“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” —Nelson Mandela
In 1994 Nelson Mandela was elected to the presidency of South Africa. Things were tense: 14,000 people had died in violence in the four years since his release from prison in 1990. Everyone predicted a bloodbath. Confounding the experts, however, the new regime did not yield to the politics of revenge. Instead, Mandela made peaceful overtures to the white minority and appointed Desmond Tutu to deal with atrocities not through court trials but through an innovative Truth and Reconciliation Commission that would allow the nation to forgive without forgetting.
Bill Clinton tells of a conversation he had with Nelson Mandela. “Didn’t you really hate them for what they did?” Clinton asked. Mandela replied, “Oh, yeah, I hated them for a long time. I broke rocks every day in prison, and I stayed alive on hate. They took a lot away from me. They took me away from my wife, and it subsequently destroyed my marriage. They took me away from seeing my children grow up. They abused me mentally and physically. And one day, I realized they could take it all except my mind and my heart. Those things I would have to give to them, and I simply decided not to give them away.”
Clinton pressed him. “Well, what about when you were getting out of prison? I got my daughter Chelsea up and we watched you on television as you walked down that dirt road to freedom. Didn’t you hate them then?”
Mandela said, “As I felt the anger rising up, I thought to myself, ‘They have already had you for twenty-seven years. And if you keep hating them, they’ll have you again.’ And I said, ‘I want to be free.’ And so I let it go. I let it go.”
With that attitude Mandela set a tone for the entire country. Black leaders urged their followers not to give in to their anger, however merited, but instead to let it go, to move forward in their newly won freedom. White churches, many of which had supported the oppressive white regime, were taken aback by the new spirit of cooperation. Perhaps they would have a share in the country’s future after all.
This week the nation, and the world, celebrated Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday. Like Joseph in the Bible, he did not let his imprisonment embitter him. Instead, he grew stronger, and when he emerged, he showed the world a new way to combat injustice. Happy Birthday, Nelson Mandela.
(Adapted from What Good Is God?)