorts of people who are inspired by the right sorts of people and events and can convey this in the right sorts of ways at the right sorts of times?”
And yet, there I was last night, poring over old articles, reading tributes, watching old video clips of Mandela’s release, listening to crackly old radio broadcasts from the time of his arrest. There I was, gobbling up the media, wandering around in the history, trying to learn more about his remarkable human being who left such a mark on our world. There I was (and here I am!), adding to the noise, clogging up the ether with thoughts and images and quotes. There I was (and here I am), fascinated by this man, drawn to his story, and, apparently, eager to talk about it.
Our motives do not come unmixed. At least mine don’t.
But behind all of the personal branding and identity bolstering that is undoubtedly at work when we tweet and update and share and pin and God-knows-what-else our way through significant global events, I think there is something else going on, too. We are drawn to the things that Mandela embodied—goodness, hope, simplicity, peace, respect, dignity, patience, perseverance, determined resolve, compassion forgiveness—like moths to a flame. We stand in awe of the injustice that he endured. We are stunned at the manner in which he did not allow evil to defeat his ideals and purposes in the world. We marvel at the humour and good will that remained intact, even after a lifetime of struggle. Perhaps most importantly, we are captured by the same vision of the future that motivated this man. A future of peace, justice, and equality for all.
However incoherently, inconsistently, and selfishly this might be expressed, we love this man because we love what he loved. At least we want to. And we want to be near him, we want to sit with his words, to remember his actions, to ponder his legacy even for a few minutes, even if only online. We want to be where goodness lives.
A few minutes ago, I read these words in the prayer-book that I am using during the Advent season. I could not help but think of, and thank God for, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela as I prayed:
Incarnate God, holding tenderly all things human, you became one of us. Lighten our hearts with a vision of your just mercy, that we may be gentled into joining you in the hard and holy work of releasing peace on earth. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
The picture above is a monument at the site of Nelson Mandela’s arrest near Howick, KwazuluNatal, South Africa, about ninety kilometres from Durban. Mandela was arrested in 1962 and this 50 column tribute was erected 50 years later, in 2012. The picture was taken by a friend, Rebecca Janzen, on a visit to south Africa this past September.